VPN and Bittorrent Privacy
Privacy is a growing concern on the Internet. It is not the government that most people worry about. it is unregulated private companies that mine information. They collect information on you based on your location, the websites you to to, the links you click, how long you spend on one site versus another, and other information I cannot even imagine...all without your permission and without even telling you.
Governments in some countries arrest people for visiting websites they do not approve of so the issue is also about more than just privacy for its own sake.
VPN services help users to surf the Internet privately. That information remains private and anonymous and no one in the middle can look at what you are doing or where you are visiting. VPN allows users to unblock banned websites or websites that block access to certain countries, safely surf public Wi-Fi connections in hotels, cafes and the like, as well as hide your specific location. There are plenty of reasons to surf the web using a VPN service. A VPN is like a private tunnel. Your ISP can see you connecting to some random server but that is all. The information is encrypted and when you connect to other websites the only traffic appears to be to and from that one IP address you are connected to which is the VPN service server. That server also has no obvious connection to the VPN company and is usually a blank slate with no webpage or a dummy webpage so if your government wants to see what you are connecting to they see nothing.
Fortunately there is a way to protect your privacy, at least to some degree. You can use what is called a VPN or Virtual Private Network. I will skip the technical mumbo jumbo and simplify it by saying this means instead of your computer connecting to a website directly, your computer instead sends all Internet traffic to someone else's computer which may be in another state or country like Sweden or German and that computer connects to the website you want to see. This means that the far end website thinks you are in Sweden or Germany. Your location can change every time you connect or every few minutes. Using a system like this makes it almost impossible for tracking sites to monitor your location or how you use the web. It is not a guarantee of absolute privacy, but it sure helps.
There are also other reasons to use privacy networks. Some are not very legitimate or honest, but I hope if you are reading this then you are looking for an honest way to protect your privacy. My review is only for the legitimate uses of privacy networks or bittorrent through them such as downloading Linux, CD images from Project Gutenberg, online DIY publishing and other legitimate uses.
My purpose was to find a reliable VPN service to protect privacy which also allows bittorrent use. Not all privacy proxy services allow bittorrent use which may be fine for some but I deal with many websites that use bittorrent as a legitimate distribution tool for data. For this review, any site that did not allow bittorrent was automatically excluded. The below reviews are based on my first hand experience.
Some of the below sites offer two options, either bittorrent only for a lower price or a full VPN service. TorrentPrivacy.com offers only bittorrent privacy proxy services. I recommend paying the extra money and getting a full VPN if privacy is your concern.
Whatever you get, make sure its not just PPTP VPN. You need L2TP/IPSec or OpenVPN. For users behind Government Firewalls (UAE/China/etc.) you might also look at SSTP since it's practically undetectable and unblockable L2TP may be blocked periodically in China.
I had used TorrentPrivacy.com's service for two years and when they started having problems(see below review) I began looking for a new service. I found a couple of mentions of BTGuard.com and when I checked their site I found they had two options. A bittorrent privacy option for $7/month and a full VPN or Virtual Private Network option for $10 a month. For the price difference I decided to try the full VPN package.
The first problem I encountered was in paying for the service. I selected the $10/month option but the only way I could complete the payment was if I authorized PayPal to debit my bank account every month. That made no sense to me. Why debit my bank account when I have the money in my PayPal account already? I had to go back and select the option to pay only one month because PayPal is the only payment option available.
My account was approved in seconds and I tried to download the software. Perhaps it was just my computer, but IE would not download any files from the BTguard site. I switched to Firefox and was able to download the files. There were two options, PPTP and OpenVPN. I selected OpenVPN because this option has the best encryption. It did warn that the setup was more complicated, but I had no problems following the instructions.
The setup went smoothly. I started my VPN, typed in my username and password which I expected it to remember and checked a couple of IP identification sites like whatismyip.com to check my IP. It worked! I started a test bittorrent download. The rates seemed slow maxing out at 30k when my connection is capable of 3.2 MegaBytes(yes bytes) and it is not unusual for me to get 1MB on a single download from private networks, but I was testing public networks. Fortunately, BTGuard offers an option to download a test torrent file to determine your download speed. I downloaded their test and got a whopping 162 kB/s and down to 99k. Not exactly screaming for a site that claims Unlimited Speeds.
I left my regular bittorrent downloads running to see if they might speed up. Over time I started to notice that I was connecting with a lot of seeds but the speeds did not improve. For 5 seeds I might get 5 to 30k and normally I see 200k or better from that many connections. I left the room and when I came back there was an odd little box on my computer and I saw my downloads were all red and stopped. What happened? The box was asking for my username and password. I thought how odd. Why would it ask for my username and password again. I entered them again and it continued. Then 30 minutes later this little box popped up again. Clearly something was wrong. This time I cancelled and closed the OpenVPN program completely. I restarted it but every time I tried to connect I got an error message saying vpn.btguard.com could be resolved but did not have a valid IP. I had to reboot my computer to get back on the Internet. During this process I also realized that my computer was locked out of my local network whenever the BTGuard software was running. So as long as I am downloading privately, I cannot transfer files off remotely because other computers cannot access the computer running BTGuard. That was annoying but something I could live with. Typing in my password every 30 minutes is not something I could live with.
I checked the help pages but the nearest option it listed was "I keep getting disconnected" but this only offered an answer for PPTP, not for OpenVPN. I checked the answer anyway, which was nothing more than a link to missmysoaps.com and an image on that site. I have no idea how btguard.com is associated with MissMySoaps.com either. Well this link was useless because it said to "use these settings" however it did not say how to get to those settings and I could not find any page like this in any properties for anything on my network.
I then saw an option for "How do I make the VPN connect automatically when I start windows?". This surely must have an answer because if it starts automatically it must save the password. I clicked and got a 404 error on the website geekswithblogs.net. Apparently BGGuard did not feel it was important to actually put help information on their own site so they just link to any random site they think might have an answer. Well with a 404 error I had no answer.
I decided to do some of my own research. It turns out that OpenVPN is a standard VPN program available from many places on the web. The only thing special about this one is it is customized with a config file for BTGuard.com. I discovered there is an option you can set in the config file which says
This option loads your username and password from a text file. Unfortunately the program is incorrectly compiled from the distributor so that it is not possible to login using a file with your username and password. When I used this option I received an error message stating this fact. So I have to login every 30 minutes and the program does not allow me to set any auto login options or to load my username and password from a file(which would make a lot of sense instead of typing your information every time).
I then tried PPTP and uninstalled OpenVPN. I thought if one version does not work, maybe the other does. PPTP is nothing more than setting up a proxy connection so there is no software to install at all. I followed the instructions and was connected. I tried whatismyip.com and it gave my real IP. Apparently you have to actually go through the connect-to procedure and cannot trust the "Connected" message. I went back and re-followed the instructions to the letter and this time I could not connect to anything using PPtP. Apparently this option does not work at all.
I contacted BTGuard support for help and described my problem. In about 6 hours they responded with this answer:
Hello, For answers to personal technical support please visit: http://btguard.com/support
So their answer was basically "go read the faq you idiot" which I had already done.
I replied to the above answer and pointed out that I had already read the faq and it did not address the issue I had but only applied to PPTP disconnect problems. They never replied. I guess you only get to ask one support question and if they don't like it they don't have to answer it.
Their support was not helpful at all and neither was their faq. Apparently I wasted $10 with this service not to mention my time. It is useless if I have to login every 30 minutes. They could have provided an alternate compile of OpenVPN which allowed auto-login and the problem would have been solved but they chose not to do this for some reason.
Slow download speeds on Bittorrent.
Poor support pages that link to 404 error pages and meaningless pages with no helpful information.
Rude support which tells you to read the faq even when the faq does not have the answer to your question.
Improperly compiled software which does not allow you to auto-login.
Product does not work. If I have to login every 30 minutes then there is no way to use bittorrent on this service.
I cannot recommend BTGuard.com because the product did not work and support was of no help not to mention giving a very rude response to my question and ignoring me after that.
Click to check out BTGuard.com for yourself.
I had used TorrentPrivacy.com for about two years so I am very familiar with the service at this point.
The software only makes bittorrent traffic private, not all traffic. The price is $5/month.
In order to get private bittorrent downloads you must use their specially modified uTorrent browser. From the forums there seems to be some confusion about this. The fee is obviously for their proxy servers, but some people assume it is for the software. It is not. uTorrent is free, but it does not offer privacy features without a proxy service.
I had TorrentPrivacy for about six months when they announced an upgrade to the software. I, like everyone else on their service, downloaded the software and found it did not work. Their forums were filled with complaints. They apparently compiled this version and announced it without doing any testing at all. A few days later they announced they were not using the update and users(who had been unable to use the service for 4 days) were told to downgrade and the old version was reposted. This notice was on the website and not emailed to anyone. Then later they announced that they would not bother releasing any new update at all...ever. To date, they have not updated their software and it has been over a year. The uTorrent software has been updated a number of times, but not their special TorrentPrivacy version.
During the downgrade process I had some problems and had to contact support three times. It took them anywhere from 3 days to a week to respond and when they did respond the response was either gibberish that made no sense or it was not helpful at all.
Once I received a notice saying my credit card was about to expire and that I needed to update it. I went to their site only to find that there was no way to update my credit card after being told by email that is what I should do. I again had to contact support and again waited 3 days before they bothered to respond. The response gave a link to a page I had already been on and said to click the Contact Us link at the bottom. Perhaps they should have put this information in the member long area with a link "how to change your credit card number". You would think that after 100 people ask this same question they would add it to the member area. They didn't.
After the upgrade fiasco the service was stable. With the exception of some system downtime now and then it worked and I continued to use it. For only $5 a month it was a good deal.
One thing I do not like on their site is the trojan script that tries to keep you from leaving if you do not click on the buy button.
The grammar on their website is atrocious. There are many places where it makes no sense at all and understanding their admin support responses in the support forums is a challenge. On one page it actually said "Sing Up Now". Sing up? Really? And this was in a graphic, not just a typo, it was a graphic button at least an inch tall. I think it says a lot about how the service is run so I wanted to bring some attention to this obvious error which has nothing to do with language but has everything to do with sloppiness.
It is not unusual for the TorrentPrivacy servers to mysteriously disappear for a few hours or even a day. When this happens there are also strangely no new posts to their forums. For that matter, there are almost no posts to their forums at all which makes me wonder if they are approving posts and just not approving any that they don't like.
Lately their servers have been down for four days. There is no mention of this on their website because they do not have a status page. I finally had enough after the site was down on the 4th day and gave up with this service. It is not uncommon for it to go down but this is the longest I have seen yet. With no information, no hint as to how long before it will be back up, and no status messages in the user area, I am not interested in continuing to pay for this service. That is what sparked this review.
Slow download speeds on Bittorrent.
Trojan popup script on their website.
Poor support. Answers do not make sense half the time.
Slow support. It takes them days to answer simple questions(which should be in the faq anyway).
Service goes down for days at a time.
I gave TorrentPrivacy.com two boxes because, though the system worked most of the time, they simply do not seem to take their business seriously. I get the feeling someone is running this out of his dorm room and only bothers with it when he feels like it. There is no excuse for such a service to be down for days at a time with no information given to paying customers or to wait 3 days or more to respond to support questions. With the recent downtime, now reaching 5 days with no notice to customers, no status information, and no hint as to when the service will be restored or any offer of compensation for the disruption, I just cannot recommend them but I must qualify that by saying they did work for two years for me.
Check out TorrentPrivacy.com for yourself, click HERE.
This is one of the bigger companies around. At the time of this review, HideMyAss.com had 133 servers in 29 countries with 15000 IP addresses. Their software was a fully integrated package that did not require any special setup. Just a regular install and you are ready to run. You can select a server or country or let one be randomly chosen. You can also set options to randomly change your location or to change your IP regularly. Within the software you can select either OpenVPN or PPTP. I selected OpenVPN because it has better encryption. I worked without a hitch and I did not have to login every 30 minutes. It auto-re logs me in. When I am using bittorrent it does not drop the connection either.
You may think the site name is a little offensive. I think they do too so their software says HMA instead of the full name and the charge shows up as HMA.
A bittorrent download that was generating 0 on torrentprivacy.com(because their servers were down) and 30k on BTGuard downloaded at 200k to 500k on HMA. Some of the same torrents with 5 connections on other services are now getting 150k and 64k on HMA for each file. The download speeds may be slower than a regular connection but the speeds are still excellent.
Another benefit of HMA was that I could still use my local network. I was not locked out when the HMA software was running and I did verify with whatsmyip.com that I was secure and operating from a different Internet IP.
HMA does not endorse illegal file sharing and is aimed at those seeking true privacy for legitimate reasons. HMA does not permit illegal use of bittorrent and has said that anyone planning to file share illegally, should use another site.
One problem I had immediately with HideMyAss.com was my IE browser kept locking up when I loaded their web page. I had to switch to Firefox to view the site. This may have been a problem with my computer though.
Fast download speeds on Bittorrent.
Support - I never needed to contact support. I sent a test question and it was responded to the next day.
Lots of servers and countries to choose from.
All-in-one software makes installation and use simple with many options.
HideMyAss.com was the best performing and easiest to use site I tested. At this point I recommend their service.
Check out HMA by clicking HERE.
I will be giving HMA a long term test drive and following up this review with the results.
Update: After using HMA for nine months I am very happy with their service. Speed has been excellent, software has been updated at least three times, and it has been reliable with only one outage I was aware of which lasted about an hour.
If you need privacy from monitoring by your employer, unknown third parties, or governments like China or North Korea, this may be your best option.
Private Internet Access is a new company to me and it is the last one I reviewed. That means I had the experience from reviewing other sites to know what to look for and compare.
Privacy is the key word in the name for this VPN company. They offer PPTP, OpenVPN and IPSEC/L2TP protocols which give you a lot of options and you can pick the one that meets your needs.
They do not have as many servers or addresses as HMA(around 10 as of this review) but they have the major counties covered. I have found that with HMA I use only two or three servers regularly anyway so this is not a disadvantage especially since it is a smaller company which means a smaller footprint and less attention attracted to it. They do cover the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the United States. The United States also has connections for the East, West and Midwest. It is interesting that they choose Switzerland as an option because the Swiss are well known for their privacy laws. This will give you the most privacy at some bandwidth sacrifice(only a little). As with HMA, you can switch between these connection points anytime.
PrivateInternetAccess.com is not a secretive website that you have to contact by a form and wait for them to respond. They have multiple ways to reach them on their “Contact Us” page including a form, email address, toll free phone number and a local phone number for New York and even a fax number(if you know anyone who still has a fax machine). They also have a Facebook page where you can see comments others have left about the company. Their support forum is actually up and running and surprisingly they answer questions(unlike some other services with such forums).
One of the features I liked was unmetered bandwidth which makes it perfect for legitimate torrenting.
I have had limited time to test the speed but so far it is on par with the best of other services. This may be due to fewer users at this point, I do not know. It is only a slight drop from my regular internet speed which is unnoticeable unless you are downloading something really big and then it only adds a few seconds to a couple of minutes to the total time. Another benefit is that you can switch to another server. If you feel one is slow, try another one.
Another advantage of this service is that you can use it with your iPad, iPhone, iTouch, or Android. You are not limited to your home computer or laptop. It works with Windows as well as Mac and Linux systems. You can use Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Opera. What I personally do is install one of these less common browsers for my private surfing and use it only for private surfing. I can then wipe cookies from it without wiping out cookies I want to keep on my main day-to-day browser which I use to access google, my credit card company, or others that I am not concerned about privacy with. Maxthon is also a good security minded browser to try. Some of these non IE/Firefox browsers may not support all features or work the same way you expect. For example Maxthon does not print pages the way IE does and sometimes prints the entire page and not the subpart it was supposed to but let's stick to the VPN review here.
Private Internet Access does not offer a free trial. As with most of these services, they are so cheap per month that it makes no sense for them to bother with a free trial. You can always cancel if you are not happy or choose to go with another service and, unlike some other online sites, you actually can cancel if you do not want to and they will honor your request.
Pricing depends on the package you choose but is competitive with similar services. The cost is about half HideMyAss.com's price, but you have fewer options in the menu so cannot customize as much or auto change IP or other features. They have no live control panel which means you cannot right click or double click the icon to get a control panel. You only have the options that appear when you right click and this allows you to select a server to connect through or to disconnect or to change settings. The problem with not having a status window always open(like the one HMA uses) is that if you are disconnected you may not know it without checking the tray icon and you will be surfing with no privacy. Keep an eye on your icon and as long as it is stable, it should stay connected without worry. A monthly plan costs $6.95 and includes unmetered bandwidth. If you go for the yearly plan the price is cut about in half. That rate for a year is the cheapest I know of for this kind of service.
UPDATE: After using this service for a year I have found it to be very reliable and as fast as you could expect which is plenty fast for normal browsing or downloading files. I did experience a problem with downloading files which caused the software to disconnect and then reconnect which stopped the download. I want to include this because it is likely other people will find a similar problem which is easily resolved. I tried connecting to their servers in the Midwest and East. Both failed due to spontaneous disconnect/reconnect. I then tried Ontario, Ireland, Germany, and any other server with the same result: download failed. After some searching I found they do have a faq for dropped connections, but it is hard to find their faq page because the faq link on their main website does not actually go to the faq page and the faq link only shows a couple of answers which are not related to connection drop outs. Here is the link to their "real" faq:
I changed my settings based on the faq by first changing my port. This did not help. I then changed from udp to tcp and this keept my connection stable. Yay! I can now download large files with no dropout. This fix was made under Windows 7.
I had a similar problem with HMA(see other review) so the lesson is this: if your connections are regularly dropped no matter which remote server you connect to, the problem is more likely on your end than theirs. The solution is to read the faq and change some setting then test until you find the right setting. That will fix the problem.
Fast download speeds on Bittorrent.
Support - I never needed to contact support because installation went without any problems but they have multiple ways to reach support including phone.
Lots of servers and countries to choose from.
All-in-one software makes installation and use simple with many options.