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The 7 Best Netflix VPNs – TechEye

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Ever since it first launched, Netflix has been the leading streaming service in the world. And while Netflix’ library is impressive, not every movie or TV show is available in every country. The reason for this is copyright law.

When Netflix buys the rights to a TV show or a movie, they buy the rights for a specific region. Sometimes, they can distribute the content everywhere in the world. For instance, this is the case with most original Netflix shows. But in other cases, different distributors buy the streaming rights for different countries. For example, Netflix may stream your favorite show in the United States, but not in the Australian market.

This is a good thing for content producers, and it’s also good for Netflix. Different regions and countries have different regulations. By negotiating different deals in different areas, both producers and distributors get a fair deal. Unfortunately, this can be inconvenient if you can’t get the content you want to watch.

One solution is to use a VPN. A VPN routes your internet traffic through a secondary server, called a proxy server. When Netflix sees your device, they won’t see it coming from your ISP. They’ll see a connection from the country your VPN server is based in. So if it’s a US server, Netflix will think you’re in the USA.

​At least, that’s how it works in theory. In practice, Netflix actively tries to block VPN connections. As a result, when you try to stream Netflix over most VPNs, you get an error code. It simply says: “Whoops, something went wrong. Streaming error. You seem to be using an unblocker or proxy. Please turn off any of these services and try again.”

This can be disappointing, to say the least. Instead of having access to the TV show you wanted, you’re back in geoblocking land. Thankfully, there are a handful of services that are capable of getting around the Netflix VPN ban. We’ve put together a list of the best VPN providers for Netflix.

The 7 Best VPNs for Netflix (2020)

So, how did we choose the best Netflix VPNs? Simply put, we performed thousands of tests to find which VPN providers reliably unblock Netflix. In addition, we looked for the following criteria:

  • HD-capable Netflix streaming connection speeds
  • Good privacy and security features
  • Wide device compatibility
  • Good customer service
  • Fast, competent customer service
  • Good warranty coverage

Here’s a list of the 7 best Netflix VPNs. After that, we’ll also talk about VPNs to avoid, as well as how to set up a VPN for watching Netflix. We’ll also talk about how the Netflix VPN ban works, and how we tested our top VPN choices. Let’s take a closer look!

1. ExpressVPN

If you’re looking for the best Netflix VPN, bar none, ExpressVPN is at the top of the pack. It works in most countries, and unblocks the Netflix libraries for the US, UK, Japan, France, Canada, Australia, and Germany, among others. It also unblocks most other streaming services, so you’ve got a complete multi-functional VPN. It also comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can cancel your subscription if you don’t like it.

The most impressive feature we found in the course of our ExpressVPN review was a dedicated Netflix page. This allows you to easily select server locations to unblock Netflix in select areas. These servers do change from time to time, but their chat support is very friendly if you ever need a hand.

ExpressVPN will reliably unblock Netflix on every platform we tested, including iOS, Android, Windows, MacOS, Linux, Fire TV, and even some WiFi routers. With a single account, you can connect up to five devices simultaneously, so multiple people can stream throughout your house. You can even use ExpressVPN’s MediaStreamer smart DNS proxy to unblock your game console or Apple TV. Regardless of your device, you’ll enjoy gorgeous 1080p picture quality with virtually zero buffering.

We found speeds suitable for HD streaming without buffering.

Pros:

  • Unblocks most major streaming services
  • Blazing fast speeds
  • ​Excellent privacy and security
  • Does not log user traffic
  • Friendly customer service

Cons:

  • A bit pricey
  • Configuration options are fairly basic

ExpressVPN

If you’re looking for the best Netflix VPN, bar none, ExpressVPN is at the top of the pack.


2. NordVPN

NordVPN is a solid choice if you’re not concerned with accessing a ton of different countries. It will unblock Netflix libraries for the US, UK, Japan, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands, which is a fairly limited scope, but still a ton of content. On the upside, you get excellent privacy and security and a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Many NordVPN reviews focus on the limited content, but many forget to mention the security. They won’t log your IP address, and all connections are encrypted. In addition, you can also connect to BBC iPlayer and several other popular streaming services.

Pros:

  • Servers are optimized for Netflix
  • Supports up to 6 simultaneous connections
  • Does not log user traffic
  • All connections are encrypted
  • Cheap

Cons:

  • Somewhat limited content
  • Interface can be twitchy

NordVPN

NordVPN is a solid choice if you’re not concerned with accessing a ton of different countries.


3. Surfshark

Surfshark is an affordable, minimalist VPN service that unblocks Netflix in a limited number of countries. You can connect to servers in the US, Canada, France, or Japan. Not even the UK Netflix library is supported. That said, you get reliable service and a 30-day money-back guarantee.

You also get very fast connection speed regardless of your device, and you can connect on Windows, iOS, Android, and MacOS, so most devices will be able to connect. As an added bonus, you can take advantage of unlimited simultaneous connections and share your service with your friends and family.

Pros:

  • Very easy to use
  • Fast connection speeds
  • Secure connection

Cons:

Surfshark

Surfshark is an affordable, minimalist VPN service that unblocks Netflix in a limited number of countries.


4. CyberGhost

CyberGhost is a no-nonsense VPN that unblocks Netflix in just a few seconds. On each server, you’ll see a list of which services it will unblock. If you see Netflix, click on the word “Netflix”, wait for it to connect, and you’re good to go. It will even open Netflix for you! If the server doesn’t work, you can give it a thumbs-down to report it. Don’t forget to leave a thumbs-up to good, fast servers, though. They’ll be easier for other users to find.

In addition to a simple interface and high speeds, CyberGhost also offers responsive customer support and a 45-day money-back guarantee that beats the industry average. You can run CyberGhost on Windows, iOS, Anrdoid, or MacOS. The only major downside is that it will only connect to American Netflix servers.

Pros:

  • Active user community
  • Fast connection speeds
  • Does not log user traffic
  • Affordable pricing

Cons:

  • Only connects to the American Netflix library

CyberGhost

CyberGhost is a no-nonsense VPN that unblocks Netflix in just a few seconds.


5. PrivateVPN

PrivateVPN allows you to access the Netflix libraries of 20 different countries, more than any other VPN on our list. This is all the more impressive considering that PrivateVPN is a young company, and only has about a hundred servers. When you log in, the servers with the best streaming service are all clearly labeled, which makes them easy to find even if you don’t have any experience with VPN apps.

PrivateVPN performed very well on our speed tests. Even if you’re taking advantage of all six simultaneous connections, you can watch your favorite shows in full HD without buffering or loss of quality. All of this comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee in the event of any problems.

Pros:

  • Exceptionally fast connections
  • Unblocks Netflix in 20 countries
  • Does not log customer traffic
  • Supports up to six simultaneous connections

Cons:

  • Small server network
  • Chat support only available during business hours

PrivateVPN

PrivateVPN allows you to access the Netflix libraries of 20 different countries, more than any other VPN on our list.


6. IPVanish

IPVanish didn’t start out as a Netflix VPN. In fact, their main selling point is the number of simultaneous connections they support. Up to 10 users can connect at the same time, so this is a great choice for whole-house privacy as well as unblocking your favorite streaming services.

That said, IPVanish did recently add several services for US and UK Netflix traffic. Whether they expand this to other countries is up in the air. But if you just want to access these two Netflix libraries, IPVanish will keep you entertained as well as keeping your connection secure.

Pros:

  • Supports up to 10 simultaneous connections
  • Very fast connection speeds

Cons:

  • Only unblocks US and UK Netflix

IPVanish

If you just want to access the US and UK Netflix libraries, IPVanish will keep you entertained as well as keeping your connection secure.


7. Hotspot Shield

If you’ve shopped for VPNs in the past, you’re probably aware that Hotspot Shield is not technically a “new” VPN. In fact, they’ve been around since 2005. But they were acquired by tech firm Pango in 2018, and have since added support for unblocking multiple Netflix libraries. They also support multiple other streaming services, including Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and ITV Hub.

This upgraded offering could still use some work. For instance, if you need to contact customer support, prepare for long hold times. But the price is right, and the 45-day money-back guarantee means there’s zero risk in giving Hotspot Shield a shot.

Pros:

  • Unblocks multiple Netflix libraries
  • Supports up to five simultaneous connections
  • Encrypted connections
  • Affordable

Cons:

  • Lackluster customer support

Hotspot Shield

If you’ve shopped for VPNs in the past, you’re probably aware that Hotspot Shield is not technically a “new” VPN. In fact, they’ve been around since 2005.


Hit-or-Miss Netflix VPNs

Some VPNs will work with Netflix, but don’t make the cut for any number of reasons. Some don’t work consistently, or require you to frequently switch servers. Others don’t consistently offer enough download speed for Netflix streaming. Still others don’t offer an app to unblock Netflix on iPhone or Android devices, and even more have significant privacy issues.

So, which of these borderline services can be potentially useful? They didn’t make our top seven, but here’s a list:

  • AirVPN
  • Astrill
  • Avast SecureLine
  • Avira Phantom
  • BlackVPN
  • BulletVPN
  • CactusVPN
  • F-Secure Freedome
  • FrootVPN
  • Goose
  • Hide.me
  • Hide My Ass
  • Ironsocket
  • Keenow Unblocker
  • Le VPN
  • LiquidVPN
  • McAfee Safe Connect
  • Mullvad
  • Norton Wifi Privacy
  • Private Internet Access
  • Private Tunnel
  • ProXPN
  • ProtonVPN
  • PureVPN
  • SaferVPN
  • SlickVPN
  • Speedify
  • StrongVPN
  • Surfeasy
  • Torguard
  • VPN Area
  • VPN Tunnel
  • VPN Unlimited
  • VyprVPN
  • Windscribe
  • Zenmate
  • ibVPN


VPNs That Never Work With Netflix

A smaller number of VPNs should never be used for Netflix under any circumstances. Here’s a quick list of these VPNs, and why they should be avoided.

Blockless

Blockless was initially blocked when Netflix first introduced their VPN ban in 2016. At the time of this writing, they have not restored this capability.

Buffered

Buffered was originally able to evade Netflix’s ban. However, it has not been able to unblock Netflix on either the MacOS or Windows client since September of 2017. Last year, Buffered customer support stated that a fix was in the works, although there was no official release date or other information. For the time being, Buffered remains unable to stream Netflix traffic.

GetFlix

If any VPN service were going to unblock Netflix, you’d expect it to be GetFlix. After all, it’s in the name. Unfortunately, this cheap VPN service is no longer able to access Netflix. When GetFlix first launched, it was marketed specifically as a Netflix VPN. But for the time being, they remain unable to deliver your favorite Netflix shows.

HideIPVPN

HideIPVN used to be able to unblock Netflix. However, when Netflix banned VPNs in 2016, HideIPVN’s service was also banned. At the time of this writing, they have no plans to modify their service to support Netflix access.

Hola

Hola is a free VPN service, so it’s tempting to download. You don’t have to sign up for a one or two-year plan or hand over your credit card information. Unfortunately, Hola won’t unblock Netflix. Even worse, they have a record of using their users’ computers to distribute pornography, pirated movies, and even to hack websites. Stay away from Hola and use a more reliable VPN provider.

Opera VPN

Opera VPN is an easy-to-use proxy that’s built into the Opera browser. It offers excellent privacy and security, so it’s a great choice for professionals. Unfortunately, it won’t unblock Netflix streaming.

Overplay

When Netflix first banned VPNs, Overplay fought back admirably. Until the the fall of 2017, they intermittently supported Netflix. Unfortunately, they seem to have given up, and no longer advertise any support for Netflix streaming.

Tunnelbear

Tunnelbear does not unblock Netflix, nor does it claim to. This VPN service can help you get around geographic restrictions on various other services, such as YouTube. But for the time being, Tunnelbear is currently not capable of unblocking Netflix. They also don’t seem to have any plans to do so in the future.

Unblock-Us

Unblock-Us stopped supporting Netflix unblocking on July 5th, 2016. It can still intermittently work on certain devices, but the functionality is not worth your time or effort. Use another VPN service that offers reliable streaming.

Unlocator

Unlocator no longer works with Netflix, ever since July of 2016. Like Buffered, the company has claimed to be working on a fix. Also like Buffered, their VPN service does not unblock Netflix at the time of this writing. Until something changes, Unlocator is not an effective Netflix VPN provider.

Unotelly

Unotelly has not been able to evade Netflix geoblocking since the original ban in the first half of 2016. Like some other providers, they claim that they are working on a fix to unblock Netflix. But the streaming service has not worked via Unotelly since it was first banned.


How to Use a Netflix VPN to Change Your Country

Now that you’ve chosen your VPN, the next step is getting everything set up for streaming. Starting out with a Netflix VPN is surprisingly easy, and requires just four simple steps. Here’s how it’s done.

Sign up for Netflix

It might sound obvious, but you need to have a Netflix account in order to start streaming. You can create your account on virtually any device, in any country, and with any payment method. Most smart TVs come with the Netflix app pre-installed, which makes it easy to get started.

To create an account, first access the Netflix app or visit their website in your browser. Click the button that says “Join Free”, and you’ll have a few different options. The plans have different options and pricing, but all of them are free for the first month.

  • A Basic Netflix subscription is the most affordable options. However, it only allows you to stream in standard definition, which looks like pre-HD TV. It also limits you to streaming on a single screen at once. The Basic service is best if you’re watching on your smartphone, and if you’re only using Netflix by yourself.
  • A Standard Netflix subscription costs a few dollars more, but it allows you to stream on two screens at once. It also lets you stream in full HD, which is why it’s the most popular Netflix plan.
  • A Premium Netflix subscription is an ideal choice for large families, since it allows you to stream on up to four screens at once. In addition, it supports 4K streaming if your ISP connection can handle it.

Once you’ve chosen a plan, you’ll need to enter an email address, a password, and a payment method. You won’t be billed right now, but keep in mind that you will automatically be charged once your free month has ended. If you don’t want this to happen, you’ll need to cancel your account before the month is out. As long as you’re okay with this, complete the checkout process and log in with your browser or app.

Install Your VPN

Now that Netflix works, it’s time to install your VPN. Exactly how you do that will depend on which VPN you’re choosing and what device you’re using. Our top VPNs offer good mobile support as well as browser support. That said, it’s easiest to start out on a PC, Mac, or laptop, since changing location is typically simpler with this interface. Once you’ve confirmed that everything else is working smoothly, you can move over to your mobile device.

Once your VPN software is installed, launch the app and sign in. In most cases, the VPN will automatically connect to the fastest proxy server by default. This means you’ll probably end up on a server in your own country, since it’s geographically close. To browse the international Netflix library, simply choose a VPN server from the country you want to connect from. Exactly how you do this will depend on the VPN and device.

Once you’re done, you should be able to browse anything you want. You can watch U.S. Netflix from anywhere in the world, no matter where you want to watch American Netflix shows. Similarly, you can browse from any country to get access to that own country’s own unique Netflix library.

Verify Your VPN Connection

In most cases, that’s all you should need to do to to browse Netflix from anywhere in the world. However, just for security purposes, you might want to ensure that your VPN connection is working as expected. To do this, you’ll want to navigate to ipleak.net, or any other service that will run an IP address lookup on your connection.

When it returns the results, the service will tell you what country you’re in based on your IP address. If your VPN connection is secure, this will be the country the VPN proxy server is located in. If the results are showing your location instead, you’ve experienced an IP address leak, and could potentially be at risk. This shouldn’t be an issue with any of our top seven VPN providers, but it’s been an issue with some companies.

Enjoy the Show!

Now that everything is set up, all you have to do is enjoy your Netflix experience. Open your browser and browse their library for your favorite shows. If you don’t like what you see, you can simply use your VPN to switch to a different country.

Keep in mind that your new connection might also cause some shows to disappear from your catalog. For example, if you’re located in the US and connect to a proxy server in the UK, you’ll be able to watch Doctor Who, which is a UK exclusive. On the other hand, you won’t be able to watch The Queen, the series about Queen Elizabeth II which is ironically a US exclusive. To watch The Queen, you’d need to connect to a US proxy server instead.

Change Servers if Necessary

Assuming everything is working properly, this should be all you need to do. Now you’re ready to watch TV without any interruptions. That said, even on the most reliable VPN service, you might occasionally run into the dreaded “Whoops” message. This means that Netflix has detected that your IP address is on a VPN server. This can happen even on good services, for reasons we’ll talk about in a minute.

The good news is that a well-run VPN provider has multiple server nodes in each country. First, close your Netflix app. Next, open your VPN app and look at the list of servers in the country you want to connect to. Choose a different server, and wait for the connection to resolve. Next, reopen Netflix and see if your show plays. If needed, you can switch servers multiple times.

Some devices don’t offer native support for VPNs. These include most smart TVs and sticks like the Roku. There are solutions for this in the FAQ below. If you’d rather not mess with any of those options, the easiest route is simply to connect to Netflix from a PC, Mac, or laptop browser. This makes it easy to ensure your IP address does not get detected.


Netflix VPN FAQs

Why is Netflix content different in different countries?

The reason Netflix content is different between different countries has to do with copyright law. Because copyright law is different in Canada and Australia, for instance, streaming rights are handled differently in those territories. It just makes sense for streaming services to negotiate for rights in different areas separately.

Why does Netflix block most VPNs?

VPNs allow customers to bypass Netflix’ geographic restrictions on their content. If Netflix does not take measures to ensure that people can’t watch content from outside their territory, they could expose themselves to legal risk. They could be sued by content creators, or by other streaming services who are losing customers. They could even damage their relationships with producers and lose access to content altogether. For all of these reasons, it’s in Netflix’ interest to block VPN traffic.

Is it wrong to use a VPN to stream Netflix?

To begin with, let’s be clear: the TechEye team is made up of tech enthusiasts, not professional ethicists. We’re not your mom, and we’re not the police. That said, let’s look at what a VPN is. It’s a tool that’s designed primarily for privacy, not for watching TV shows. After all, VPNs have been around a lot longer than Netflix has.

Many people use VPNs every day, and we recommend that you do too. For one thing, they help you maintain some level of privacy from advertisers and other people who want to know your location. In addition, it protects you from many types of snooping, including from hackers on unsecured public WiFi networks. In certain countries with strict censorship laws, it can even be impossible to access most of the web without a VPN.

So, suppose you’re using a VPN, which you have every right to do, and which you should probably be doing anyway. Why should you not be allowed to connect to Netflix?

The VPN ban is a blunt tool, and it makes sense that Netflix did what they needed to do to keep their content creators happy. But it’s not wrong to use a VPN for Netflix streaming.

Which countries will these VPNs work in?

In theory, these VPN services will unblock the US Netflix library in any country. They will also work for most other countries’ libraries as well. The only exceptions are countries where VPNs are blocked by a national firewall, most notably China. In this case, you’ll need to choose a VPN that’s capable of connecting from one of those countries.

In the rest of the world, these VPNs will work just fine, provided you have fast enough internet access. They’ve been tested in several countries, and all of them will unblock US Netflix in the following countries:

  • Australia
  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • ​Denmark
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • ​Ireland
  • ​Israel
  • Italy
  • The Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • South Africa
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • UK

Our top seven VPN providers should work in most other countries as well. These are just the ones where we know for sure that they’ve been tested.

Will every VPN unblock Netflix in every country?

The best VPN services will unblock Netflix in most countries. We’ve focused specifically on VPNs that reliably unblock the US Netflix library, since that’s the largest library and the one with the most exclusive offerings. That said, most of these VPNs will work for most other countries as well.

Does unblocking the Netflix app work the same as unblocking Netflix in a web browser?

No. When you access Netflix from a web browser like Chrome or Firefox, your computer’s WiFi or Ethernet card handles all of the traffic. If you’re connected to the VPN, everything will go to the VPN. In their Android and iOS devices, Netflix has installed software that attempts to override the device’s DNS settings.

This means that instead of connecting to the VPN, the app will create its own separate connection through the nearest public DNS server. In other words, even if you have a working VPN connection, Netflix will still know where you are. All seven of our best VPN choices will prevent this from happening, but you might have issues with other VPN providers.

I like to watch Netflix on my console or smart TV, and they don’t support a VPN. How do I unblock those devices?

If you want to watch another country’s Netflix library on a Smart TV, Roku, or game console, you won’t be able to install a VPN app on your device. Seems like you’re out of luck, right? Depending on your router, you might not be. Many routers allow you to flash the firmware to install special router-based VPNs like DD-WRT or TomatoUSB.

Of course, it’s understandable if you’re uncomfortable installing a VPN on your WiFi router. In that case, you can always buy a pre-configured VPN router from ExpressVPN or another reputable manufacturer. Alternatively, you can use a laptop as a virtual router and enable your VPN on that. This works on Mac or Windows, and only takes a few minutes to set up.

That said, configuring a virtual router can be a pain. An easier alternative is simply to cast your Netflix shows from Chromecast, Apple TV, or another screen casting app. Simply run the VPN app on the device you’re casting from, and you’re ready to go.

Will a smart DNS proxy unblock Netflix?

A smart DNS proxy performs a similar function to a VPN, but it works a little bit differently. Instead of redirecting all your traffic through a proxy server, a smart DNS proxy instead looks for specific requests, and sends only those requests through the proxy. So, for example, you could watch a movie on the UK Netflix servers via a proxy server and simultaneously Google the leading actress via an ordinary DNS server.

In the weeks and months following Netflix’ original DNS ban, smart DNS proxies like Unblock-US, Unlocator, Overplay, and Unotelly became hugely popular. They were an easy VPN alternative, and many Netflix customers switched over during this time period. This only lasted for a few months until Netflix caught on to it, and they ultimately banned most smart DNS proxy servers.

It’s important to note that there are still a few smart DNS proxies that will unblock Netflix traffic. However, the only one that works 24/7 is MediaStreamer, a service offered by ExpressVPN. It comes free with your ExpressVPN subscription, and is actually the default ExpressVPN connection type. Other than that, steer clear of smart DNS proxies for Netflix streaming.

Is it legal to use a VPN for Netflix?

Yes. There is currently no law against accessing Netflix via a VPN connection. That said, it is most certainly against Netflix’ Terms of Service to use a VPN to access another country’s Netflix library. Specifically, the Terms of Service state:

“You may view Netflix content primarily within the country in which you have established your account and only in geographic locations where we offer our service and have licensed such content. The content that may be available to watch will vary by geographic location and will change from time to time.”

From the start of the ban to the time of this writing, Netflix has consistently blocked most VPN servers from their service. However, in all that time, we have not seen a single story of a Netflix customer being banned or otherwise penalized for using a VPN. The worst thing that will happen is that you’ll get the “Whoops” error and need to switch servers.


How the Netflix VPN Ban Works

So, how does Netflix ban VPNs to begin with? To begin with, they banned known VPN server IP addresses. However, there are simple workarounds to this type of banning, and it was easily circumvented by NordVPN, VyprVPN, ExpressVPN, LiquidVPN, Buffered, and others. By changing IP addresses on a regular basis, these services were able to ensure that Netflix couldn’t simply keep a library of known VPN IP addresses. And if Netflix does block a particular server, the block will only be effective until the server generates a new IP.

Since then, Netflix has needed to get smarter. One of the ways they’ve done this is to focus on connections coming from data centers instead of residences. This has helped to squeeze out larger players, since it’s difficult to run a larger VPN service without a large data center. On the flip side, Netflix has also targeted connections that don’t use public DNS servers, and by frequently changing their geolocation URLs. This has forced smaller services to invest in larger-scale resources for geolocation, pushing many of them out of the market.

Given all this activity, how has Netflix not managed to block all VPN traffic by now? In a recent interview, Buffer CEO Jordan Fried speculated that Netflix is intentionally allowing some VPNs to keep working.

His reasoning is that if Netflix wanted to, they could easily block all traffic from VPNs. All they would have to do is tie their customers’ viewing library to their billing address. That way, it wouldn’t matter where users were connecting from. But licensing is based on where content is actually viewed, not where it’s being paid for. In other words, if Netflix were ever sued by a producer or rival service, they could simply argue that they were doing the best they can.

In fact, it’s not just Netflix that’s handling VPNs in this fashion. HBO Now, Hulu/Disney+, BBC iPlayer, and other streaming services are all implementing similar VPN bans. These bans all work slightly differently, so a VPN provider that works on one service may not work on another. Still, most of them should work with most of the VPNs on our list.

They will all work with ExpressVPN, which is another reason it’s our top pick for best Netflix VPN.

ExpressVPN

If you’re looking for the best Netflix VPN, bar none, ExpressVPN is at the top of the pack.




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UK signs US border deal to share police biometric database • The Register

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The UK has signed up to a US plan for sharing police-held biometric data about citizens with US border officials.

According to a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), the body met “informally” with representatives of the US Department of Homeland Security this week to discuss the plans.

They come under the auspices of the Enhanced Border Security Partnership (EBSP), which is designed to increase the US Department Of Homeland Security’s ability to detect threats through biometric information sharing. Israel signed up to the arrangement in March.

LIBE committee member and Pirate Party MEP Patrick Breyer said that during the meeting last week, the committee discovered that the UK – and three EU member states, though their identities were not revealed – had already signed up to reintroduce US visa requirements which grant access to police biometric databases.

In the UK, the Home Office declined the opportunity to deny it was signing up for the scheme. A spokesperson said: “The UK has a long-standing and close partnership with the USA which includes sharing data for specific purposes. We are in regular discussion with them on new proposals or initiatives to improve public safety and enable legitimate travel.”

Under UK law the police can retain an individual’s DNA profile and fingerprint record for up to three years from the date the samples were taken, even if the individual was arrested but not charged, provided the Biometrics Commissioner agrees. Police can also apply for a two-year extension. The same applies to those charged, but not convicted.

According to reports, the US Enhanced Border Security Partnership (EBSP) initiative will be voluntary initially but is set to become mandatory under the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows visa-free entry into the United States for up to 90 days, by 2027.

MEP Breyer said that when asked exactly what data the US wanted to tap into, the answer was as much as possible. When asked what would happen at US borders if a traveler was known to the police in participating states, it was said that this would be decided by the US immigration officer on a case-by-case basis.

The DHS program is part of a project to update the visa waiver scheme under which EU members and other European countries enjoy visa-free travel to the US under certain conditions.

Breyer noted: “I expect the EU Commission and also the German government to reject the demand of the US authorities and not allow themselves to be blackmailed.

“If necessary, the visa waiver program must be terminated by Europe as well. Millions of innocent Europeans are listed in police databases and could be exposed to completely disproportionate reactions in the USA.

“The US lacks adequate data and fundamental rights protection. Providing personal data to the US exposes our citizens… to the risk of arbitrary detention and false suspicion, with possible dire consequences, in the course of the US ‘war on terror’. We must protect our citizens from these practices,” Breyer said.

The Register has asked DHS for comment. ®

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Google to auto-delete the location history of abortion clinic visits

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Google’s decision follows concerns that law enforcement could use personal data from certain apps against people who have sought abortions illegally.

Tech giant Google has said it will soon auto-delete the data of users’ visits to abortion clinics and other medical sites from their location history.

This followed the US Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion in the country.

Other medical facilities that Google mentioned in its planned location changes include counselling centres, domestic violence shelters, fertility centres, addiction treatment facilities, weight loss clinics and cosmetic surgery clinics.

The tech giant also said location history is off by default and that there are tools such as auto-delete so users can easily get rid of parts or all of their location data.

Google said the location data changes will take effect “in the coming weeks”. The tech giant also shared planned data changes around its fitness apps to protect the privacy of users.

“Fitbit users who have chosen to track their menstrual cycles in the app can currently delete menstruation logs one at a time, and we will be rolling out updates that let users delete multiple logs at once,” said Google senior VP of core systems and experiences Jen Fitzpatrick in a blog post.

Fitzpatrick said the tech giant considers the “privacy and security expectations” of people using its products and that it notifies users when it complies with legal demands for information.

“We remain committed to protecting our users against improper government demands for data, and we will continue to oppose demands that are overly broad or otherwise legally objectionable,” Fitzpatrick said.

Following the decision to overturn Roe v Wade, there have been concerns that law enforcement could use personal data from certain apps against people who have sought abortions illegally.

One type of app where this has been a concern has been period tracking apps. The Stardust app saw a recent surge in popularity in after it claimed to implement end-to-end encryption.

However, the app’s privacy-focused claims appear to be at odds with its practices, while its encryption claims were recently removed from its privacy policy.

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Is your smartphone ruining your memory? A special report on the rise of ‘digital amnesia’ | Memory

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Last week, I missed a real-life meeting because I hadn’t set a reminder on my smartphone, leaving someone I’d never met before alone in a café. But on the same day, I remembered the name of the actor who played Will Smith’s aunt in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1991 (Janet Hubert). Memory is weird, unpredictable and, neuroscientifically, not yet entirely understood. When memory lapses like mine happen (which they do, a lot), it feels both easy and logical to blame the technology we’ve so recently adopted. Does having more memory in our pockets mean there’s less in our heads? Am I losing my ability to remember things – from appointments to what I was about to do next – because I expect my phone to do it for me? Before smartphones, our heads would have held a cache of phone numbers and our memories would contain a cognitive map, built up over time, which would allow us to navigate – for smartphone users, that is no longer true.

Our brains and our smartphones form a complex web of interactions: the smartphonification of life has been rising since the mid 2000s, but was accelerated by the pandemic, as was internet use in general. Prolonged periods of stress, isolation and exhaustion – common themes since March 2020 – are well known for their impact on memory. Of those surveyed by memory researcher Catherine Loveday in 2021, 80% felt that their memories were worse than before the pandemic. We are – still – shattered, not just by Covid-19, but also by the miserable national and global news cycle. Many of us self-soothe with distractions like social media. Meanwhile, endless scrolling can, at times, create its own distress, and phone notifications and self interrupting to check for them, also seem to affect what, how and if we remember.

So what happens when we outsource part of our memory to an external device? Does it enable us to squeeze more and more out of life, because we aren’t as reliant on our fallible brains to cue things up for us? Are we so reliant on smartphones that they will ultimately change how our memories work (sometimes called digital amnesia)? Or do we just occasionally miss stuff when we don’t remember the reminders?

Neuroscientists are divided. Chris Bird is professor of cognitive neuroscience in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex and runs research by the Episodic Memory Group. “We have always offloaded things into external devices, like writing down notes, and that’s enabled us to have more complex lives,” he says. “I don’t have a problem with using external devices to augment our thought processes or memory processes. We’re doing it more, but that frees up time to concentrate, focus on and remember other things.” He thinks that the kind of things we use our phones to remember are, for most human brains, difficult to remember. “I take a photo of my parking ticket so I know when it runs out, because it’s an arbitrary thing to remember. Our brains aren’t evolved to remember highly specific, one-off things. Before we had devices, you would have to make a quite an effort to remember the time you needed to be back at your car.”

Professor Oliver Hardt, who studies the neurobiology of memory and forgetting at McGill University in Montreal, is much more cautious. “Once you stop using your memory it will get worse, which makes you use your devices even more,” he says. “We use them for everything. If you go to a website for a recipe, you press a button and it sends the ingredient list to your smartphone. It’s very convenient, but convenience has a price. It’s good for you to do certain things in your head.”

Hardt is not keen on our reliance on GPS. “We can predict that prolonged use of GPS likely will reduce grey matter density in the hippocampus. Reduced grey matter density in this brain area goes along with a variety of symptoms, such as increased risk for depression and other psychopathologies, but also certain forms of dementia. GPS-based navigational systems don’t require you to form a complex geographic map. Instead, they just tell you orientations, like ‘Turn left at next light.’ These are very simple behavioural responses (here: turn left) at a certain stimulus (here: traffic light). These kinds of spatial behaviours do not engage the hippocampus very much, unlike those spatial strategies that require the knowledge of a geographic map, in which you can locate any point, coming from any direction and which requires [cognitively] complex computations. When exploring the spatial capacities of people who have been using GPS for a very long time, they show impairments in spatial memory abilities that require the hippocampus. Map reading is hard and that’s why we give it away to devices so easily. But hard things are good for you, because they engage cognitive processes and brain structures that have other effects on your general cognitive functioning.”

Hardt doesn’t have data yet, but believes, “the cost of this might be an enormous increase in dementia. The less you use that mind of yours, the less you use the systems that are responsible for complicated things like episodic memories, or cognitive flexibility, the more likely it is to develop dementia. There are studies showing that, for example, it is really hard to get dementia when you are a university professor, and the reason is not that these people are smarter – it’s that until old age, they are habitually engaged in tasks that are very mentally demanding.” (Other scientists disagree – Daniel Schacter, a Harvard psychologist who wrote the seminal Seven Sins Of Memory: How The Mind Forgets and Remembers, thinks effects from things like GPS are “task specific”, only.)

While smartphones can obviously open up whole new vistas of knowledge, they can also drag us away from the present moment, like it’s a beautiful day, unexperienced because you’re head down, WhatsApping a meal or a conversation. When we’re not attending to an experience, we are less likely to recall it properly, and fewer recalled experiences could even limit our capacity to have new ideas and being creative. As the renowned neuroscientist and memory researcher Wendy Suzuki recently put it on the Huberman Lab neuroscience podcast, “If we can’t remember what we’ve done, the information we’ve learned and the events of our lives, it changes us… [The part of the brain which remembers] really defines our personal histories. It defines who we are.”

Catherine Price, science writer and author of How to Break Up With Your Phone, concurs. “What we pay attention to in the moment adds up to our life,” she says. “Our brains cannot multitask. We think we can. But any moment where multitasking seems successful, it’s because one of those tasks was not cognitively demanding, like you can fold laundry and listen to the radio. If you’re paying attention to your phone, you’re not paying attention to anything else. That might seem like a throwaway observation, but it’s actually deeply profound. Because you will only remember the things you pay attention to. If you’re not paying attention, you’re literally not going to have a memory of it to remember.”

The Cambridge neuroscientist Barbara Sahakian has evidence of this, too. “In an experiment in 2010, three different groups had to complete a reading task,” she says. “One group got instant messaging before it started, one got instant messaging during the task, and one got no instant messaging, and then there was a comprehension test. What they found was that the people getting instant messages couldn’t remember what they just read.”

Price is much more worried about what being perpetually distracted by our phones – termed “continual partial attention” by the tech expert Linda Stone – does to our memories than using their simpler functions. “I’m not getting distracted by my address book,” she says. And she doesn’t believe smartphones free us up to do more. “Let’s be real with ourselves: how many of us are using the time afforded us by our banking app to write poetry? We just passively consume crap on Instagram.” Price is from Philadelphia. “What would have happened if Benjamin Franklin had had Twitter? Would he have been on Twitter all the time? Would he have made his inventions and breakthroughs?

“I became really interested in whether the constant distractions caused by our devices might be impacting our ability to actually not just accumulate memories to begin with, but transfer them into long-term storage in a way that might impede our ability to think deep and interesting thoughts,” she says. “One of the things that impedes our brain’s ability to transfer memories from short- to long-term storage is distraction. If you get distracted in the middle of it” – by a notification, or by the overwhelming urge to pick up your phone – “you’re not actually going to have the physical changes take place that are required to store that memory.”

It’s impossible to know for sure, because no one measured our level of intellectual creativity before smartphones took off, but Price thinks smartphone over-use could be harming our ability to be insightful. “An insight is being able to connect two disparate things in your mind. But in order to have an insight and be creative, you have to have a lot of raw material in your brain, like you couldn’t cook a recipe if you didn’t have any ingredients: you can’t have an insight if you don’t have the material in your brain, which really is long term memories.” (Her theory was backed by the 92-year-old Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist and biochemist Eric Kandel, who has studied how distraction affects memory – Price bumped into him on a train and grilled him about her idea. “I’ve got a selfie of me with a giant grin and Eric looking a bit confused.”) Psychologist professor Larry Rosen, co-author (with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley) of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, also agrees: “Constant distractions make it difficult to encode information in memory.”

Smartphones are, of course, made to hijack our attention. “The apps that make money by taking our attention are designed to interrupt us,” says Price. “I think of notifications as interruptions because that’s what they’re doing.”

For Oliver Hardt, phones exploit our biology. “A human is a very vulnerable animal and the only reason we are not extinct is that we have a superior brain: to avoid predation and find food, we have had to be really good at being attentive to our environment. Our attention can shift rapidly around and when it does, everything else that was being attended to stops, which is why we can’t multitask. When we focus on something, it’s a survival mechanism: you’re in the savannah or the jungle and you hear a branch cracking, you give your total attention to that – which is useful, it causes a short stress reaction, a slight arousal, and activates the sympathetic nervous system. It optimises your cognitive abilities and sets the body up for fighting or flighting.” But it’s much less useful now. “Now, 30,000 years later, we’re here with that exact brain” and every phone notification we hear is a twig snapping in the forest, “simulating what was important to what we were: a frightened little animal.”

Smartphone use can even change the brain, according to the ongoing ABCD study which is tracking over 10,000 American children through to adulthood. “It started by examining 10-year-olds both with paper and pencil measures and an MRI, and one of their most interesting early results was that there was a relationship between tech use and cortical thinning,” says Larry Rosen, who studies social media, technology and the brain. “Young children who use more tech had a thinner cortex, which is supposed to happen at an older age.” Cortical thinning is a normal part of growing up and then ageing, and in much later life can be associated with degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as migraines.

Obviously, the smartphone genie is out of the bottle and has run over the hills and far away. We need our smartphones to access offices, attend events, pay for travel and to function as tickets, passes and credit cards, as well as for emails, calls and messages. It’s very hard not to have one. If we’re worried about what they – or the apps on them – might be doing to our memories, what should we do?

Rosen discusses a number of tactics in his book. “My favourites are tech breaks,” he says, “where you start by doing whatever on your devices for one minute and then set an alarm for 15 minutes time. Silence your phone and place it upside down, but within your view as a stimulus to tell your brain that you will have another one-minute tech break after the 15-minute alarm. Continue until you adapt to 15 minutes focus time and then increase to 20. If you can get to 60 minutes of focus time with short tech breaks before and after, that’s a success.”

“If you think your memory and focus have got worse and you’re blaming things like your age, your job, or your kids, that might be true, but it’s also very likely due to the way you’re interacting with your devices,” says Price, who founded Screen/Life Balance to help people manage their phone use. As a science writer, she’s “very much into randomly controlled trials, but with phones, it’s actually more of a qualitative question about personally how it’s impacting you. And it’s really easy to do your own experiment and see if it makes a difference. It’s great to have scientific evidence. But we can also intuitively know: if you practice keeping your phone away more and you notice that you feel calmer and you’re remembering more, then you’ve answered your own question.”

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