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AV-Comparatives: VPN Report 2020 – 35 Services
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The aim of this test is to compare VPN services for consumers in a real-world environment by assessing their security and privacy features, along with download speed, upload speed, and latency. This report starts with an extensive discussion of VPNs in general, the different applications that are available nowadays, plus the advantages and possible risks of using a VPN. We will further explain why VPN providers should have a strict no-logs policy. The report is intended to help readers find a VPN program that fits their individual requirements.

What is a VPN?

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) were originally developed as a means of allowing remote workers to access resources on their company’s local area networks in a secure manner.

Nowadays they are also used globally to help anonymise a user’s online experience. First, the request is encrypted and sent to the VPN server, which is responsible for resolving the domain name (DNS), and routing it to the target server.

There are two important aspects here: firstly, although the traffic still goes through the user’s Internet Service Provider (ISP), the VPN hides the content of the request by encrypting it; secondly, the public IP address is provided by the VPN server, thus ensuring the user’s privacy, and allowing their real geographical location to be hidden. The traffic forwarded from the VPN server to the target server and back is anonymised, but the possibility of encryption varies from product to product.

Why use a VPN?

VPNs encrypt the user’s Internet traffic, which provides obvious security benefits. If you are using a public Wi-Fi network, such as the one provided by a café, hotel or airport, you are actually connected to the same network as anybody else using the same Wi-Fi. It is relatively straightforward for a cybercriminal to intercept your Internet communications and gain access to your private data; with the encryption provided by a VPN, this is no longer possible. Furthermore, one may involuntarily expose information such as IP address and client software to other peers when using P2P technologies and torrent services.

For most consumers, security might no longer be the number one reason for using a VPN. The rise in popularity of VPNs in recent years is partly because they can be used to spoof the user’s geolocation, that is, make it appear that he/she is in a different country. This can make it possible to access specific movies and TV shows from online video streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, or the BBC iPlayer, which are not accessible from outside their respective country locations. VPNs can be also used to purchase game titles earlier and more cheaply.

Additionally, there are some VPN programs that are optimised for gaming, as they offer high-speed servers with better connections to popular gaming servers. We note that many consumers associate the name “VPN” with these features alone. There are consumer programs available, mostly free, that provide geo-unlocking functionality without any encryption, yet still describe themselves as VPNs. Bear in mind that in this case, a hacker who intercepts such communications will be able to read everything transmitted.

Vague Privacy

Using a VPN should not be seen as a guarantee of anonymization but viewed rather as a step in this direction. Indeed, though a user’s ISP has no access to the traffic sent over a secured connection, it can tell if a VPN is being implemented. This may arouse suspicion, especially if the user has e.g. a criminal history.

Furthermore, the VPN provider has access to the user’s requests, and how well their privacy is guarded depends on the trustworthiness of the company offering the product. Recently, there has been a surge of interest in online privacy, as ISPs have been legally allowed to collect and sell anonymized user data to third parties (e.g. advertisers) in the USA.

Even more concerning news came from the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013. He provided evidence that the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand gather and share intelligence about one another’s citizens in order to circumvent national surveillance laws that prevent them from spying on their own citizens, as well as enabling global surveillance. This co-operation is known as Five Eyes, and the revealed documents have shown that intelligence-sharing activities are already taking place on the Internet. In addition, the Five Eyes nations co-operate with other countries in matters of international surveillance, leading to the creation of the Nine Eyes (Five Eyes + France, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands) and Fourteen Eyes (Nine Eyes + Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Sweden) alliances. It is also confirmed that further countries such as Israel, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea exchange information with these alliances as well.

Potential Risks

It is safe to say that any of these nations has the power and opportunity to force VPN providers to grant access to data about a user, and to share this with other countries. When using a VPN, there are three important factors regarding the jurisdiction over the user’s online activity: first, the online regulations of the country the user lives in; secondly, the country where the VPN provider has registered its business; and thirdly, the country where the relevant VPN server is located (regardless of the VPN provider’s business location). However, it is not always clear who owns a VPN service or where the company is headquartered.

This makes it harder for governments to pressurise VPNs into handing over user data, as they may not have the necessary authority. In several countries, the use of VPNs is either completely banned or allowed only if the VPN is approved by the government. In fact, many people try to bypass blocked content or hide their actions in countries where governments try to control the information its citizens have access to (e.g. websites, social media networks, news) as well as monitoring their citizens’ online activities. This is the reason why VPNs are very popular in countries where they are outlawed.
Full Report
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