During the 2011 protest and uprising that happened in most of the Arab nations, the governments decided to ban the biggest names on the internet, like Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. Not only to prevent a coordinated effort by the masses but also an attempt to control the flow of information.
The same thing happened to other protests that happened in various countries in subsequent years. From Egypt, Turkey, and the most recent one, Hong Kong, every government decided to censor public access to the biggest source of information and connectivity of all, the internet.
To combat such decisions, people from all over the country began to use VPN services. In this particular case, Hotspot Shield VPN. This particular brand of VPN has been the most popular choice during times of conflict. But is it also a good choice for your everyday internet activity?
Hotspot Shield was founded by two childhood friends, David Gorodyansky and Eugue Malobrodsky. Under a parent company called AnchorFree, Inc. they want to provide a free and widely used online privacy service for the masses. Based in the US, they offer their first Windows client in 2008.
The 2011 Arab uprising prove to be a pivotal moment for Hotspot Shield. In the time where the local Governments decided to blocked access to the world's major websites, including Hotspot Shield official website, so AnchorFree decided to distribute a link to download their Windows and Mac apps through their users' emails.
Those emails then began to create a chain reaction that ends up with millions of people downloading and using their services to not only communicate through social media like Facebook and Twitter but also to coordinate mass activities with their fellow citizens.
Curiously, Hotspot Shield remains to be the favorite VPN used amidst a crisis in various countries, like Egypt, Turkey, Hong Kong, etc. Although there is a notable drop in usage after the tension had died down, for the most part, users seem to appreciate the company's quick response to the unique challenges of their customers.
In 2019, Hotspot Shield was under a new parent company called Pango, a company that offers online security bundles like a password manager and VPN, for a fixed cost. Less than a year later, a similar company called Aura acquired Pango and all of its security software, including Hotspot Shield VPN.
The company assures the users that no significant change happening other than the name of the parent company and that Hotspot Shield VPN will still strive to be the best at what it does.
- Privacy. Hotspot VPN will mask your IP address and assign you a new IP when you connect to their VPN network. But keep in mind that while they won't collect any personal information that could be used to identify you as a person, they do, however, collect information regarding your apps usage, timestamps, general locations, and device information for analytical, support and marketing purposes.
- Protection. Hotspot Shield uses a military-grade 256-bit AES encryption to support your connection. They also used a patented protocol called Hydra Protocol which is based on an improved version of OpenVPN to increase latency and performance. But users could choose other protocols such as the traditional OpenVPN and IPsec if they want.
- Security. Other than through the aforementioned encryption and protocols, Hotspot Shield also utilizes a kill switch to prevent data and information leakage when you suddenly disconnect from their network. They also support split tunneling and there is strong DNS leaks prevention in place.
- Price. Hotspot Shield comes in three flavors. The basic free version, the premium, and the family package. The free version has several limitations in place, such as it can only be used by one device through one location with a hard cap on speed, 2 Mbps, and bandwidth, 500 MB daily.
The premium and the family package, however, will open up all kinds of features and unshackled you from the limitation of the free version. Not only that, but the premium plan also comes with added security features and software, like anti-malware and password manager, among others. The family package would expand the connected devices to a 25, five devices each for five family members. If you choose to go down this route, then it is advisable to choose the annual plans because it offers a significant discount compares to the monthly plans. Currently, the premium plan costs US$ 7.99 while the family plan costs US$ 11.99. All with a 45-day money-back guarantee.
- Ease of Use. Hotspot Shield has a clean and straightforward user interface that focuses on getting you familiar with its capabilities the moment you laid eyes on it. It is also quick and easy to set up.
- Accessibility. With its premium plans, you have access to over 3200 servers in more than 80 countries around the world. You could also have up to five devices connect to the network at the same time to connect simultaneously. Other than the major platform like Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, Hotspot Shield also available to Linux, browser extensions, SmartTVs, and also routers.
- Speed. In October 2019, Ookla's speedtest.net crowned Hotspot Shield as the fastest VPN service amongst its peers. It may sound like a big claim but it's true, at least in my experience. Hotspot Shield gives a stable and constantly high-speed internet every time I connect to their network.
- Torrenting. Hotspot Shield allows access to P2P networks. They even have dedicated servers for torrenting that give a stable and pretty decent speed.
- Support. With a basic free plan, you would only find support through their Support Centre but when you join any of the paid plans, you would guess access to 24/7 live chat support. But don't let that discourage you, because they have a comprehensive FAQ center. I could easily solve any issues that I encounter through that documentation.
The biggest benefit of Hotspot Shield is certainly the pricing. While there are strict limitations with the free version, you still got a full VPN experience with a stable and fast connection. If you only need a VPN for browsing blocked websites, then the free plans will suit you just fine.
The speed is also a big surprise for me. I never thought Hotspot Shield would deliver that kind of speed and stability, not only for browsing but also for download, streaming, and torrenting. I guess that title as the fastest VPN given by Ookla's speed test is not just for show. In our reviews of HotSpotShield it has actually come out as one of the quickest VPNs on the market.
Another big plus is the attitude of the company towards any form of internet suppression. Like I mentioned above, they are the one VPN company that manages to find a loophole in the Government blockage to help their users and the general public who in desperate need of the connecting power of the internet.
Now that they have changed their parent company twice in less than a year, I can't help but have some concerns about whether or not they will take the same approach if they are faced with the same scenario. After all, the bigger the company the less risk they are willing to take.
Another concern comes from the fact that they are a US-based company. The US is the country where the NSA is allowed to run amok and break every rule regarding individual privacy in the name of national interest. They are also don't have a strict privacy law as in other European or Asian countries.
The last one, and the big one, is the allegation made against Hotspot Shield about the leak of user data. In 2017, The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) submit a report on how Hotspot Shield shares user data to the third party for advertising purposes. In 2018, an independent security researcher found a bug that could be manipulated to reveal the user's location if they connected to a Wi-Fi network.
To me, Hotspot Shield VPN sits in a weird grey area where it's hard to judge whether or not you should use it.
On one hand, HotSpot Shield has great performance and a very good reputation on going above and beyond for their customer who desperately needs their services in places rife with conflict.
On the other hand, it's quite expensive compares to other alternatives in the industry. While the added security features and software are nice, not every user needs or wants something like that. Another pressing concern is their rather questionable reputation on handling user's privacy, especially for the free users.
At the end of the day, we use a VPN for anonymity, security, and protection. For now, there are other safer choices available out there, so I simply can't recommend Hotspot Shield for any serious users.