Surfshark VPN Review: In the Jaws of Privacy

Surfshark offers excellent privacy features but suffers from a troubling lack of organizational transparency

Is Surfshark VPN Right for You?

Any Surfshark VPN review should begin with a warning: VPNs do not fully protect users against surveillance, intrusions of privacy, or personal identification. At best, they are designed to help protect against certain kinds of threats from your ISP, such as snooping, download throttling, and Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks. They do not protect users from state-sanctioned surveillance.

That said, before selecting a VPN provider, consider whether a VPN is right for you. While a VPN can improve security by encrypting traffic and hiding your IP address, it doesn’t provide complete anonymity.

Users who are simply looking to improve their security can benefit from a VPN. However, other users will need more protections in addition to a VPN. This includes users who are under threat from their governments (such as dissidents in authoritarian countries) who should consider tools like Tor, full disk encryption, and Signal, as well as multiple VPNs.

Users who are concerned that a friend or family member is surveilling their internet use won’t benefit from encrypting their web traffic. Those concerned about a threat near and dear to them should consider assessing the security of their home network and computing devices, using secure passwords, and keeping private conversations on a burner phone. You should also always use a proxy search engine, instead of the default search engine that comes with your browser.

Users who want to prevent their ISP from snooping on their internet usage, though, should consider a VPN. The best method for this purpose is to combine more than one privacy technology. For example, if users aim to stream media without regional restrictions, then a combination of a VPN and a proxy should be sufficient to avoid ISP detection. Torrent users and those wanting to download files should take extra precautions.

Who Runs Surfshark VPN?

Before subscribing to a VPN, you should always know a little about the people behind it. After all, while third parties can’t see what you’re doing, the VPN company can.

In the case of Surfshark, they are owned by Surfshark Ltd., a company based out of the British Virgin Islands. However, the company does not disclose the exact location of its offices, which is unhelpful to customers. Additionally, the company also does not disclose the identity of its founders.

Other VPN providers such as ExpressVPN are also based out of the British Virgin Islands, which is a self-governing group of islands under the British monarchy. The islands have their own legislature, which means companies based there are not necessarily subject to British law.

Surfshark offers a paid-only service, which you can purchase as a one-month plan, a 12-month plan or a 24-month plan. As is standard with paid VPNs, the monthly fee is lower if you sign up for a longer plan. There is a seven-day free trial available on Google Play and the Apple App Store, so you can test it before committing to a long-term plan.

In its Terms of Service (ToS), Surfshark prohibits the use of its service for any illegal activity, which includes copyright violations. So if you use the service for downloading or sharing copyrighted material, you would be breaking the ToS. In addition, the company states that using its service for harassment and abuse or to send spam or transmit viruses is also against the ToS.

The Fair Usage Policy states that “an automated infrastructure maintenance system” is used to detect suspicious activity like high numbers of simultaneous connections which could indicate a user is acting as a VPN reseller or is setting up a botnet. In these cases, the company may limit the number of connections a user can make. The good news is that there are no mention of bandwidth limitations or traffic limits.

Features

Kill Switch

One of the most important security features a VPN can have is a kill switch. This feature, when enabled, automatically cuts off your internet connection if the VPN goes down for some reason. Kill switches prove their worth time and time again. For example, if you are in the middle of a file transfer and the VPN connection is interrupted, your IP address will be exposed. This is particularly a problem for torrent users or people who want to maintain strict privacy such as journalists.

A kill switch prevents this from happening by cutting off the internet and not sending any data until the VPN connection is reestablished. Surfshark does offer a kill switch which is available in the Windows, macOS, and iOS apps. You can enable the kill switch in the settings, and when it is enabled you’ll see a notification on the app’s home screen. You can click the notification to go to the settings and turn the kill switch off again.

SOCKS Proxy

Another feature you may want in a VPN is SOCKS proxy server support. This protocol directs your traffic thought a proxy server which hides your true origin location. However, it doesn’t encrypt your traffic the way a VPN does. The most up to date version of SOCKS is SOCKS5.

Surfshark offers an open-source implementation of SOCKS5 called Shadowsocks in its Windows application. The proxy is particularly popular in China for circumventing censorship. The company advises Shadowsocks is to be used as a “last resort” when a VPN connection using a protocol like OpenVPN is not possible (IPSec vs. OpenVPN). Shadowsocks won’t hide all of your online activities, but it can be used to access blocked content from a restricted country like China or a restricted location like a school network.

Maximum Number of Devices

There are no limits on how many devices can be connected simultaneously to Surfshark. This means you can use the VPN on all your devices at the same time, and that you could share your VPN with a partner or family member. This overall lowers the cost of ownership.

Bypassing Geo-Blocking

Unusual for a VPN, Surfshark bypassed region-blocking on our first try with Netflix. In our testing we were able to access region-specific content from Netflix US (such as the “Rocky” movies) and Netflix Japan (such as the “John Wick” movies) using the VPN. This content was not available on Netflix in the country of testing, Germany.

It’s extremely simple unblocking Netflix. First, we connected to a server located in the country where we wanted to watch content from (US or Japan, in this case) and refreshed the Netflix site. We were then able to browse and watch content which would otherwise have been blocked from our location. The testing was performed using the Mozilla Firefox browser and the Surfshark Windows app on a Windows 10 PC.

The company offers a list of supported countries for Netflix. In addition, Surfshark also advertises its Hulu compatibility, but we did not have an account to verify this.

Supported Devices and Operating Systems

This is an image of Surfshark VPN's primary user interface

Surfshark supports a good range of devices. As you’d expect, it has apps for Windows, macOS, and Linux, plus mobile apps for iOS and Android devices. In addition, it has browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox. In terms of other devices, it has apps for Xbox and PlayStation, plus support for Fire TV, Apple TV, and can be set up on some other smart TVs using smart DNS.

Browser Extension

This is a screenshot of Surfshark's Firefox extension

The extension was easy to install on Firefox and performs basic proxy functions you would expect. After logging in, you can use the icon in the browser status bar to connect and disconnect from the VPN. It’s also possible to change a proxy server in a particular country. This is a departure from competing SOCKS5 proxies which do not support region switching.

Otherwise, there are no extra features of the browser extension. Overall, it works fine to hide your IP address and allows you to bypass regional restrictions.

Supported Encryption Protocols

The service does support the most common security protocol, OpenVPN, and there are helpful instructions on using OpenVPN on Windows, macOS, Linux, and iOS.

However, it does not support L2TP or PPTP protocols. The company’s official response is that no company should use these protocols because they are outdated and have security flaws. So, in short, if your device doesn’t support OpenVPN then you’re out of luck.

There is support for IKEv2 IPsec. But it’s worth noting that the company makes no promises about what speeds are possible using these protocols.

Open Source Software and OpenVPN Client Support

Between the support for OpenVPN and the use of Shadowsocks, Surfshark does use some open source software. If you want to use an OpenVPN client on your Android device, that’s possible.

Router Compatibility

In addition, Surfshark can be directly configured and used on a router. The VPN company provides instructions for setting it up on DD-WRT, Tomato, Netgear, TP-Link, and Linksys routers. As unlimited simultaneous connections are allowed, using the service on your router does not impact the total number of devices you can have behind the VPN.

However, if you use a VPN on your router you should be aware that you may be at risk for connection fingerprinting, where you are tracked through your connection point. We have no way of testing whether device fingerprinting occurs.

Compatibility With Tor

In our testing, we were able to access Tor using Surfshark. The Tor browser had no problems working with Surfshark connected. This way, you can browse with both a VPN and a proxy for the best level of anonymity.

Security and Privacy

Using IPleak.net we tested the VPN service for leaks. We found that our IP address was successfully masked and there were no DNS leaks or WebRTC leaks. Both DNS and WebRTC leaks can reveal a VPN user’s identity, so these are particularly dangerous security holes.

This is a screen capture of an IPleak.net analysis of Surfshark VPN's resistance to WebRTC and DNS leaks.

There was no IPv4 leak either, but we were unable to test for IPv6 leaks as IPv6 is not available from the Internet Service Provider in the testing location. If you use IPv6 and are concerned about leaks, we recommend you try the free trial of the service and test it for yourself.

Speed Tests

To test the speed of the VPN, we connected to Surfshark using the Fastest Server option (located in the Surfshark client). This connected to a server nearby to our physical location. We tested speeds both without and without the VPN a number of times to get a range of values.

When connected to the VPN, we were able to stream video from YouTube at 720p and 1080p at with no problems. The quality of the playback was good in both cases, with no fuzziness or dropped frames.

To test the VPN’s upload and download speeds, we used the fast.com testing suite which gauges connections to Open Connect and Netflix servers. The testing was completed using a wired Ethernet connection to a DSL broadband. The testing occurred in a densely populated city on a Saturday afternoon, which is outside of peak traffic hours.

This image depicts a maximum download speed of 48Mbps during a review of Surfshark VPN

Without the VPN, the internet speed available was 48 Mbps. This figure was consistent after disconnecting from the VPN as well. The latency was 9ms unloaded and between 54 and 58ms loaded. The upload speed varied between 6.3 and 9.8Mbps.

This screenshot depicts a download speed of around 46Mbps after applying Surfshark VPN

With the VPN connected to the fastest server, the internet speed dropped very slightly to 46Mbps. This is a small enough drop to not be noticeable in regular internet use. The upload speed was between 8.8 and 8.9Mbps, which is roughly consistent with the results without the VPN.

The biggest hit in terms of speed using the VPN was latency. With the VPN enabled, the latency rose to between 111ms unloaded and 230ms loaded. An increase in latency is to be expected when using a VPN, however, it means that those who want to play fast-paced games like first-person shooters may have some issues when using this VPN.

Customer Service

Surfshark offers live chat and email support options. There is no phone number available to speak with customer service, which could be an issue if you would rather speak to a real person straight away.

This is a screenshot of an interaction between myself and a Surfshark customer service agent

That said, we contacted Surfshark via the live chat at 2pm GMT+2 on a Saturday and received a response straight away. The customer support agent was helpful and knowledgeable, answering our questions about routers and firmware and recommending an affordable router that was OpenVPN compatible. Overall it was a very positive customer service experience.

This image shows an email support interaction with a customer support agent at Surfshark VPN

In terms of email support, around the same time we contacted customer service via the provided support email address about an issue accessing Netflix. Although the response was not so instant, we did receive an email within four hours with a request for further troubleshooting information and a suggestion of a known good server to try.

Should You Buy Surfshark VPN?

A final very important aspect of a VPN to consider is its logging policy. Surfshark’s privacy policy lays out what the company does and does not log.

Surfshark keeps records of users’ email addresses and encrypted passwords, and basic billing information and order history. This is standard for a paid VPN. It also keeps diagnostic information which includes “aggregated performance data, the frequency of use of our Services, unsuccessful connection attempts and other similar information” but which does not include and identifiable information. It would be helpful if the company were more transparent about what exactly this data includes.

The company states that it does not log “IP addresses, browsing history, session information, used bandwidth, connection time stamps, network traffic and other similar data.”

Helpfully, Surfshark does offer a plain-language version of its logging policy, and both its privacy policy and its terms of service are written in a comprehensible way.

As it is based in the British Virgin Islands, Surfshark falls outside of the 14-Eyes spying agencies and cannot be compelled by state actors to keep logs. It also has a Warrant Canary page on which it states it has not received warrants or gag orders. If the company ever does receive such a warrant, it would have to remove the Warrant Canary page.

Overall, Surfshark offers solid privacy protection and the majority of the features that you could want. Speeds are good, but latency is an issue. It’s not the cheapest VPN around but it’s a good choice for users who care enough about their privacy to spend a little extra.

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