How to pick the best VPN service

best vpn service

As the world’s largest encrypted email provider, people have frequently asked us what is the best VPN service. In this article, we discuss what to be aware of when choosing a VPN service, and our recommended VPN security requirements.

What is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a tool to secure your internet connection by masking your device’s IP address and encrypting your traffic. When your computer connects to a VPN, all your online activity passes through the Virtual Private Network, which in theory can shield you from surveillance or prevent your identity from being revealed.

Why use a VPN?

The primary use cases for a VPN service are the following:

  • Prevent your internet browsing from being monitored
  • Bypass censorship – VPNs allow you to access content that might be blocked in your country by the government or the content provider
  • Provide higher connection security when connecting to the internet from insecure locations (public wifi hotspot for example)

Whether or not a VPN service can actually accomplish this however depends significantly on the service in question. In fact, the vast majority of VPN services suffer from one or more security problems, which is why great care must be taken when selecting the best VPN service.

VPN Security Problems

About a year ago, we started to analyze VPN services more deeply in response from user inquiries. As we dug deeper however, we found numerous security and privacy flaws with most existing VPN services. This actually was the impetus that drove us to start working on VPN (more about this later). Below is a summary of the main VPN security issues.

VPN Security Vulnerabilities

    • Using pre-shared keys – A number of mainstream commercial VPNs have their preshared keys (PSKs) posted online; these include PureVPN and IPVPN . If an attacker knows the PSKs for a VPN service and has access to the network a user is using, the attacker can stage a man in the middle attack and decrypt all of the user’s traffic.
    • Insecure protocols and encryption – Many VPN services use PPTP protocol as a basic way to tunnel and encapsulate data packets. However, PPTP is fundamentally insecure due to using short length encryption keys and password hashes that can be easily cracked by a well resourced state actor. L2TP/IPSec is another popular VPN protocol. However, the NSA has already succeeded in tampering with it. Furthermore, many VPN services which use more secure protocols such as OpenVPN remain vulnerable because of the use of insecure ciphers.
    • No Forward Secrecy – Most VPN services do not require use of Perfect Forward Secrecy ciphers, so VPN network traffic can be saved, and decrypted later if the encryption keys or algorithms are compromised.
    • DNS Leakage – Whenever a web connection is made, a computer will first translate a domain name into an IP address. This lookup is done via DNS servers. Thus, DNS lookup records also contain a log of all websites visited. While VPN services usually will protect web traffic, many do not protect DNS lookups, meaning that user’s browsing history can still be reconstructed from DNS lookups.
NSA PPTP IPSec
Leaked NSA files showing PPTP and IPSec VPN compromises.

Methods of VPN Compromise

Even if a VPN service is not vulnerable to the internal problems listed above, they can still be compromised externally. Common problems that can lead to a VPN service being compromised include the following:

    • Jurisdiction – VPN providers are subject to the laws of the country that they operate in, and these laws (like the Investigatory Powers Act in the UK and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in the US) can force VPN providers to compromise their users. This means VPN providers with significant US and UK presence are compromised by default. These include HideMyAss (UK), VyperVPN (operated from the US), Strong VPN (US), HotSpot Shield (US), IP Vanish (US) and many others.
    • Compromised servers – VPN providers cannot maintain physical control and supervision over all servers, especially servers in countries that are not privacy friendly. This creates opportunities for state actors to compromise VPN exit servers, sometimes with the collusion (forced or not) of the companies providing servers to VPN operators. In a typical VPN setup, compromise of the exit server completely compromises the browsing activity of VPN users.
    • Correlation Attacks – Even if the exit server itself is not compromised, network based correlation attacks can still compromise a user. By seeing who is connecting to an VPN exit server at a given instant, and what sites the VPN exit server is connecting to, a user’s browsing can be reconstructed. Such an attack is easily within reach of most state actors as they can request assistance from ISPs.

What is the best VPN service?

If privacy is your only objective, the best VPN actually isn’t a VPN at all, but a free software known as Tor. ProtonMail has actually recently rolled out improved support for encrypted email with Tor through our new onion site. While Tor does provide a great deal of anonymity and security, there are still many reasons why you might still want to use a VPN service. For one, Tor’s privacy comes at the cost of performance, and Tor is notoriously slow compared to the best VPN services out there. Furthermore, Tor is now increasingly being targeted by state actors, so a trusted VPN service could be safer. VPN also has strong use cases for bypassing censorship and content blocks, or for obtaining better security from insecure locations like public wifi hotspots.

Is it safe to use a VPN service?

It is clear that it’s not easy to build a VPN service that adequately protects users. In particular, some of the methods of VPN compromise are extremely difficult to defend against. ProtonMail’s mission has always been to protect freedom online, and to provide security and privacy to everyone. Today we protect diverse groups ranging from journalists and activists, to business professionals.

Having a secure VPN is an important part of this, which is why we have started developing ProtonVPN. With the ProtonVPN project, we hope to bring to the public a secure and trustworthy VPN service which addresses many of the security shortcomings which impact existing VPN services. We have recently launched ProtonVPN beta, so if you are a ProtonMail Lifetime or Visionary user, it is actually already possible to start using ProtonVPN.

We believe ProtonVPN has the potential to meet our standards for VPN security, and we look forward to sharing it with the rest of the ProtonMail community in the coming months. If you would like to follow our progress in the meantime, you can find the latest updates about the ProtonVPN project on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit.

https://twitter.com/ProtonVPN

https://facebook.com/ProtonVPN

https://reddit.com/r/ProtonVPN

As always, your comments and feedback are welcome and appreciated!

Best Regards,
The ProtonMail Team

 

About the Author

Admin

We are scientists, engineers, and developers drawn together by a shared vision of protecting civil liberties online. Ensuring online privacy and security are core values for the ProtonMail team, and we strive daily to protect your rights online.

 

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40 comments on “How to pick the best VPN service

  • Wish I could afford the visionary account, or could have afforded the lifetime when it was still available. I still have my ProtonMail account, but switched to FastMail to get IMAP and SMTP. I know that defeats the very idea of email security, but I managed to get the important folks I email to use PGP, so the risk is mitigated. Good product though guys, I’m not putting it down at all. I’m still following along, waiting for the features to be there for my move back.

    Reply
    • Using PGP in Fastmail protects you sending email but everything else, like notes, email contacts, drafts, login IPs, etc, all readily accessible, their privacy policy page says they keep logs for 6 months minimum.

      With your set up what should help you the most to mitigate risk is using a company that is not based in a country where mass surveillance is legal, this forces authorities to get a court order for you and you do not get caught in the net while they go fishing.

      Fastmail is Australian but their servers are in the USA, not the best choice, and they are not even free. My 2 cents, best of luck.

      Reply
      • After a period of “soul searching” I’ve migrated everything back to ProtonMail and re-subscribed with a Plus account. I wrestled with my SMTP and IMAP requirements and decided it in my best interest to just be patient and use what ProtonMail provided in the meantime. Yes, I fully understood the location of FastMail and their servers, as well as the risks introduced by using their services. However, the frustration I experienced with ProtonMail’s inability to integrate with some long followed workflows pushed me into a rash migration. I am re-examining my processes and working on some stop-gap measures to hold over until ProtonMail has the support I need.

        I did look at NeoMailbox as well, which is listed on PrivacyTools.io as a secure provider, but they couldn’t get their crap together and were incredibly unresponsive to sign up requests, not to mention support. Hence the rash decision to move to FastMail.

        And, to be fair, while agreeably more secure, ProtonMail is not free either for domain hosting.

        Reply
  • Hello,

    What do you guys think about Mullvad ?

    I like it because:
    – You don’t need an email to have an account, you just have a number attributed to you
    – You can pay with Bitcoin or even with cash
    – They have servers in The Netherlands & Sweden who are known for strong stance against DCMA
    – Their speed is correct
    – They Keep absolutely no logs at all
    – They use AES256 and sometimes Blowfish128 as well as 2048 RSA keys

    Reply
  • Thank you for the article.

    How could you score PIA (Private Internet Access) VPN provider in relation to the presented vulnerabilities?

    I am a bit surprised that you haven’t presented logging user activities by VPN provider as one of the problems when using VPN.

    Reply
  • i cannot give you a feed back yet !
    but i know that a vpn needs also another dns settings for being a little bit safe.
    uncensored DNS Servers
    http://blog.censurfridns.dk/en/ip
    anycast.censurfridns.dk / 91.239.100.100 / 2001:67c:28a4::
    ns1.censurfridns.dk / 89.233.43.71 / 2002:d596:2a92:1:71:53::
    https://servers.opennicproject.org/
    … for example …
    i will not tell you mine (vpn) as long as i should not see it labelled as bad or corrupted or infiltrated.
    maybe , as user of a free plan i could have a favor to use vpn proton mail , but i thing it is reserved for the payed plan.

    Reply
  • Thank you very much for doing this. My VPN subscription actually ends at the end of this month. Please get ProtonVPN rolled out as soon as possible so that I may switch to a more trustworthy provider, as my current one is based in a country that has recently been subject to rather concerning law changes (not that existing laws were fantastic anyway). If you get it out soon you’ll be up by one subscriber for sure.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  • This post is called “How to pick the best VPN service” but no information is given about how to select. Only that different vulnerabilities could affect VPN – no advice about how to go selecting a VPN.

    Then there is contradictory advice. In the “What’s the best VPN service” we get this confusing set of statement:
    1. “If privacy is your only objective, the best VPN actually isn’t a VPN at all, but a free software known as Tor.”
    2. “Tor is now increasingly being targeted by state actors, so a trusted VPN service could be safer. ”

    The post doesn’t help me at all to pick a VPN. All it does is promote PM’s upcoming VPN, which I can’t even access without the visionary account. Useless. More interesting comments about specific services appear in the comments.

    Reply
  • Absolutely useless post. It’s a list of potential vulnerabilities that VPNs might have/face. It’s not, as it claims, any kind of useful advice on what to do to pick a reliable VPN.

    Also, absolutely no mention of the fact that one of the most important things to look for (necessary but not sufficient) is a strict non-logging policy.

    As Ken says above, there’s mutually contradictory advice. Tor > VPN and then Tor < VPN.
    WTF?

    That's not helping anyone, Protonmail.
    It's just an attempt to advertise your own upcoming VPN service.

    To help people pick a VPN, read the lists here:
    https://privacytools.io
    https://gist.github.com/kennwhite/1f3bc4d889b02b35d8aa

    I've always trusted AirVPN. But that's just me.
    None of the above means ProtonVPN won't be good.
    But for people who want to pick a VPN now, this blog post is no help.

    Reply
    • In our opinion, a strict no-logging policy is irrelevant, because it is claim that is impossible to verify. With an appropriate government or law enforcement order, a VPN could start logging without you being aware that it is happening. You have to trust the VPN provider entirely, which is actually another major problem that we will discuss in another blog post. The reason we’re working on VPN is because existing implementations are really quite flawed in many ways, so there simply isn’t a good recommendation to make. Even ProtonVPN will resolve many, but not all issues with VPNs.

      Reply
      • It’s true that it is not possible to verify whether a no-logging promise is being kept.
        But some VPN providers openly admit they keep logs. These you should avoid. So it is worth looking at what they promise.

        Reply
    • In fact you must try one and learn how to tweak a bit : it is depending on your location and for what purpose you need one.
      you cannot choose one because you read it is the best but because it is the only one which the best parameters are well implemented and the article answers at this difficult question.
      In short, only few vpn provider will help you to be hidden.
      Anyway, encryption is based on one human law : trust so vpn like webmail are a partisan, sentimental choice.
      > Gwendoline : I disagree with your nasty comment, i thing that the article is nice and the title well inspired. I agree that the articles of this blog are most often for involved person, activists, supporters, experimented users.

      Reply
      • It’s not “nasty” to point out that, however interesting, the article doesn’t live up to its title: it doesn’t inform readers how to pick a VPN. It’s a discussion of vulnerabilities VPNs might face.

        Reply
  • Well, as a paid Protonmail user I was offered the chance to try the new ProtonVPN. My OS, Linux Mint 17.3, is one of the few that can’t be set up automatically, but the Support desk give me detailed instructions and I set it up with no difficulties.
    I am impressed so far, and all my internet applications seem to be fully functional, without perceptible transit delay.
    The real issues will come when the free trial ends, and we discover how much the service will cost going forward.

    As a British citizen, I think it is absolutely necessary to defeat the British Misgovernment’s unmandated attack on privacy through the Investigatory Powers Act, and to note the contents of the recent Wikileaks vault showing how the Misgovernments of the West are conspiring to impose State Thought Control.

    Even if, as some commenters have said, this article isn’t a comprehensive analysis of VPN technology, anything that raises public awareness of the the threat of state terrorism through on-line surveillance is a good thing. I call it State Terrorism because it is designed to make people terrified of using technology – it will have no impact on real terrorists as they are already clever enough to bypass it (just like us).

    Reply
  • Quite surprised that you devote resources to building VPN service, when you haven’t yet fixed the Walled Garden issue. Until we can get our data out of ProtonMail in an interoperable way (*) :
    1) ProtonMail keeps owning our personal data, which is every bit as wrong as scanning it for advertising or sharing it with public security agencies;
    2) We cannot use ProtonMail to store email that is important for us to retain, which means we can only use ProtonMail for disposable messages (paradox of insufficient trust!) – that’s a niche market of whistleblowers and citizens of dictatorial regimes, whereas a large part of us would be happy with simple IMAP that would be out of reach of Google’s or Microsoft’s corporate greed.
    I see that you have a Business Developer in charge of engaging enterprise customers? If you can’t provide those prospects with a reversibility procedure, be assured that will be like hitting a brick wall (I’ve been there before while deploying Google Apps).
    So please, get your priorities right and release ownership of user data! Kind regards 🙂

    Reply
  • Have you ever considered deprecation of OpenVPN in favor of adopting modern crypto as in WireGuard when designing ProtonVPN? I strongly agree with WireGuard’s creators that existing VPN protocol implementations are inherently complex and virtually not auditable. If we add to this the fact that OpenVPN depends on OpenSSL as its crypto library then we inherit complexity and vulnerabilities of aforementioned. Thus, my question is – wouldn’t it be better to build something from scratch using state-of-the-art cryptography, mitigating known security risks, rather than copying/hardening existing solutions? Thank you!

    Reply
  • How would you rate Tunnelbear VPN? It does not keep logs and it is based in canada, and has a long range of servers including switzerland. They accept Bitcoin as well. Thanks, I may check out ProtonVPN, glad to have a new player in the VPN field.

    Reply
  • Beta testing Proton VPN v0.9.3 on Windows 7 x64

    Config =Start minimized with OS, auto connect to profile
    Profile = Secure Core IS-NL#1

    Everything seems to run smooth. There’s a splash/ loading window making the “start minimized” pretty useless, but everything else is cool. Good work.

    Reply
  • Great to hear you’re sarting a VPN service. I have a few suggestions to make the sign-up more anonymous payment/secure to sign-up/pricing structure. Would be nice if you can add ‘Paymentwall’ as a pay option and have bandwidth caps like 100GB/month etc. to give different price point options. Most of us in the world don’t need unlimited bandwidth or have monthly caps, so if you could give different price points based on limitations that would be ideal. My yearly VPN sub to another provider is up in May, so hope to hear of your service opening to the public soon.

    Reply
  • I’m not a super techie person. When I was in college, we learned MS-DOS on IBM PCs with 640k of memory, 13 inch Black screen monitor with Green text. I have tried to read up over the years and catch up. I am a Freelance Copy Writer. I use Tor and I have a Protonmail account. Comcast showed up at my door yesterday unannounced. Their “Regional System Analysis” determined I needed a new Arris Router at no charge. I usually reset my DNS settings in Windows 10 Pro, I don’t like the ones Xfinity locks you into. After the tech left I dialed into the new router and found that it’s locked.

    In Windows 10 they looked me out of changing my DNS settings, and my TOR won’t connect. Any suggestions?

    Reply