How Much Trust Should You Place in a VPN?

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A VPN isn’t a magic bullet. In fact, no online security or privacy measure will ever be. Invariably, it will boil down to trust. Should you trust your ISP? Most probably not. Should you place your trust in a VPN provider? That’s trickier than most people assume. Perhaps you should you build your own VPN, but that’s typically too cumbersome for the average internet user. Should you abandon civilization and go live in the woods? That’s for you to decide after reading this article.

Feral life aside, you’re going to be taking a gamble whatever you decide. So to help you with this dilemma, we are going to break down all the relevant factors that you ought to consider when making your decision.

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The Problem with ISPs

ISPs have too much built-in power. Their inherent ability to collect data about your online activity is worrying – all your data goes through their servers after all – and they have quite a few ‘good’ reasons to use it. They may choose to sell it to advertisers. They might be forced to share it with enforcement agencies as well; certain countries have legislation in place that forces ISPs to do so.

Just to list a few recent examples, in March of last year, the US Congress revoked a law that forbade ISPs from sharing your web browsing history with third parties. Not long ago either, an attempt by Swedish legislators to circumvent an EU ruling against data retention was leaked to the public – data retention, as the name implies, involves the collection and preservation of your online data. While the European Court of Justice outright banned the practice, which it regarded as a form of pre-emptive mass surveillance, a Swedish legislative committee was tasked with figuring out a way to restore that obligation while keeping “in line with the Court’s directives”.

The point we are trying to make is that ISPs’ commitment to privacy can be precarious and very much dependant on external factors. Your safest bet would be to limit the amount of data they can collect. Secure HTTP does offer a layer of protection, but it’s far from enough. Enter VPNs.

Shifting Trust

If you’re unfamiliar with what a VPN is or how it works, we recommend that you glance over our VPN Beginners’ Guide. There are two points that concern us here: encryption and data retention.

Every VPN provides a level of encryption. Different VPNs employ different encryption protocols, and not all encryption protocols are created equally. The most common types of encryption protocols, arranged roughly from least to most secure, are PPTP, L2TP/IPSec, OpenVPN, SSTP, and IKEv2.

We say ‘roughly’ as it is practically impossible to accurately gauge the efficiency of encryption protocols; each comes with its own sets of strengths and weaknesses, and some are better suited for particular purposes and uses.

But you also need to be cognizant of the fact that your VPN provider holds the key to deciphering the encryption it is providing you with. In a way, using a VPN is a way of moving trust from your ISP to a VPN provider. So why bother?

Well, VPNs have more reason to protect you. Unlike ISPs, their core value proposition, their bread and butter, is providing security and privacy.

And what about data retention? Some VPNs do store information, others don’t. So before making your choice, make sure to read up on their privacy policy.

A Word to the Wise

It is worth noting that retaining data per se isn’t a bad thing. Some VPNs retain data for a short period of time and use that information to improve their service. In case you’re looking for a VPN service provider with a strict no-logs policy, check out ExpressVPN.

The second advice we could give is to avoid free VPNs at all cost. If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold’.

And always remember that the most critical point in this chain of trust is still the policies that govern this arena. Laws are seldom broken, it’s true, but at least they provide accountability. Here’s a list of VPNs that keep zero logs of their users’ browsing activities. 

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