A VPN is now a necessity for anyone who values their privacy online. They prevent hackers, governments, corporations, and internet service providers from monitoring and tracing internet activity back to the user. All internet traffic is encrypted and tunneled through a remote server so that no one can track its destination or its contents.
But using a VPN requires a certain degree of trust in companies that operate these services. They could–and some have–monitor and analyze the traffic that passes through their servers. These companies can in turn be hacked, abused, or coerced into giving up private information about users.
Most VPN providers, even those that boast about their logless policy, do in fact store metadata logs on their servers. These can include a range of information about the nature of a customer’s VPN connections, but not the actual contents. Timestamps, bandwidth consumed, amount of data used, and even the original IP address of the user can all be logged by the VPN provider. In the hands of the FBI or a snooping hacker, this information could be valuable.
VPN providers’ encryption standards are also not always advertised in a straightforward manner. Most will inform you that they use either 256-bit or 128-bit AES for channel encryption, but can leave out information about how that channel was set up including RSA key exchange and authentication details.
In fact, several factors beyond a simple no-logging policy and strong transfer encryption can affect VPN users’ privacy. In this article, we’ll go beyond the often-advertised surface measures to dig deeper into the finer details that are often overlooked. Bear in mind that we still depend on the providers to be honest about the measures they take to protect user privacy, so for lack of a better method we just have to take them at their word. More on methodology below.
We scored each VPN provider’s privacy protections out of 18 possible points based on the following criteria:
- Traffic logging policy (2 points): No traffic logs of any sort whatsoever. Traffic logs refer to records of user activity and the content they viewed while using the VPN.
- Metadata logging policy (1 point): We are primarily concerned with logs that contain the source IP of users. We do not deduct points for bandwidth or timestamp logs, which contain no identifying information.
- VPN protocol (1 point): OpenVPN is our preferred protocol.
- Channel encryption (1 point): Must use the AES 128-bit algorithm or higher.
- Key exchange (2 points): RSA and DH keys must be 2,048-bit or higher to get one point. Perfect forward secrecy (PFS) using ephemeral keys earns the other point.
- Authentication protocol (1 point): Must be SHA256 or better. SHA1 has vulnerabilities, but HMAC SHA1 is arguably still safe and doesn’t suffer from collisions, so points are not deducted for HMAC SHA1.
- DNS leak protection (1 point): DNS leak protection must be built into the provider’s apps.
- Kill switch (1 point): A kill switch that halts traffic when the VPN connection drops is a must.
- Private DNS servers (1 point): The provider must operate its own DNS servers and not route DNS requests through the default ISP or a public provider such as OpenDNS or Google DNS.
- Servers (2 points): We are primarily concerned with whether servers are virtual or physical. Physical server are preferred. We did not deduct points based on whether a server is owned or rented, as there are arguments to be made for both.
- Anonymous payment methods (1 point): Accepting Bitcoin as payment earns the point, but we also made note of those who accept gift vouchers and other cryptocurrencies.
- External providers for email, customer service (1 point): A point is awarded if the VPN provider conducts all billing, customer service, and email in house without the help of third parties.
- Torrenting policy (1 point): Torrenting must be allowed on all servers.
- Country of incorporation (1 point): A point is awarded if the VPN is incorporated outside of the Five Eyes: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
- Extra security features (1 point): VPNs that offer extra security features, such as obfuscation, Tor over VPN, and modulating IP addresses, are awarded a point.
We’ve outlined each VPN’s performance in one big table below. Each VPN is scored and discussed in more detail further down, in no particular order.
ExpressVPN keeps no traffic logs but does retain some metadata logs including “dates (not times) when connected to our service, choice of server location, and the total amount of data transferred per day.”
OpenVPN connections encrypted with 256-bit AES-CBC are the default. 4,096-bit DHE-RSA certificates are identified by SHA-512 hashing algorithm. HMAC authentication and perfect forward secrecy are both utilized.
DNS leak protection works but might require you to disable IPv6 on the client device. A kill switch, called a “network lock” in ExpressVPN parlance, halts all internet traffic when the connection unexpectedly drops. ExpressVPN uses its own DNS servers by default but customers can opt to use their own.
The company is incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, which does not fall under UK jurisdiction. It accepts Bitcoin as payment and even has a .onion site where Tor users can sign up anonymously. Torrenting is allowed on all servers.
ExpressVPN says it does receive subpoenas on occasion, but because it is a no log VPN provider, it does not possess information that can link an IP address or timestamp to a customer.
ExpressVPN rents physical servers around the world. Hard drives are encrypted and a unique key is used on every server.
Customers interact with ExpressVPN through SnapEngage and ZenDesk, but the company says those external providers have no access to customer information.
NordVPN does not keep logs of any sort on customers. Neither traffic nor session logs of any kind, making it one of the few providers with a true zero logs policy.
256-bit AES encrypted connections and 2,048-bit DH keys come standard with the OpenVPN protocol for most devices. NordVPN’s OpenVPN connections still use SHA1, a deprecated hash function used for authentication, but the company says it plans to implement SHA2 in the first half of 2017. Perfect forward secrecy is available on the iOS-only IKEv2 protocol. The IKEv2 option for iPhones and iPads uses 3,072-bit DH keys, 256-AES-GCM, and SHA2-384 authentication.
DNS leak protection is enabled by default, and NordVPN operates its own DNS servers that users can optionally use. The desktop app includes a process-specific kill switch that will only block traffic on specified applications when the connection drops.
The company is incorporated in Panama. It accepts Bitcoin as payment. Torrenting is allowed on all servers. Extra security features include a double-hop VPN, which routes the user’s connection through two VPNs instead of one. Tor over VPN servers send your internet traffic through the Tor Network after exiting the VPN server. This is essentially the same as using the Tor Browser while connected to a VPN.
NordVPN tells us it has received multiple official requests for information, but had none to give due to its no-logs policy. In at least one case, servers were confiscated, but NordVPN says there was nothing on the servers that could incriminate users.
NordVPN says it uses a hybrid model for server acquisition in which some are rented and some are purchased. All servers are physical.
NordVPN uses third-party newsletter and live chat tools to facilitate customer support. It says only customer email addresses are available to these external providers.
VyprVPN logs “the user’s source IP address, the VyprVPN IP address used by the user, connection start and stop time and total number of bytes used.” The most troubling is the user’s source IP, which could be linked to his or her identity through the ISP.
VyprVPN connections use the OpenVPN protocol, 256-bit AES encryption, 2,048-bit RSA keys without perfect forward secrecy, and SHA256 authentication.
DNS servers are included in the package, and DNS leak protection is built in. A kill switch halts all internet traffic if the connection drops. For an extra fee, VyprVPN subscribers can avail of the “Chameleon” protocol, which scrambles OpenVPN metadata so deep packet inspection cannot recognize it.
The company is incorporated in Switzerland. VyprVPN has, in the past, taken a hardline stance against torrenting, and in some cases users reported their accounts being disabled or terminated for doing so.
VyprVPN owns its own servers. It’s one of the few providers that owns its own data centers in every location around the world rather than renting rackspace from third party hosting services.
The company provisioning, billing, and database systems were developed and stored in house, but it partners with third parties for email and support.
Buffered logs the user’s source IP address, time connected, and connection duration, but no usage logs.
AES 128-bit encryption is used on transfers, which is strong enough for the US government to use on classified data.
The desktop client lacks a kill switch, which means traffic can be sent unencrypted over your ISP’s network if the VPN connection drops. Buffered uses its own DNS servers and the DNS leak protection works well.
The company is based in Hungary. It does not accept Bitcoin or any other form of anonymous payment. Torrenting is tolerated on all servers.
Missing info: RSA key size, forward secrecy, virtual or physical servers, customer service.
StrongVPN says it keeps no logs of any sort.
VPN protocol and encryption level depend on which server the user connects to. Some support OpenVPN. Others support L2TP/IPSec, SSTP, or even PPTP. Encryption algorithms range from 256-bit AES to 128-bit Blowfish. Because it’s so difficult to switch servers on the desktop app, finding one with optimal security is a hassle. The most secure connections use 256-bit AES encryption, MODP 8192 keys, and SHA512 authetnication.
DNS leak protection works, and StrongVPN operates its own DNS servers. A kill switch can be enabled in the settings.
StrongVPN’s parent company, Reliable Hosting, is based in San Francisco, California. The company accepts Bitcoin payments. Torrenting is tolerated on all servers.
The company owns all of its own physical servers and does not rent from third parties.
The desktop and mobile apps both include a “scramble” feature that obfuscates encrypted traffic to make it look like normal, decrypted traffic.
Strong VPN does use external providers for email. Email addresses and language preferences are stored—no personally-identifiable information is kept.
Other than when an account is first registered, IPVanish keeps no record or log of VPN use on its users.
It uses 256-bit encryption on the OpenVPN protocol by default, SHA512 authentication, and a DHE-RSA 2048 key exchange with perfect forward secrecy.
The company operates its own DNS servers and DNS leak protection is built in, as is a kill switch.
The company is based in the United States. Bitcoin is an acceptable payment method. Torrenting is tolerated on all servers.
IPVanish is one of very few providers that owns and operates all of its physical hardware, rather than renting it from a third party.
Users can specify how often they would like their IP address to change and use a “scramble” feature to obfuscate encrypted traffic.
IPV uses external email providers, and the only information on hand is users’ email addresses. No customer information is stored or accessible.
LiquidVPN records zero traffic logs and pretty minimal metadata logs including last VPN logged into, the total number of logins, and bandwidth used.
OpenVPN with 256-bit AES encryption comes standard, although other protocols are available. That’s paired with super-secure 4096-bit RSA keys and perfect forward secrecy. Keys are refreshed every 30 minutes by default.
The company operates its own DNS servers, which can also be used as a separate smart DNS proxy service (LiquidDNS). DNS leak protection is effective. A kill switch, dubbed “Liquid Lock” functions as both a kill switch and a firewall in which users can whitelist specific IP addresses and allow LAN traffic.
The company is based in the US. Torrenting is tolerated on all servers. Users can choose from three “topographies”: static, shared, or modulating IP address. When using the “modulating IP address” topology, the user’s shared IP address changes each time they connect to a different web server.
LiquidVPN rents bare metal servers in countries that do not force data centers to monitor or log traffic.
A warrant canary is updated weekly on its website, though LiquidVPN tells us it has not received any subpoenas or other official requests for customer information as of press time.
Email and customer service is all hosted in house on the company’s servers.
Private Internet Access
PIA is one of the few VPN providers that keeps no logs whatsoever, neither traffic nor metadata.
OpenVPN, 256-bit AES encryption, SHA256 authentication, and 4,096-bit RSA keys make up the strongest possible combination, but other algorithms and protocols are available.
A kill switch and DNS leak protection can both be enabled in the settings. The company operates its own DNS servers. Customers can pay with Bitcoin and certain gift cards.
Around March 2016, the FBI sent a subpoena to PIA to learn information about a suspected criminal. The company gave up no useful data according to the FBI report. PIA says it does receive subpoenas and court orders but has no logs to provide.
The company is based in the United States. Torrenting is allowed on all servers. Port forwarding is built into the desktop and mobile apps.
PureVPN records a timestamp and bandwidth used when connected to a server, which is fairly minimal. No traffic or detailed metadata logs are stored.
256-bit AES encrypted L2TP/IPSec is the strongest protocol available in the app, although OpenVPN can be configured manually in a third-party app.
DNS leak protection and a kill switch come built in. The company operates its own DNS servers.
PureVPN is based in Hong Kong. It accepts Bitcoin, gift cards, and a wealth of other online payment systems. Torrenting is allowed on all servers, and the app will even show you which servers are best suited for file sharing.
Missing info: RSA key size, authentication, physical or virtual servers, customer service,
HideMyAss gained notoriety in 2011 when a member of hacking collective LulzSec was arrested due to law enforcement gaining access to traffic logs kept by HMA. Then, in 2016, a judge in Texas was found to be soliciting prostitutes after police traced his activity thanks to HMA logs. Needless to say, this is not a company to be trusted if you value your privacy.
Nothing more need be said, but here’s the rest of the details, anyway. HideMyAss still insists that it does not log traffic, but due to UK law and past controversy, we cannot take it at its word. It does admit to recording session logs including username, timestamp, source IP, and the server connected to.
AES 256 encryption is used with the OpenVPN protocol. SHA256 is used for authentication.
The app does not have built-in DNS leak protection and HMA does not operate its own DNS servers, instead directing DNS requests through OpenDNS. It does not have a kill switch but does allow IP binding.
HMA is based in the UK, which just passed some of the most intrusive internet surveillance laws in the world. The company accepts Bitcoin. Torrenting is apparently allowed but we wouldn’t recommend it.
Customer service is handled through a third-party provider.
AirVPN is the only provider to receive a perfect score in our assessment. AirVPN boasts a true zero logs policy and therefore stores no traffic or session data.
With its most secure settings enabled, the app uses OpenVPN, 256-bit AES-CBC encryption, HMAC SHA-1 (SHA384 used in control channel), and 4,096-bit RSA keys negotiated on the hour and each time a new connection is established. This ensures perfect forward secrecy, and the RSA re-keying time can be lowered.
DNS leak protection and a kill switch come built in. AirVPN operates its own DNS servers.
The company is incorporated in Italy. It accepts bitcoin and several other cryptocurrencies as well as gift vouchers. Torrenting is allowed on all servers. The app is stocked with robust security features including port forwarding and DDNS; VPN over SSH, SSL, and Tor; and obfuscation.
AirVPN rents physical servers from vetted data centers.
AirVPN uses an in-house ticket submission system and forums for customer support.
BolehVPN does not record any traffic or session logs whatsoever but for one exception: “We may turn on logs temporarily to identify abuse of our services (such as DoS or spamming through our servers).”
By default, the app uses OpenVPN, 256-bit AES channel encryption, 2,048-bit RSA keys with perfect forward secrecy, and SHA-512 HMAC authentication.
The company operates its own DNS servers and the app uses DNS leak protection. A kill switch, called “lock down” in the settings, is built in.
The company is based in Malaysia and incorporated in Seychelles. The BolehVPN app allows users to selectively route traffic through the VPN, obfuscate traffic, and route DNS traffic. Servers use a decentralized PKI infrastructure. Bitcoin and Dash are both accepted as payment.
The company posts a monthly warrant canary. In May 2016, authorities issued BolehVPN a request for information on one of its German servers, to which it did not comply, according to the warrant canary posted at that time.
Missing info: physical or virtual servers, customer service
SaferVPN stores no traffic logs but does record detailed session logs including the user’s source IP address, the IP address of the VPN server they connected to, when they connected and disconnected, and the amounted of data transmitted.
The OpenVPN protocol uses 256-bit AES encryption, 2,048-bit RSA keys without perfect forward secrecy, and SHA256 authentication.
DNS leak protection works well, but there’s no kill switch as of time of writing.
The company is based in Israel. SaferVPN accepts Bitcoin and a few third-party payment systems. “Use of torrents” is prohibited under the company’s acceptable use terms, as are several other actions.
Missing info: physical or virtual servers, customer service
TunnelBear collects some metadata including timestamps, bandwidth used, and operating system. It does not store traffic logs or user IP addresses.
OpenVPN is used on desktops, while IKEv2 is favored on supported mobile devices. AES-256-CBC is standard on both, along with SHA256 authentication and either a 2,048-bit or 4,096-bit RSA key, respectively. Perfect forward secrecy is supported on OpenVPN.
DNS leak protection is built in, but TunnelBear uses Google DNS rather than its own DNS servers. The app includes a kill switch dubbed “Vigilant”.
TunnelBear is based in Canada. It accepts Bitcoin. Torrenting is prohibited on TunnelBear servers and it disables common BitTorrent ports in lieu of logging.
TunnelBear leases virtual servers rather than physical ones.
All customer support and email is handled in house.
VPNBook says it logs users’ IP addresses and connection timestamps, which are deleted weekly. In early 2013, however, hacking collective Anonymous accused VPNBook of being a honeypot for law enforcement. Anonymous alleged user logs “appeared in the court discoveries and indictments of some Anons facing prosecution for their involvement in #Anonymous activities.” That doesn’t bode well.
The OpenVPN protocol uses 256-bit AES encryption.
VPNBook doesn’t make its own client software, so features like DNS leak protection and a kill switch will have to be configured manually using either your device’s built in settings or the OpenVPN configuration.
The company is based in Switzerland. VPNBook is free and does not require registration. Torrenting is tolerated on the European servers.
Missing info: RSA key size, authentication, physical or virtual servers, customer service
CyberGhost keeps “no logs which enable interference with your IP address, the moment or content of your data traffic.” That makes it effectively logless both on the traffic and metadata fronts. Even payment and registration details are not logged, and instead users are given anonymous user IDs.
Connections by default use OpenVPN, 256-bit AES encryption, 2,048-bit RSA keys, and MD5 HMAC authentication. MD5 is considered to be roughly same strength as SHA256.
DNS leak protection and a kill switch are included in the app. CyberGhost operates its own DNS servers.
The company is based in Romania. It publishes regular transparency reports to ensure privacy, which acts as a sort of warrant canary. Torrenting is tolerated on premium plans, but the company urges customers to use P2P-optimized servers. CyberGhost offers a free tier and accepts Bitcoin for its paid tiers.
CyberGhost also includes an anti-fingerprinting tool that prevents advertisers and other entities from identifying users by their browser characteristics.
Missing info: virtual or physical servers, customer service
OneVPN says it stores no activity logs but does keep session logs, includig timestamps and bandwidth but not source IP addresses.
By default, OpenVPN connections are encrypted with 256-bit AES, SHA-256 authentication, and 4,096-bit RSA keys without perfect forward secrecy.
When we last tested OneVPN’s apps, none of them worked or they weren’t available on app stores. That means DNS leak protection and kill switches will have to be manually configured.
The company rents servers, 100 percent of which are physical, from Tier 1 and Tier 2 data centers.
The company is based in Hong Kong. It accepts Bitcoin and some gift cards as payment. Torrenting is tolerated.
OneVPN says it has not been confronted with a subpoena or warrant as of press time.
A company-owned dedicated email server is used to communicate with customers.
TigerVPN does not store traffic logs but does log time spent on the VPN and the amount of data transferred. It also records the user’s IP address upon payment, but not in session logs.
OpenVPN connections use 256-bit AES channel encryption, 4,096-bit RSA keys without perfect forward secrecy, and SHA512 authentication.
TigerVPN’s app does not have a kill switch. The company operates its own DNS servers and DNS leak protection comes built in.
The company is headquartered in Slovakia, which is part of the European Union. Bitcoin is accepted. Torrenting is tolerated on all servers.
TigerVPN says it owns physical servers in most locations, but sometimes resorts to rented virtual instances where it cannot import hardware. A representative tells us these dedicated virtual machines are not shared with other clients and run a special version of bespoke software that will identify if anything is going on with the server. No data is stored on these machines.
The company has not yet been confronted with a subpoena or court order. It it is, TigerVPN will first consult its lawyers. But because logs do not contain IP addresses and IP addresses are shared, there is no identifying information on customers.
The ticket submission system is provided by a third party. TigerVPN says email addresses and internal ticket IDs are stored there, but nothing else as far as customer data.
SurfEasy & OperaVPN
The built-in VPN on the Opera browser is based on SurfEasy, a provider that Opera acquired. SurfEasy does not keep traffic or source IP logs, but it does record timestamps and bandwidth. The company also has access to usage data for troubleshooting, real-time traffic analysis for traffic management purposes, and in-app analytics, none of which is logged, says the company.
Connections on non-iOS devices use the OpenVPN protocol and 256-bit AES. SurfEasy on iOS uses L2TP/IPSec and 128-bit AES. SurfEasy has a kill switch.
Opera VPN only encrypts and changes the IP address for data traveling through the browser, so other apps and services do not get the VPN treatment. Opera operates its own ad network, so even if the VPN is not logging information, the browser might be.
SurfEasy and Opera VPN are both free. SurfEasy Premium only accepts credit cards and PayPal. Torrenting is tolerated. SurfEasy is incorporated in Toronto, Canada.
Missing info: RSA key size, authentication, physical or virtual servers, customer service
Hotspot Shield does not store traffic logs or IP addresses associated with user activity, but it does store IP addresses to serve tracking cookies and inject advertisements into users’ browsers. These cookies can be used by third parties to serve advertisements, and Hotspot Shield says it is not responsible for how third parties use its data. Because of this, Hotspot Shield does not meet our privacy standards. The actual VPN service logs metadata including timestamps and bandwidth.
OpenVPN connections are protected with 256-bit AES encryption.
DNS leak protection seems to work, although Hotspot Shield does not operate its own DNS servers and tells users to opt for Google DNS. It does not have a kill switch.
Hotspot Shield’s parent company, AnchorFree, is based in the United States. Torrenting is allowed. Bitcoin is accepted.
Missing info: RSA key size, authentication, physical or virtual servers, customer service
TorGuard keeps no logs of any sort.
With the strongest possible settings, OpenVPN connections use 256-bit AES channel encryption, 4,096-bit DHE-RSA key exchanges, and SHA512 authentication. Perfect forward secrecy is supported and even indicated on the app.
TorGuard operates its own DNS servers. DNS leak protection and a process-specific kill switch are built into the app.
The company is based in the United States. The company accepts Bitcoin and a wealth of other payment options. Torrenting is allowed. TorGuard customers can use a “Stealth” feature that obfuscates traffic to help bypass firewalls that utilize packet inspection.
TorGuard owns servers in some data centers and leases in others. Most are physical, but those used primarily for streaming are virtual as their IP addresses need to be regularly changed.
The company says its legal team examines all subpoenas and court orders for validity in its jurisdiction. If deemed valid, it simply explains the nature of shared IPs and the fact that no logs are stored on its servers, thus it cannot identify any of its users.
Torguard uses its own staff and servers for all email transactions with customers.
Mullvad records neither traffic nor metadata logs.
OpenVPN connections use 256-bit AES-CBC encryption, DHE-RSA 2,048-bit keys, and HMAC SHA-1 authenticaion. Perfect forward secrecy is built in.
The company operates its own DNS servers. App users avail of DNS leak protection and a built-in kill switch.
Mullvad is based in Sweden. Torrenting is allowed. Bitcoin is accepted.
The company owns some servers and rents others, all of which are physical.
Mullvad tells us it has never received a subpoena, but has been asked by authorities about how specific IP addresses were used. It had no information to give.
Gmail is used for email correspondence with customers. It lists a PGP key on its website should customers want to send encrypted information that can’t be accessed by Google.
The newest contender on this list, Proton VPN is off to a strong start. The service is offered by the same Switzerland-based team that makes ProtonMail, a secure email service. It’s missing a couple key features, but bear in mind that the VPN is still in “preview” mode.
Proton VPN keeps no traffic or metadata logs except for timestamps. By default, connections use 256-bit AES channel encryption, SHA512 authentication, and ephemeral 2,048-bit RSA keys with perfect forward secrecy.
Currently, Proton VPN only makes a Windows app. Non-Windows users must find a third-party OpenVPN app to use. The app boasts built-in DNS leak protection. Proton VPN does not use its own DNS servers yet, though, and no kill switch is in place to halt internet traffic should your connection drop.
Proton VPN has a “secure core” option available in the native Windows client. The secure core servers are physical servers that are owned by Proton VPN. We don’t have information on the non-secure core server’s configuration.
Proton handles Bitcoin payments and email in house. However, support requests come from a Zendesk email address and it’s not clear who processes credit card payments. However, Proton says the credit card information is encrypted and protected by Swiss banking secrecy laws.
Extra security features include obfuscated username and password for non-native clients, the option to connect to Tor instead of the VPN from the client, and the secure core mode that’s essentially a double-VPN through Proton’s privately owned secure servers in Switzerland or Iceland.
All of the information presented in this article and the accompanying table was gathered through various means. First, we sought to fill in what we could by using the VPNs ourselves. We referred to our own experience, reviews, and articles. Next, we sifted through the websites, knowledge bases, FAQs, privacy policies, and manual configuration files provided by each VPN provider. For our remaining questions, we emailed each and every provider on the list to ask about their policies, equipment, security details, etc.
Most of the providers replied to us. We found that those with the best security are often the quickest to respond, as they have nothing to hide. All of the providers were given ample time–more than three weeks–to respond.
A few did not respond at all. If this was the case, we sought out secondary sources for information, such as external reviews and reliable forum posts. We understand that security is an ongoing process that requires regular updates, however, so we excluded any secondhand information dated more than one year old and could not be corroborated elsewhere.
- Shared IP addresses are the rule rather than the exception, so we assume that all VPNs on this list use them. It’s a win-win for VPN providers, as shared IP addresses are cheaper to maintain and offer greater anonymity for customers. Very few commercial providers even offer dedicated IPs, and if they do it normally costs extra.
- We did not deduct points for using rented servers, but we do deduct for virtual or cloud servers. While owning a server gives the greatest amount of control, it also offers less flexibility. If a data center lowers its standards, it’s much easier to simply end a lease and rent a server at a different data center than moving around physical servers. Virtual and cloud servers, however, bring in an unknown third party to the mix–the physical server owner–which is why we deduct points. No matter how well secured a virtual machine is, it is far more vulnerable than a dedicated physical machine.
- External email and customer support providers typically have access to some customer information, even if it’s just an email address. That’s why we deduct points for using them. Furthermore, even if the staff do not have access to customer information, a customer might not realize they are communicating through a third party and divulge private information.
- Encryption standards are based on what is vulnerable, not necessarily what is strongest. That’s why we don’t take off points for using AES-128, for example. Even though AES-256 is stronger, both are uncrackable for now. The same goes for RSA keys and authentication. SHA1 and 1,024-bit RSA keys are vulnerable, so SHA256 (or HMAC SHA1) and RSA 2,048 set our bar. Many VPNs opt for even stronger measures, such as 4,096-bit RSA keys and SHA512, but they do not get extra points for doing so.
- Responses to subpoenas, warrants, or DMCA takedown notices: We took into account whether a provider has encountered court orders for customer information in the past and how they responded, but no points are awarded based on if they have or haven’t.
- The effectiveness of warrant canaries is a hotly debated issue, so we awarded no points for having one. If a VPN provider does have one, we made a note of it.