Perhaps the biggest reason that people opt for a virtual private network (or VPN) is to afford them greater privacy when online. No one likes to feel that their privacy is being violated. With a VPN, you can easily mask your online activity and throw Big Brother off your scent. But which is the best VPN provider for you?
Best Overall VPN: ExpressVPN
Best VPN for Safe Torrenting: CyberGhost
Best Anonymous VPN: NordVPN
Best VPN for Privacy: SurfShark
Best VPN for Streaming: Hotspot Shield
How Do VPNs Work?
VPNs have become more popular than ever with everyday internet users because they make monitoring your online activity a whole lot harder.
A VPN is a group of computers that operate as a network and which you can access from your computer or mobile device. Your traffic is then funneled through the VPN, which takes your private network and extends it across a public network, keeping your IP address and data encrypted and hidden.
The idea of a VPN is that it blocks access to your IP address information, essentially giving you a blank slate while you browse.…In theory, at least.
Yes, a VPN will prevent the website you’re accessing from knowing exactly who you are, but that’s not going to do your overall security much good if the VPN service itself is monitoring and logging information about your activities online.
VPN Logging Policies
When shopping for a VPN online, a term you’ll come across again and again is “zero logging policy.”
There are two types of logs kept by VPN companies - connection and usage logs.The connection log is a basic record of your connection to the VPN server, including your IP, your time spent online and the amount of data transferred. This data is kept in order to help with technical issues, and is typically kept anonymous.
Usage logs on the other hand, go deeper. These logs show which websites you’ve visited, the files you've downloaded, and more. Some VPN companies have sold the data from customer usage logs to outside third parties.
If you’re worried about your VPN monitoring you for keeping records of your online activity, make sure to look for a provider that has a strict no usage log policy.
Due to the large number of users who employ VPN services on a daily basis, usage logs are rarely kept indefinitely. If a VPN service engages in logging activities, those logs are typically disposed of after a period of 30 or 60 days.
How Pervasive is the Tracking?
According to one recent investigation, of the 115 most popular VPN services, 26 collect information that could be personal and/or identify you. These include your IP address, bandwidth data, location, and connection timestamps.
The same study found that only 9% of the logs contained the websites users visited, and that over 90% had payment info. It also stated that a quarter of the logs contained IP addresses and nearly a third of the logs included users’ personal details.
How VPNs Can Help You
Before you sign up for a VPN service, take a long hard look at the site’s frequently asked questions section, as well as the privacy and terms and conditions content on the VPN company’s website. This is true even if the site states that it has a no logging policy.
Typically on these sections of the website you will see a description of their logging policy and really get to see what the fine print says. You should be able to learn what the logging entails and how long the logs are kept before they are automatically deleted. Companies like ExpressVPN and Hotspot Shield have strict no-logging policies.
See to what extent you can opt out of any sort of logging and if you can ask for your logs to be deleted.
Also, look at where the VPN company is based. Jurisdiction is key because the company will need to adhere to the data retention laws of the country in which it is located. If this country requires strict data retention, this will nullify the no-logging policy of the company.
Another principle you’ll want to adhere to is - you get in what you put in. Don’t assume that a free service will be able to provide you with the same level of security and anonymity. After all, if the company isn’t charging anything for the service, then there is less of an obligation (and perhaps less resources) to protect their customers’ security. In addition, the fact that it’s free could indicate that selling or using customer data is a big part of their business model.
The bottom line is, you signed up for a VPN in order to give yourself greater privacy and security online. You signed on the dotted line to avoid being tracked - not to get monitored by the company itself.
Finding The Best VPN for No Logs
For those concerned about privacy and internet freedom, a VPN is only as good as its logging policy. For this reason, a no logs VPN should be at the top of your priorities.
Pay attention to the language the company uses. Terms such as “no-logging” or “zero-logging” usually imply a lack of both connection and usage logs, which is ideal. However, some companies use convoluted language that makes it harder to identify how strict their logging policies are.
Below are 5 well-established providers who meet some of the criteria outlined in the article above and have been singled out by the larger VPN community as solid choices for anyone looking to evade prying eyes.
ExpressVPN: Best Overall VPN
- Strict zero-logging policy
- Advanced encryption
ExpressVPN has won the right to claim one of the top places in the VPN industry. With 2,000+ servers across 94 countries, strong anonymity policies and tools, and a 30-day money-back guarantee, ExpressVPN ranks high on everyone’s list, but even more so for those who wish to remain anonymous while surfing. This company also keeps no logs of user activity, so it wouldn’t have information to hand over to governments even if they asked.
CyberGhost: Best VPN for Safe Torrenting
- Strict zero-logging policy
Founded in 2011, CyberGhost has become a well-respected name in the VPN market for its strict adherence to matters of privacy and internet freedom. The company offers an agile, lightning-fast VPN that offers great performance on top of the peace of mind that comes from going through a privacy-focused provider.
NordVPN: Best Anonymous VPN
- No connection or user logs
- Based in Panama, outside of EU and US jurisdictions
NordVPN has been a go-to for privacy advocates since its inception. For one thing, the company is based out of Panama, a territory that’s free from all US and EU jurisdictions. For another, their no-logging policy is refreshingly clear-cut: absolutely no connection or user logs. Nord also offers an extra feature called Double VPN, which utilizes VPN server chaining to provide even more safeguards against monitoring. Though championed as one of the best anonymous VPNs out there, NordVPN has plenty else to boast about. That includes more than 5,000 servers, stealth mode and automatic kill switch, and one of the more reliable customer service teams in the industry.
SurfShark: Best VPN for Privacy
- Based out of the British Virgin Islands
- Free from data retention laws
SurfShark’s location is the first thing VPN enthusiasts will laud, and for good reason--safely operating in the British Virgin Islands, free from data retention laws that allow governments to force companies to turn over data, SurfShark already has a leg up on the competition by merit of its location alone. But there’s plenty more to like about it, including a large server network, unlimited bandwidth, and advanced features like camouflage mode that are more evidence of their commitment to privacy.
Hotspot Shield: Best VPN for Streaming
- Compatible with torrenting and Netflix streaming
- Advanced encryption
Another well-established provider within the VPN community, Hotspot Shield is especially favored for its torrent and Netflix streaming capabilities. It operates on a no-logging policy that, while not as clear-cut as Nord, promises no activity logs (according to the website, the only data it collects is anonymous, aggregate data for troubleshooting purposes). Hotspot has also gained major points for using TLS 1.2 with perfect forward secrecy (ECDHE), and 128-bit AES data encryption. Hotspot’s real bread and butter is with torrenting and streaming, making it a favorite for P2P sharing and Netflix users.
How VPNs Help Protect Your Privacy & Anonymity
VPNs cloak your information on the internet the same way a firewall does on your computer. The type of encryption algorithms and connections used will determine the extent of anonymity being provided. While the details of the technology can be more than the average person would understand, a simple explanation of how a VPN works can be displayed with the following analogy. Imagine you are traveling through a tunnel. Whatever goes through the tunnel cannot be seen by the outside world. The VPN is the tunnel, and your private information is you traveling through that tunnel. Once information goes in, nobody can see it. The added bonus is that with a VPN, nobody knows who sent the information either, keeping you anonymous.
Additionally, VPN services use several means of encryption and cloaking to hide your data from prying eyes. When the information is encoded, only someone with the code can read the data, so even if it would be intercepted somehow, it would all be gibberish anyway. The exact methods are discussed below, but here are a few situations where a VPN helps protect your privacy:
Public WiFi Connections
Everyone does it. You are out and need to connect to the internet, so you sign on using the local coffee shop WiFi. The problem with this common practice is that the moment you connect to an unsecured network, you toss your privacy out the window, putting yourself and your personal information on display for anyone who is interested in seeing it. And, there are plenty of people who would like to get their hands on your private data. The multi-billion dollar industry of black market selling of identities tells us how valuable this information is.
Despite the frequent warnings, people feel compelled to ignore the danger and log on unprotected. The simple solution to this serious problem is to use a VPN whenever connecting to the internet outside of your trusted networks. Whether you are signing into Gmail, placing an order from one of your convenient mobile shopping apps, or sending a work file, the VPN will hide this data from hackers that sit on public WiFi networks, waiting for some unsuspecting surfer to feed them their personal information. A good, anonymous VPN will ensure your information is hidden from view.
Possibly even more insidious than hackers, are the government agencies that are constantly watching over your internet activity. Though they aren’t going to turn around and sell your information to the highest bidder (we hope), government surveillance is an inherent invasion of privacy that most people do not appreciate. For this reason, VPNs are used to block even the most advanced government investigations, keeping your identity safe no matter what you are doing online.
Companies like to keep an eye on internet activity because it helps them market to you better. If you’ve ever noticed an uncanny email notification offering you a discount on the pair of shoes you were just looking at, you’ll understand what this means. Corporations pay thousands of dollars every month to aggregate this information in the hope to subtly manipulate their consumers into choosing their products and spending more money with them. Reluctant to be a company’s lab rat, people opt instead to cloak their internet activity, taking the controls out of marketing corporations’ hands.
Whether you are downloading a movie and don’t want to end up on some third-party advertising list or are visiting sites you’d rather not have people associate you with, a VPN will help keep your identity anonymous and your reputation clean.
People visiting outside of the US can also take advantage of a VPN for browsing sites that are geo-blocked within that region like Netflix, Google, or Facebook.
How to Reach Maximum Anonymity With a VPN
So, what makes a VPN really anonymous? VPNs apply different levels of encryption, but the strongest is generally believed to be the AES-256-CBC encryption. Additionally, VPNs utilize several methods for keeping your information totally anonymous including:
Shared IP. If the IP address you use cannot be connected back to you, then no one can trace any activity back to you either. Anonymous VPNs use multiple IP addresses to avoid tagging you to a specific address and giving you a clear identity.
Disposable Email Addresses. Disposable email addresses keep your identity safe by tagging it to a temporary name and identifying marker. Services that let you sign up with this type of email address are keeping your identity safer since the email address is not linked to you and can’t be traced back to you.
Chaining VPNs. By routing your information through multiple VPN servers, you lose the direct connection that links you to the activity in question. Much like a TOR (more on that below), chaining or double-hop VPNs can throw a tracker off your scent.
No Logs. A company that keeps logs of your internet activity or traffic is essentially storing your private information. This can hardly be considered anonymous, so the first and most basic criteria would be no logs. Some VPN services claim that they delete the information frequently enough so that nobody can access it or trace it back to you, but the logs still exist, so your information is not totally private.
Jurisdiction. Certain countries have strict third-party information sharing laws which would legally obligate a company to hand over the logs they’ve kept on customer activity if requested. For this reason, which jurisdiction a VPN service operates under will have an impact on how anonymous it really is. For example, the US does not have a mandatory retention law, so logs are not required. If, however, logs are kept, the US government can request them.
Payment Systems. How you pay for your service is another possible identity breach, which is why truly anonymous VPN providers will accept many forms of payment. A credit card is nothing more than a paper trail to your identity. Instead, the best services will take anonymous payment methods such as bitcoin or Ripple, because these cannot be traced back to you.
What is TOR & Does it Work?
TOR, aka The Onion Router, sends the information that has been double encrypted through a series of twists and turns across the internet, making it nearly impossible to trace the route. It bounces you around from one node to the next, throwing snoopers off the trail. Since you only see the previous node, you cannot get a clear picture of where this person is coming from. This is the most effective form of data concealment known today, so a true anonymous VPN will feature TOR over VPNs.
The downside to TORs is that the information is not encrypted on the exit node. So, theoretically, this could pose a problem if someone is sitting at the end of your journey and looking to capture your information. Additionally, TOR connections tend to be slower. The reason people prefer this method is because it truly can create anonymity on the web.
The solution is to run your TOR over a VPN for the best of all worlds. Find a VPN service that supports this practice, and you have the anonymity, speed, and quality you’ve been looking for.
Stay Anonymous, Stay Safe
All Internet connections have an IP address that is associated with information like your Internet service provider and your physical location. This means that the typical user is alarmingly easy to monitor and track online. That’s why using of the top VPNs mentioned above will help you if you want to remain anonymous when online.