Many relatively new virtual private network (VPN) users often ask themselves the following questions: Can I trust my VPN service provider not to spy on me? How can I determine which provider to trust?

These are valid questions, because you need to be certain that a provider has its users’ best interest at heart before trusting it to provide a secure connection that encrypts all your data, keeping it safe from meddling eyes. You’re connected to the provider’s server network and you need to be sure that when it says your exit server is in a certain country, it is true.

Using a Trustworthy VPN Service is Crucial

Needless to say, not all VPN service providers can be trusted. Some keep records of your connection dates, times, the duration of the connection, IP address, and even the nature of the traffic you tunnel through the provider’s network. They may claim that they do it to ensure that your online activity is legal and safe, but keeping such information defeats the purpose of using a VPN.

Ideally, no logs at all should be kept, and leading providers try as much as possible to have a zero-log policy. They don’t maintain records of login/logout times and even in cases where some logs are kept, they are frequently deleted to ensure your privacy. The value of a VPN service is in privacy and security, after all, and storing any user data makes the provider the weak link in the network.

Here are some tips on researching VPN providers and identifying the best one for you.

Assess Your VPN Needs

When comparing prospective VPN providers, your reason for wanting a VPN should be your topmost consideration. In other articles, we’ve talked about the main reasons most people should have a VPN and the types of people for whom it would be useful. But for most people, it comes down to security or privacy, or a combination of both.

If your biggest concern is security, and your organization has provided you with a VPN, then you’re all set. Nearly every VPN will provide adequate security because the point is to keep out prying eyes, presumably on the network that you’re using, such as free Wi-Fi at an airport or coffee shop. However, you also want to be sure that the VPN service is itself not spying on you.

If privacy is your main concern, then you need to make more considerations. Users for whom privacy is a top concern want to be sure that their VPN provider won’t keep logs of their online activity and give away user data after being pressured by an overzealous government agency. Another worry of privacy-minded users might be whether the VPN provider will hold on to their data forever and possibly sell it to third parties in the future for marketing purposes.

Whether you’re concerned about security or privacy, the only way to be sure that you can trust a VPN provider is by carrying out adequate research on the providers you are considering, which leads us to our next point.

Carry Out Research on Prospective VPN Providers

This should be a no-brainer. Before settling on a VPN provider, read the company’s terms of service and privacy policy. That should be the case for any online services you use, but it’s even more important when it comes to choosing a VPN provider, especially one that offers the service for free.

Keep in mind that these are businesses and they need to make money one way or another. So, if they don’t have usage limits and offer premium plans, then it would be safe to assume that you are the product and the free VPN provider generates revenue by logging your online activity and using that data for marketing. Data security experts recommend completely avoiding free VPN services to be on the safe side.

As for paid VPN providers, they should ideally cater to all your security and privacy needs seeing as they charge you for the service. That is, however, not necessarily the case. Many providers prioritize security and not privacy, and they are clear about it in their marketing.

So, although you’re sure you’re safe while using their network, they don’t guarantee privacy. In case the provider is presented with a Cease and Desist or a subpoena, they will cancel your subscription and hand over your data to the bearer of the legal order. Researching potential providers is therefore of the utmost importance.

Logging Policy of Providers

One effective way of learning whether a provider logs user data is by searching the name of the provider alongside the word “logging”. The search will usually bring up the privacy policy of the provider, which some providers deliberately make hard to find and even harder to understand. Reading the policy should immediately answer your questions regarding the logging policy of the provider.

Some providers claim that they don’t keep any logs, only for it to turn out that they maintain usage logs in order to bill you. Some log user data, but then delete it weekly or daily. Some may say that they keep only the logs that the law requires them to, which essentially means whatever the government wants, and that could be anything. Some providers completely evade the issue, which is where additional search results prove useful. You’ll likely find articles on other websites talking about the provider’s logging policies, and that information can help you learn more about the company’s logging policy.

Another effective alternative is to directly ask the provider about their privacy policy. If your search doesn’t yield results from the company or other websites, contact the VPN provider and ask the customer service representative about the company’s logging policy. There’s certainly nothing wrong with asking a premium provider about these details because you’re well within your right to determine whether you’ll be getting value for your money.

Be wary of the geography trap. In an effort to ensure maximum privacy, some people only use VPN providers that are outside their country. These people feel that the laws in their country do not support privacy or that a VPN provider within the country might be arm-twisted by law enforcement, the judicial system, or other companies into handing away private user data.

However, using a VPN provider based in another country is an ineffective way of guaranteeing your privacy, because foreign companies aren’t immune to the laws of the country in which they operate. Private industry groups and law enforcement agencies can use their authority to exert pressure from any location in the world, and they usually get results without having to push too hard. Even if they meet resistance, they can usually pressure the government and compel it to act on their behalf.

In simple terms, don’t assume that because you’re in the UK and you use a German-based VPN provider that you’re out of reach of the law, or that a US-based VPN won’t fight as hard as the German-based one for your privacy. Although this might be true in some cases, the general philosophy of the VPN with regard to logs and privacy policies is more pertinent than the geographical location.

VPN Technology Used by Providers

Technology is another aspect that you need to pay attention to. Data security experts have often decried the rise of poor-quality VPN providers that made audacious promises about security and privacy without having the requisite technology to back those promises up. Unfortunately, the number of fly-by-night providers continues to grow.

Providers that lack the right back-end technology to provide robust services might be putting your privacy and security at risk, or they may end up becoming victims of spying, hacking and data theft. When researching prospective providers, consider the encryption technology they use and the security features that they offer. Furthermore, make sure that they received positive reviews from respected review websites as well as users of their services.

The VPN industry is growing fast and there is a lot of money to be made. So, it’s only wise to be wary of providers that may misrepresent themselves, dance around issues, and use dirty marketing tricks to gain subscribers to their service. The VPN business has an ugly side and it is for that reason that we have our experts do independent tests to obtain first-hand observations and make appropriate recommendations.

Your best bet at researching potential VPN service providers is adopting a healthy attitude of skepticism especially as you read what they say about themselves on their websites. If a provider is, in fact, top-tier, they will provide evidence for their claims about the quality of their services and will even encourage you to carry out additional independent research into them if you wish.

However, you need not test the services of every seemingly good VPN provider, though, because trusted review websites have already done all the work for you. To learn more about the options you have when it comes to VPN providers, read our reviews on how the features and costs of different services compare, and which ones emerge as the industry leaders.