Editor's note: This story has been updated with a response from ProtonVPN.
With the rise of faster internet speeds has come an industry of streaming services ready to sling movies, music, and TV shows your way -- but always-on connections can bring security and privacy risks along for the ride. In an age where you're rarely fully offline, you probably should have better security around the pipe that brings the digital world to your phone or PC, and an ecosystem of personal VPNs (virtual private networks) are ready to restore some balance to your exposure.
Your internet service provider (ISP) -- whether it's your mobile carrier or a cable hookup at home -- has been legally allowed since March 2017 to collect your browsing history and sell it to advertisers and other parties without your knowledge or consent.
Meanwhile, the FCC has repealed the federal net neutrality provisions that compelled ISPs to let websites have equal access to their customers, threatening to split the web between the companies who can afford to pay an ISP's extra fees to maintain a good connection speed, and the second-class citizens who can't or won't.
A virtual private network may cancel out both of these problems (as might legislation out of California, whose influence cannot be ignored because it has the fifth-largest economy in the world and a population of nearly 40 million Americans). But not all VPNs are made equal. Most of the free ones are actually not recommended at all, thanks to an ironic prevalence of user monitoring.
A number of legitimate-looking personal VPN services have emerged in recent years -- NordVPN (Android, iOS), IVPN (Android, iOS), Freedome (Android, iOS) -- and ProtonVPN is poised to join that list as it announces an app for iOS, available today.
ProtonVPN is the product of Swiss-based Proton Technologies, which also makes the popular ProtonMail encrypted email service (Android, iOS). Its co-founder Andy Yen says in the announcement of the iOS release, "The app is the result of over nine months of development, involving nearly 5,000 ProtonVPN users who served as beta testers helping to refine and improve app functionality."
According to Proton Technologies, it's able to leverage the famously beefy privacy laws in Switzerland to protect its VPN customers from snooping. In the section on logging, it says, "Under Swiss law, we are not obligated to save any user connection logs, nor can we be forced to perform targeted logging on specific users. This allows us to ensure that your private browsing history does in fact stay private and cannot be turned over to a third party under any circumstances."
However, these statements don't appear to explicitly state that ProtonVPN doesn't keep logs -- only that it's not required to by Swiss law.
We reached out to the company for clarification, and a representative said, "We do not keep any user traffic logs whatsoever. ProtonVPN's policy is stronger than the usual no logs policy of other VPN providers due to our Swiss jurisdiction. Swiss law protects us from being forced to do logging on a targeted basis. For instance, US-based VPN providers, which are not obligated to log user traffic under normal circumstances, could be forced by law enforcement to begin logging upon receiving a court order."
They add, "We only monitor the timestamp of the last successful login attempt. This gets overwritten each time the user successfully logs in. This timestamp does not contain any identifying information, such as an IP address or location; it only contains the time and date of the login. This is a security measure to protect accounts from brute-forcing. We do not log, track or record any user traffic."
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Either way, ProtonVPN is still worth looking into for other reasons, such as perfect forward secrecy. With this privacy technique, each VPN session gets its own encryption key. So if your encrypted data is captured, it can only be decrypted if you have the key for that session.
There's also a free tier that actually sounds legitimate. The company says that it's basically subsidized by the paid accounts, similarly to ProtonMail. With the free tier, it claims "no bandwidth limits, data caps, or privacy invading ads." You can run the free version on one device and connect to servers Japan, The Netherlands, and the US.
For paid users of the "Plus" and "Visionary" tiers, ProtonVPN also offers a service it calls Secure Core. With this, users get bounced through multiple VPN servers to help mask their own IP address and geographic location, using machines that are fully owned and controlled by Proton Technologies and located on their premises. Customers at these tiers also get official support for Tor connections, for even more layers of bouncing.
"Plus" is $10 a month, but you can shave 20 percent off when you pay for a full year. If you decide to become a subscriber, ProtonVPN suggests that you sign up directly on its website. Apple takes a sizeable 30 percent cut if you sign up through the App Store, so Proton Technologies has to charge more there to compensate.
- Proton Technologies, the makers of ProtonMail, have announced and released the iOS version of ProtonVPN, a virtual private network app that can help prevent people from spying on your internet connection.
- Proton Technologies is based in Switzerland, whose privacy laws can give customers a much greater degree of privacy than they are afforded elsewhere.
- Mozilla Firefox tests partnership with ProtonVPN to improve your privacy online
- Google's Project Fi mobile service now gives 24/7 VPN connection for your privacy
- Virtual private network interest increases after federal net neutrality repeal: Survey
- Pornhub wants you to use its new VPN (CNET)
- Many free mobile VPN apps are based in China or have Chinese ownership (ZDNet)
- Top 5 things to know about airplane Wi-Fi (TechRepublic)