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Most search engines, including Google (in fact particularly Google), store information about you and your search habits, including:
- Your IP address
- Date and time of query
- Query search terms
- Cookie ID – this cookie is deposited in your browser’s cookie folder, and uniquely identifies your computer. With it, a search engine provider can trace a search request back to your computer.
This information is usually transmitted to the requested web page, and to the owners of any third party advertising banners displayed on that page. As you surf around the internet, advertisers build up a (potentially embarrassing or highly inaccurate) profile of you, which is then used to target adverts tailored to your theoretical needs. Not just that, but governments and courts around the world regularly request search data from Google and other major search engines, which is usually duly handed over. Using technology first seen in its browser add-on, Disconnect will route all searches made using the app through its own servers, so your ‘real’ IP address is hidden from the search engine.
As you can see, searching using Disconnect comes with a number of handy extra features:
- Choice of search engines – Google is the default, but you also easily search using Bing, Yahoo!, DuckDuckGo, or Blekko
- Easy regional selection
- Advanced search tools – you can specify how recently an article was posted online, and search ‘verbatim’ (matching exact search terms)
- No ads
Both the desktop and mobile apps will visualize how a website tracks you.
Disconnect Premium extras
In addition to a VPN service, Disconnect Premium customers will automatically get the Disconnect anti-tracking browser extension that made Disconnect famous, and the Disconnect Privacy Icons extension installed in their browsers.
Disconnect (for Firefox and Chrome) is our favorite anti-tracking and anti-cookie extension thanks to its up-to-date database of tracking cookies, page load optimization, secure WiFi encryption, and analytics tools, which allows Disconnect to block third-party tracking cookies, and gives you control of a website’s elements. It also prevents social networks such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter from following you so they can collect data as you surf elsewhere on the internet.
The Disconnect Search extension performs essentially the same job as Anonymous Search discussed above, except that it allows you to search from within your browser.
It is important to note that while both of these are great browser extensions (and Disconnect always makes our lists of recommended browser extensions), they are also available for free from the Firefox Add-ons page and the Chrome web store.
Looking for more information on using a VPN with your browser? Disconnect Premium also blocks known or suspected malware sites, which are a growing menace to internet security. According to the Online Trust Alliance (OTA), malvertising increased by over 200 percent in 2013 to over 209,000 incidents, generating over 12.4 billion malicious ad impressions – most from simply visiting infected webpages with no need to click a link or otherwise interact with the website required (known as drive-by downloading). The problem has become so bad, in fact, that Sen. John McCain once held a congressional hearing on the issue, through which he pushed for greater legislation against malicious advertising companies. We have not fully tested how effective Disconnect’s malware screening actually is, but kudos to it for being the only privacy company we are aware of to openly recognize the problem and offer a solution to it.
With Disconnect, you're not going to get thousands of servers in a hundred locations like other, more traditional VPN providers offer, so users shouldn't expect a ton of selection. That said, the seven server locations offered by Disconnect are well spread out around the world, considering. Disconnect's VPN servers are located in London, Frankfurt, Singapore, Toronto, Silicon Valley, Atlanta, and New York City.
Speed and Performance
We tested Disconnect's speed performance using a 250Mbps down/20Mbps up connection using Speedtest.net and got decent speeds from our location in Europe to Disconnect's NY Metropolitan area server location. Though our download speeds did drop to 84.27Mbps, our upload speeds were more or less unchanged at 19.98Mbps when connecting to the NY server location. That said, 84.27Mbps is plenty fast enough for virtually any online activity you may want to engage in, be it streaming, downloading, videoconferencing, or simply browsing the web.
We did, however, encounter reliability issues, with the connection failing multiple times during the test period, and at times failing to load the speed testing page and other webpages altogether.
Does Disconnect unblock Netflix?
While Disconnect's customer support agents tell us that the service doesn't actively block access to Netflix and other online streaming services, in our tests, we had trouble loading the Netflix website and unblocking the content when we connected to their USA VPN servers. Our contact at the company advised us to disconnect then reconnect to our preferred server location to test if a different IP at that same location worked to unblock the content. Sadly, none of our attempts were successful.
It doesn't appear as though Disconnect allocates many resources towards working on unblocking streaming content. To be fair, though, the company's main focus is decidedly on providing consumers with an online privacy tool (which happens to be quite excellent) rather than focusing on unblocking streaming content. With only seven total server locations, we didn't expect the service to provide unblocking capabilities as a core utility anyway. You're obviously free to give it a shot yourself, but if your primary aim is to unblock geo-restricted streaming services like Netflix, you may want to look elsewhere.
Disconnect's pricing structure is pretty standard for the industry, offering monthly, bi-annual, and annual subscription plans that offer increased savings for users opting for the longer-term subscription plans. The monthly plan will run you $12.00 per month, while the bi-annual plan comes in at $6.67 per month (billed $40.00 every six months), and the annual subscription plan includes the biggest savings at $4.17 per month (billed $50.00 every year).
Disconnect aims to offer a ‘complete privacy solution.’ At the heart of this lies its VPN product, but users also benefit from Disconnect’s proven tracking prevention and malware blocking technology and search engine obfuscation tools. We will note that none of the countries in which servers are located are very P2P friendly, so although we can see no prohibition against using this VPN on torrent sites in the ToS, and Disconnect says it does not monitor what users get up to on the internet, this is probably not the best VPN for torrenters. Free users do not get the VPN features but can use the Disconnect Desktop and mobile apps to visualize tracking by their favorite websites and to perform searches anonymously.
Ease of use
The Disconnect desktop client is available for Windows (7+), macOS (10.7+), and the mobile app is available for Android (4.0+) and iOS (7.0+). Disconnect's iPhone VPN app uses the IKE2 VPN protocol instead of OpenVPN.
The Disconnect website is a very smart looking affair and does a reasonable job of explaining what its services and products do. It is, however, clearly aimed at the casual user, which left us a little frustrated when looking for more detailed information. Although a fairly detailed FAQ is available, it deals only with the Disconnect browser extension, so if you have any problems with the Disconnect Privacy service then you must contact the support team via email. When we tried this, our initial inquiry was never answered, although subsequent questions were answered within a few hours. These answers were satisfactory, although we did find ourselves having to push for details.
You can sign-up for the premium service either through the app (desktop or mobile) or through the website. The only way to pay for a subscription seems to be by using a credit or debit card through the secure payment processor Stripe, but is otherwise easy enough.
To use an account on a new device, a code is provided, which you can enter when you hit ‘Upgrade’ to a premium account on that device.
The Windows client
Features on the Windows VPN desktop client are fairly basic.
You can select your location
You can choose between OpenVPN UPD or TCP, and turn on Privacy Icons
There is no fancy stuff like a VPN kill-switch, and no obvious DNS leak protection (although this may be built-in, as we did not detect any DNS leaks).
The Android app
The Disconnect Android VPN app was removed from the Google Play Store a few years back, apparently on the grounds that it blocks malvertizing websites against Google policy. The app is, however, available on the Play Store again. It can be downloaded either from the Play Store or directly from the Disconnect website.
The mobile app is very similar to the desktop version...
… it maps and blocks tracking by websites…
... performs anonymous search and acts as a browser…
… and has very similar options.
Overall it’s a neat app that works well on all platforms.
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Disconnect's customer support is conducted strictly via email. Although there is no live chat available on the website, we found that the email responses to our questions were always timely, friendly, and helpful. In addition to email support, the website does provide an FAQ section that deals with some basic questions that users may have but doesn't really dive too heavily into any technical troubleshooting. For more technical issues, you will need to send an email.
Disconnect doesn't offer a free trial, but the company does now offer a 30-day no-questions-asked money-back guarantee for all new customers.
Privacy and Security
Disconnect is a US-based company, so those worried about NSA surveillance should probably avoid it. That said, it is very transparent about its corporate structure, investors, and business model, which does inspire confidence. It is also very proud of being a ‘benefit corporation (colloquially, B corporation)… a new corporate form designed for for-profit entities that want to consider society and the environment in addition to profit in their decision-making process.’ This sounds great, although we have no idea how it is working out in practice.
On a more brass-and-tacks level, the original Disconnect browser extension won much praise for the fact that it was (and still is) open-source. This is important in a security product, as is it is the only way (imperfect though it is) to check that a program is doing (and only doing!) what it says it is.
All of Disconnect’s browser extensions are open-source, but its iOS, Android (based on ICS-OpenVPN), and Desktop apps are not yet. This should change, however, as the website says the code for these will be ‘available soon’, and when this happens it will speak very well for the integrity of the company.
Unfortunately, the only way we could seem to purchase the Premium service was using a credit/debit card, so Disconnect will know exactly who you are, although its use of shared IP addresses should make it difficult to connect users with specific internet activity.
Disconnect does not keep any usage logs (traffic or users’ IP addresses), but does keep some minimal connection logs – ‘The only information we log is related to billing and account management. For example, we log connection time, bytes used, and disconnect time.’ This is a quite common practice among VPN providers, and is not a cause for major concern, but is clearly not as privacy-friendly as a promise to keep no logs at all.
On the technical front, security on iOS devices is handled using IKEv2 (IPSec) encryption, and OpenVPN for Windows, macOS, and Android. The 256-bit AES cipher used for both OpenVPN and IKE2 is very strong (the same encryption is used by the US government to secure sensitive information), and the 2048-bit RSA key encryption and HMAC SHA1 data authentication for OpenVPN are secure.
- Great performance
- Protection against ‘malvertizing’ and tracking
- Strong encryption
- No usage logs (but some connection logs)
- Anonymous search (with bells and whistles)
- Tracking visualization (a bit of a gimmick, but it helps make users aware of the tracking problem)
- Neat mobile apps
- Shared IPs
We weren’t so sure about
- Limited choice of VPN server locations
- Server locations not ideal for P2P
- 3 simultaneous connections
- (if the apps do become open-source, that will be great)
- Technical support is slow
- Some connection logs
- Based in the US
- Multiple disconnections
Overall, we are quite impressed with Disconnect – in addition to offering a fast and budget-friendly VPN package, it is the only service to combine this with anti-tracking and anti-malvertizing technologies to create a very robust and inclusive security package. We also think the mobile app is pretty funky.
The limited number of server locations may be an issue (depending on how close to you they are) and may cause problems for P2P downloaders, but given the great speed results we obtained, we do not think this will be a problem for most users. Somewhat worrying, though, is the number of disconnections we experienced, which leads us to be concerned about the service’s reliability. This is, however, a purely technical problem, and therefore one that Disconnect can hopefully fix as it moves forward.
The only real other concern is that Disconnect is a US company, and none of the countries in which its servers are located are particularly privacy-friendly. If the NSA worries you, therefore, Disconnect is not the ideal choice.