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Honest review of the ProtonVPN service

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment

UPDATE 7/5/2017: My connection to the ProtonVPN endpoints using their Windows client is extremely unreliable. At random intervals, the connection just "stops working" and the only way to fix it is to connect to a new location. I have had a support request open for over 1.5 weeks and my issue hasn't been resolved yet. I cannot recommend the ProtonVPN service at this time for the reasons listed below and because my experience has been unstable (and support has been slow to non-existent).

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Since the official public launch, I have received dozens of emails (and Twitter DMs) from readers asking me to review ProtonVPN. 

A group of scientists with a track record of building secure products (ProtonMail) designed ProtonVPN from the ground up to be safe and privacy-enhancing.  The promise is that they will bring the same end to end encryption model to the highly uncertain world of VPN.

They talk a lot about the benefits of being headquartered in Switzerland, and many of their statements are accurate. Let's talk about the Five Eyes

Who are the "Five Eyes"?

With the Edward Snowden leaks, we learned about the complex data collection agreements between "friendly" countries. The first significant agreement is called the UKUSA agreement and is an agreement by the United Kingson, United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand to collect, analyse and share intelligence information with each other.

This group is referred to as the "five eyes" because of their laser-like focus on sucking up incredibly massive amounts of data and sharing it with their "partner" intelligence friends. Some have even accused these countries of using this partnership to circumvent local laws designed to present local intelligence agencies from spying on their people (they get another five eyes Country to do it and report back).

So the Five Eyes countries are:

  1. Australia
  2. Canada
  3. New Zealand
  4. United Kingdom
  5. United States

Not wanting to be left out, other countries soon sought membership in this coveted group, and now we believe the extended group should be called the 14 eyes:

  • Denmark
  • France Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Belgium
  • Germany
  • Italy
  • Spain
  • Sweden

Switzerland is not part of the 14 eyes (or five eyes)

So protonVPN is located in a much more privacy friendly jurisdiction that does not have a formal intelligence gathering and sharing agreement with the rest of the world.

ProtonVPN technology

ProtonVPN uses industry standard OpenVPN with UDP or TCP. It currently has a ProtonVPN branded Windows client.

As I write this, ProtonVPN allows you to use any OpenVPN client with their service which is how you can connect from IOS, Android, MacOS or Linux. We are being promised clients for these platforms, but there is no firm committed to date.

In this day and age, it is unacceptable for a mainstream VPN service to not have its own client on these core platforms. Especially when ProtonVPN is charging premium rates for their services.

Does ProtonVPN slowdown my connection?

I did extensive testing of the ProtonVPN service from various internet connections (home, office, coffee shops and three different cell phone providers). I also used different clients (Windows, MacOS, Android and IOS). 

If you are using (non-secure core) close by exit node with low traffic, the performance hit is usually 5-12%. This is no better or worse than other high-quality VPN providers. When you turn on secure core routeing, you can lose 20-45% of your connection speed because it is sending your traffic through 3 secure data centres plus the exit node. 

What is the Secure Core Technology?

Secure Core is a nice enhancement to traditional VPN technologies that pass your traffic through multiple ProtonVPN owned and managed servers before finally delivering it to the exit node. 

Why Secure Core?

Secure Core was created to add additional protection when your exit node is in a "high risk" jurisdiction. As an example, you may want to exit in the US to gain access to geographically locked content but want to ensure your privacy is protected (knowing that almost all US traffic is captured, analysed and stored).

What does Secure Core protect against?

Leaked documents have shown that governments can deanonymize TOR traffic by controlling a large number of TOR exit nodes. The same can be done using VPN exit nodes. Most providers use local service provider facilities, networks and computer as termination points for their VPN service.

The three VPN services I am testing right now (ProtonVPN, UnlimitedVPN, ProXPN) all use Amanah Tech as their Toronto-based exit point. If a government agency were to compromise the equipment, they could then start de-anonymizing traffic flowing through it.

By routeing your traffic through multiple (typically three), ProtonVPN owned and managed devices in secure jurisdictions first; they make the de-anonymization (even if a government agency compromises the exit node) much more challenging.

When most people think of governments monitoring internet traffic, they think of (China, Russia, Iran and Turkey). It is important to remember that the 14 Eyes also monitor internet traffic and share the data amongst themselves.

Does ProtonVPN support Peer to Peer protocols (P2P)?

Like all VPN providers, ProtonVPN does not condone the use of their service for any illegal activities (including the illegal download of copyrighted content via P2P networks). Before I start receiving hate mail, I know there are legitimate uses for P2P technologies (like Resilio Sync or Tails OS).

ProtonVPN clearly marks endpoints that they recommend you use with P2P traffic:

The double arrows mean that is a P2P supported exit node. The Onion icon next to Switzerland is an example of a location that has a TOR entry node.

Does ProtonVPN log?

ProtonVPN is built on a pedigree of privacy, and their stated logging policy exemplifies that. ProtonVPN has a No Logs policy which means they do not store any information about your connection, what you do while connected and where you connect from.

The only information they log (for security reasons) is a single timestamp of the most recent logging from your account.

ProtonVPN sign-up

Potonmail and ProtonVPN have linked accounts and payment can be made via Credit Card or Bitcoin (instructions).

ProtonVPN goes to great lengths to protect your identity, but I would still say it is a privacy tool and not an anonymization service. The best anonymization system is still the free TOR browser(you should donate to them if you haven't already).

ProtonVPN Paid Plans

ProtonVPN offers a free plan but most users will want to upgrade to the Plus paid plan.

VyprVPN which is one of the best-in-class VPN providers offers an annual paid subscription for ($6.67 a month). This plan includes their Chameleon protocol (which hides the fact you are using a VPN and makes it usable from some highly restrictive locations). One of the other VyprVPN advantages is that they use their servers and networks as exit nodes. Is the $1.33 a month worth it? That is a personal question. VyprVPN offers Chameleon, but ProtonVPN offers Secure Core. Either will serve you well, but right now I still have to recommend VyprVPN. My recommendation would quickly switch to ProtonVPN if they released clients for the other platforms. 

ProtonVPN recommendations

ProtonVPN is a good attempt but there is definitely room for improvement:

  1. Release clients for all major platforms [ongoing]: MacOS, IOS, Android.
  2. Build a VPN hiding mode to enable use in highly controlled locations (like Chameleon on VyprVPN and KeepSolid Wise on Unlimited VPN). 
  3. Create mini 2-minute tutorials for the various functions (TOR, Secure Core, P2P support, etc)
  4. Mark the Plus servers for Plus/Visionary customers
  5. Have a way of routing VPN traffic (for Plus/Visionary customers) that does not show up as a proxy on Hulu, Netflix, etc)

Conclusion

I have tested about a dozen VPN services over the last year and the top provides are:

  • UnlimitedVPN: Ease of use and speed
  • VyprVPN: Ease of use, Chameleon protocol and they use VyprVPN owned servers and networks
  • ProtonVPN: Privacy oriented Swiss-based solution

The first two are amazing if used in the right context. If ProtonVPN answered my top 5 recommendations, then they would be the clear winner, but I cannot recommend an $8 a month VPN service without native clients on key platforms. As much as I want to, I simply can't.

Right now, I would say ProtonVPN is an excellent choice if most of your use will be on Windows. Otherwise, try VyprVPN for now and check back with Proton in a couple of months to see how the service has evolved.