It’s Sunday. You’re at a coffee shop, hoping to get some work done on your laptop. After finding out the Wi-Fi password, you log into the shop’s public network. Is your data still protected?
There are many reasons why someone would want a VPN, and privacy is only one of them. People also use VPNs to access websites or software from other countries, to safely download and share files, or even to get online discounts. Whatever your reason, you want a VPN that’s secure, trustworthy— and oh yea, you don’t want it to slow down your connection too much.
Today I’m reviewing Private Internet Access, a U.S-based VPN company founded by entrepreneur Andrew Lee in 2009. Today, PIA boasts over 100,000 users and has a strict no-logging policy. I’m intrigued.
In this review, I’ll go over the pros and cons of Private Internet Access, its features, subscription information, customer support systems, and app. Most importantly, I’ll be putting PIA through tests to make sure it’s up to my standards for speed and data leakage. At the end, I’ll answer the question: is Private Internet Access really worth it?
Private Internet Access has a no-logging policy, great app reviews, and fast speeds on Windows.
Pros and Cons of Private Internet Access
First, I want to give you a brief overview of what I thought about Private Internet Access, both the VPN itself and the company behind it.
- No traffic logs: Private Internet Access does not log any consumer data whatsoever.
- Great app reviews: iPhone and Android users alike rated the Private Internet Access app highly.
- Speed on Windows computer: Private Internet Access worked particularly fast on my Windows Vivobook.
- Headquartered in U.S: PIA’s Denver digs means its part of multiple international surveillance alliances, so they may be asked to hand over data (although they won’t have any as they don’t log anything).
- Mixed customer support reviews: some people had quick responses, while others waited for days to get PIA help.
Now let’s get into the nitty gritty.
About Private Internet Access
Private Internet Access, a subsidiary of London Trust Media, is based in Denver, Colorado. Not that I don’t love Denver, but I’m a bit surprised about their location. I prefer my VPN companies to be located in places where there’s no surveillance alliance, such as Panama. Being in the U.S, Private Internet Access is subject to the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes alliances. These are international alliances between countries that make accessing citizens’ data legal. The fact that Private Internet Access is based in the U.S is definitely a drawback, as they could be legally forced to give up information. We’ll talk more about what data Private Internet Access actually stores in a bit.
Here’s what else you should know about Private Internet Access— they have over 3,194 servers in 33 countries. The amount of servers, as well as their locations, matters a ton. You want to be as close to a server as possible for a fast Internet connection. For more details on Private Internet Access’s servers’ locations, check out their website.
Features of Private Internet Access
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and the same can be said for VPNs. Sure, all VPNs create a private network where your data and IP address are encrypted, but they’re not all created equal. Let’s find out if Private Internet Access is up to snuff.
Will Private Internet Access Log My Data?
Private Internet Access emphasizes the fact that they do not log data of any kind. That means they’ll have no idea when you’re using the VPN, for how long, what your IP address is, or what sites have you been visiting.
“We’ve never been asked for keys, nor [have we] handed over user data…We don’t have any logs whatsoever. We don’t log metadata [or] session data either. We will comply with anything, but we can’t comply because we do not provide any logs. We don’t log, period,”
the Private Internet Access founder Andrew Lee told ARS Technica in 2013. Granted this quote is a little dated, but still quite clear.
Does Private Internet Access Have A Kill Switch?
A kill switch, otherwise known as a “network lock feature” or “disconnect protection” means that any software or website will automatically shut down if your connection to the VPN is lost. Thus, you are still protected from the public network. I’m pleased to say that Private Internet Access does provide a kill switch with its software.
What Kind of Tunneling does Private Internet Access Offer?
A small drawback of the Private Internet Access VPN is that it doesn’t offer split tunneling, meaning you won’t be able to be on a private and public network simultaneously. Instead, all of your data will go through the same encrypted VPN tunnel, which uses more bandwidth than split tunneling.
Can I Use Netflix with Private Internet Access?
I like to think of VPNs and Netflix has a tug of war. Sometimes the VPN wins, sometimes Netflix wins, but each side is constantly trying to outdo each other. Although Private Internet Access doesn’t restrict access to Netflix itself, Netflix does attempt to block VPNs whenever possible. Therefore, access is not guaranteed. You should, however, be able to torrent files, a nice alternative to Netflix.
Private Internet Access Encryption
In short, encryption changes your text into inscrutable code. It’s what prevents people from accessing your data, the entire point of VPNs. Private Internet Access lets you choose your encryption methods.
Now let’s talk about what each of these terms mean.
For the encryption itself, you’ll choose between the Advanced Encryption Standard of 128 or 256 bits. 256 is the current industry standard, while 128 is a bit outdated.
Authentication means making sure that the right person is accessing the network.
SHA stands for a Secure Hash Algorithm. What’s a hash exactly? It’s basically a key used to encrypt and decrypt messages. The key is made from an algorithm by both the sender and the recipient, using their own secret values, or data. Hashes are irreversible, meaning you can’t work backwards to find the secret values, and each and every hash is unique. Not surprisingly, SHA-1 is the first version of the algorithm, and like the first pancake in the batch, it’s inferior to later versions. In fact, in 2016, Google found that some hashes from SHA-1 aren’t unique, a huge security issue.
SHA-256, on the other hand, means that it has two to the two hundred and fifty sixth-power possible hashes. That’s more than a trillion and even more than a septillion. The more possible number of hashes there are, the smaller chance the hacker has at creating the same hash. So yea, SHA-256 is going to be way more secure than SHA-1.
Private Internet Access has a no-logging policy, great app reviews, and fast speeds on Windows.
RSA SecurID, named after its founders, is responsible for making sure you are who you say you are and controlling who has access to your data. RSA can use different types of multi-factor authentication, from a push notification to biometrics, RSA wants to make sure the right person is accessing the software.
There is some debate about the key length among software engineers. In a nutshell, the higher the key, the better the security is. RSA-2048 has 16% fewer bits of security than RSA-4096, but 4096 will use more power, particularly on the central processing unit (the brain of the computer). Therefore, the higher the key, the more battery life your VPN will take up. 2048 will work for about 15 more years before it will be considered obsolete, according to Dr. Alessio Di Mauro, a Ph.D in computer science and principal engineer at cybersecurity company Yubico.
Aside from the RSAs, you can also choose ECC-256k1, which stands for Elliptic Curve Cryptography. In short, it’s a newer method of encrypting data that performs better than both RSA-2048 and RSA-4096. ECC also uses an asymmetric encryption algorithm and usually outperforms RSAs in terms of speed and memory. Remember, 256-bit is our industry standard for encryption, so if you’re looking for the best, ECC-256k1 is where it’s at.
Private Internet Access Protocols
Protocols determine how data is transmitted across a network. Think of them as different routes that you can take to get to a destination. Some routes will be faster than others, some will be safer than others, so Private Internet Access uses a combination of different protocols to achieve both speed and security.
Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol, or PPTP, has been used very commonly since the nineties. Rather than doing the encryption itself, the PPTP actually creates the tunnels that will encapsulate the data packets. It works with a secondary protocol that will perform the actual encryption. On its own, PPTP is not super secure.
Think of IPSec and L2TP as Batman and Robin. While L2TP, otherwise known as Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol, generates the tunnel, IPSec handles encryption, makes sure the tunnel is secure, and checks that the data has arrived in tact. IPSec, short for IP security, either encrypts only the data packet message or the entire data packet. Together, they create a VPN client that’s highly secure.
SOCKS5 is a proxy that will assign you a new IP address before it takes you to your location. While SOCKS requires last bandwidth than a typical VPN, its data is not encrypted and thus less secure. That’s why Private Internet Access uses SOCKS in conjunction with encryption methods, detailed above.
OpenVPN is an extremely commonly used VPN software because it’s the most secure. It’s great at bypassing firewalls, an essential quality of a VPN, but it won’t slow down your Internet too much. The reason I love OpenVPN so much is because it’s crowd sourced, not made by a company. The VPN community is constantly tinkering with OpenVPN to make sure that surveillance agencies aren’t tampering with it. Sounds ideal to me.
Testing Private Internet Access
Now that I’ve given you a pretty detailed overview of Private Internet Access’ technical specifications, I want to put this VPN through my tests. I have very high standards for speed and security, so hopefully I’m not disappointed.
The first thing I want to test is speed. All VPNs will slow down your Internet a little, but I want to keep it to a minimum. I’ve got places to go and people to see, and waiting for the spinning wheel to stop spinning is not on my to-do list.
I test all of my VPNs from my apartment in Brooklyn, New York on my Optimum network. To get a larger idea of how the VPN works, I use it on both my Macbook Air and my Windows Vivobook. Let’s take a closer look.
Clearly, Private Internet Access had a much larger affect on the Mac’s download speed, slowing it down by a pretty dismal 65%. On Windows, however, my download speed was only slowed by about 15%, which is pretty good.
Now let’s talk upload speed. Again, the Windows performed better than the Mac, with only about a 5% decrease compared to the Mac’s 30%. Clearly, Private Internet Access is a better VPN for Windows users over Mac users— but let’s confirm that with latency.
Ping, another word for latency, is measured in milliseconds, so we’re getting into extreme detail here. Amazingly, Private Internet Access did not create any latency on my Macbook Air, and it only increased latency by about a third on the Windows computer. From these tests, I can conclude that Private Internet Access is a decent VPN for Mac but great for Windows in terms of download and upload speed.
DNS Leak Test
A domain name server is basically the URL that you type in when you want to go to a website. Each domain name server, or DNS, stands for an IP address. Think of it as a description, like “the big yellow house on the corner,” as opposed to “123 Main Street”. I want to make sure that my DNS’s are not being leaked outside of the encrypted tunnel provided by Private Internet Access. Fortunately, when I tested it, there were no leaks detected. Awesome!
WebRTC Leak Test
WebRTC allows two web browsers to communicate with each other directly rather than going through a server. It creates faster speeds, particularly when you’re livestreaming video, sharing files, or video chatting. However, it does require knowing each other’s private IP addresses, so it’s something to look out for, especially if you use Chrome, Firefox, Opera, or Microsoft Edge. Just like the DNS leak test, I want to make sure that my private IP addresses are staying in the encrypted tunnel. The verdict? No leaks! All in all, Private Internet Access passed my tests with flying colors, save for the Mac download speed.
Private Internet Access Subscriptions
Finally, I’m getting to what you want to hear about all along- subscriptions and pricing.
With any of Private Internet Access’ subscription plans, you’ll be able to switch in between an unlimited amount of servers on an unlimited amount of devices. However, you’ll only be able to use ten devices simultaneously, which seems like more than enough to me. As you can see, the plans range from a little more than three dollars a month to about ten dollars a month, extremely affordable. The longer the term-length, the lower your monthly cost will be. Keep in mind that Private Internet Access does offer a seven day money-back guarantee, so if you absolutely hate the VPN but you signed up for two years, you can get out of it.
Private Internet Access will work on a Windows, Mac, Ubuntu, iPad, iPhone/iTouch and Android.
Supported browsers include Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and Opera, a web browser from Windows.
Private Internet Access Customer Support
There are few things more frustrating than having to call customer support for a technical issue. It takes all the calming yogic breaths I have in me not to have a full-on temper tantrum. So when looking at VPNs, I want to make sure the customer support is there before I download anything on my computer.
You can get support from PIA through their online knowledge base, or to get in contact with someone, you can fill out a form. I’m a bit disappointed that they don’t offer a live chat or phone feature— it seems like getting support could take a while. But let’s see what PIA customers had to say about it.
Customer Support Ratings
The Better Business Bureau gave Private Internet Access, a subsidiary of London Trust Media, an overall rating of A-. It lost points due to the length of time the business has been operating, which is one of the BBB’s weird idiosyncrasies that I wouldn’t look too far into. Unfortunately, no customers had left any reviews on the BBB, probably because Private Internet Access is not the name of the page.
To find real Private Internet Access customer reviews, I turned to Amazon. The Private Internet Access VPN has a rating of 3.6 on Amazon, which is decent but not fantastic. Out of the 11 reviews that mentioned customer support, seven were positive, a little over 60%. While I’m glad that the majority of the reviews were positive, it’s only by a small margin. Some people said response times were fast, while some never received responses or received them much later. Overall, Private Internet Access’s customer support appears inconsistent.
The Private Internet Access App
The Private Internet Access app is available on iOs and Android. The app has great ratings, a 4.6 from iPhone users and a four from Android users.
“Trouble-free app for an excellent service…No ads popping up as notifications which other (even paid) apps have decided is acceptable behavior (and we’ve apparently decided to accept),”
wrote a Google user in a five-star review.
Private Internet Access Vs. Windscribe
I’m comparing Private Internet Access to Windscribe, a similar VPN. Unlike Private Internet Access, which has one of the strictest no data logging policies around, Windscribe will keep your username, password, email, and payment. These are all pretty standard as they allow you to log into the VPN, but Windscribe also keeps the total amount of bytes you’ve transferred in the last month, plus a timestamp of your last activity. This is a little more data to save than necessary, but fortunately they won’t store your source IP address or any of the sites you visited.
One advantage Windscribe has over Private Internet Access is split tunneling, allowing you to access a public and private server at once and reduce bandwidth. As far as Internet speed goes, Private Internet Access has Windscribe beat. Neither VPN had any DNS or WebRTC leaks, which is a good sign.
Due to its superior data logging policy and speed, I’d pick Private Internet Access over Windscribe, unless you’re dying to have split tunneling.
Recap of Private Internet Access
Overall, Private Internet Access is a really solid choice of a VPN.
I’d recommend Private Internet Access if you’d like…
- Speed on Windows: Private Internet Access worked really well on my Windows computer in particular.
- Highly-rated app: The Private Internet Access has great ratings both from iPhone and Android users.
However, avoid Private Internet Access if you don’t like…
- So-so speed on Mac: You can definitely find VPNs that work faster on Macs than Private Internet Access.
- Headquarters in U.S: Although the company won’t log your data, they could be legally forced to hand it over to the other countries part of Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes.
- Weak customer support: With no phone or live chat feature, you could wait a while to hear back from customer support.
That’s it from me! As always, leave questions or comments below.
To explore more great options, check out the best VPNs of 2019.