Since the Snowden leaks dropped, public understanding of mass surveillance like the 5, 9, and 14 Eyes groups has begun to rise. While the topic is extremely complex, fortunately there is a relatively simple solution to regain a large amount of control over your privacy online: using a VPN. Today, we teach you to effectively hide from mass surveillance.
Protecting your private data is far more difficult today than in the past. Before the rise of the Internet, keeping information secure meant shredding sensitive documents and covering your PIN at the ATM. Now, with data spreading across the digital landscape at lightning speeds, staying safe feels like an impossible task. Add to that the mass surveillance programs enacted by governments throughout the world, and things get even more complex.
Even if you’ve only dabbled in online privacy, chances are you heard about the Fourteen Eyes alliance. The coalition represents worldwide governments that collect and share data on their own citizens, allowing one country to spy on another without breaking any laws. This is a tremendous risk to your online privacy, forcing many to turn towards VPNs to enable anonymous web surfing and keep their identity secure.
What are the Fourteen Eyes and Five Eyes surveillance groups? How does their existence affect the average web user, and how does using a VPN keep your data safe? We’ll take a look at those questions and more in the feature below, including a country-by-country guide to the best VPN jurisdictions to keep you safe, what surveillance information they share, and the best VPNs outside of the Five Eyes alliance group.
Five Eyes Alliance
Five Eyes is an international surveillance agreement made between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The pact allows for complete intelligence sharing between the nations, including documents relating to citizen surveillance and logs of online activity.
The Five Eyes alliance has wartime origins that stretch back to the 1940s, though the greatest deals were struck during the cold war era in the decades that followed. Back then, most activities were related to monitoring suspicious individuals with direct connections to international threats. With the proliferation of online technology, however, the agreement continued and extended to include nearly every member of the countries in question.
The Five Eyes alliance includes:
- New Zealand,
- the United Kingdom,
- and the United States
The arrangement between these countries was kept a secret until 2003. A decade later, Edward Snowden leaked documents from the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) showing just how widespread the invasions of personal privacies had become.
Nine Eyes Alliance
In the leaked documents, Snowden proved that countries in the Eyes alliance engaged in regular mass surveillance of their own citizens and freely shared that intelligence with other nations. The agreement was so successful that multiple pacts were eventually forged extending the network beyond the original five countries. The Nine Eyes and Fourteen Eyes surveillance groups extend to include more nations sharing more data, representing an even stronger threat to ordinary people using the internet.
The Nine Eyes alliance includes all the previous Five Eyes counties and
- and Norway.
Fourteen Eyes Alliance
The Fourteen Eyes countries include the ones above in the Nine Eyes Alliance and
- and Sweden.
All of the above groups and their associated countries share surveillance information about their own citizens. They’re actively and willingly doing so, too. In addition to these areas, countries like Israel, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea participate in the alliance on an unofficial basis. The surveillance sharing grows with each decade that goes by, all enabled by the ease with which they can collect data via online methods.
How does a VPN help?
Intelligence sharing between countries represents a tremendous threat to online privacy. This has caused many users to seek VPNs for basic identity and information protection. Simply running a VPN isn’t quite enough, though, as they are still subject to the rules of countries they operate from.
If you’ve ever read about finding reliable VPNs, the topic of jurisdiction is inevitably brought up. In simple terms, the country where a VPN is registered sets its legal jurisdiction. It doesn’t matter where the company’s servers are located or even where their team operates from, only where the business is considered a legal entity.
Jurisdiction over a VPN’s services directly translates to jurisdiction over the data you share through that VPN. It doesn’t matter that your information is encrypted, as the VPN company has the keys to decrypt it. If compelled to by local laws, they could be forced to decrypt your data and share it with government agencies, all without your knowledge or consent.
Another factor many people forget about is that the laws of your local country govern your use of online services such as VPNs. Even if your data is encrypted and your identity completely anonymous, you are still bound by the regulations of the country you live in or are visiting. While VPNs are legal in almost all regions (including regressive places like Saudi Arabia), this is not always the case. Make sure you adhere to any local laws before using a VPN.
Importance of logging policies
Data you send through a VPN service can theoretically be stored by the company. This can include everything from the websites you access to the IP address you’re connecting from. If logs of this information are kept, the VPN could use them to match traffic patterns to users, thereby exposing your identity. If they have a zero-logging policy, though, your data is not stored, meaning it can never be used against you.
There are some outlandish cases where police investigators attempted to procure user information from well-known VPNs. They walked away empty handed, though, as the service did not keep logs of any type, making it impossible to correlate any data of any sort.
Most VPNs promise a zero-logging policy in as many areas as possible. There are cases where VPNs are forced to keep hidden logs of certain activities, however, especially if they’re in an unfriendly jurisdiction.
Jurisdiction + Fourteen Eyes
Here’s where things get really messy. If you live in or travel to a Fourteen Eyes country, or if you use a VPN service in a jurisdiction that is part of the Fourteen Eyes network, consider your private data as being fully shared with every other country in the alliance. If you’re from New Zealand but use a VPN service in Canada, your data is likely no safer than if you used a service located in your own back yard.
There are two ways you can protect yourself from this: stick with a verified service that has a strict zero-logging policy, or both live in and use a VPN service that is not located in any of the Fourteen Eyes nations. It’s not always easy to pick up and move across the world, of course, so your best bet is to find a reliable VPN with a privacy friendly jurisdiction and a no-logging policy.
Best and worst countries for VPN jurisdictions
Now that you know of the risks posed by the Fourteen, Nine, and Five Eyes surveillance group, and you’re aware of the importance held by zero-logging policies and VPN jurisdictions, it’s time to take a look at which countries do their best to protect your online privacy (and which don’t).
Australia does not currently place any restrictions on Internet use or data access for its citizens or travelers inside the country. In addition, VPNs are perfectly legal to use. Note that Australia is part of the Five Eyes alliance, however, which makes it a potential threat to your privacy if you live or utilize a VPN registered there. Telecom companies in Australia are also required to store metadata for two years, which may impact your privacy indirectly.
It’s also worth noting that Australia passed anti-encryption laws that has privacy advocates in an uproar. It isn’t known if or how this will affect VPN usage inside the country in the future. At the time of writing, however, there are no changes to the way VPN access or services work in Australia.
Belarus is notable because it’s one of the few countries (and currently the only country in Europe) that has made VPNs illegal. The government heavily censors the local internet, which affects both citizens and travelers in the nation. If you’re caught using a VPN in Belarus, you may receive a large fine.
Belgium has a relatively friendly policy towards the online world. The Internet is unrestricted for all users, and as far as we know, content is not censored by the local government. VPNs are completely legal to use in Belgium, as well.
Unfortunately, Belgium is part of the Fourteen Eyes surveillance alliance, which is a slight but not insignificant mark against its privacy policies. Internet providers within the country may also be required to block websites law enforcement officials believe are operating illegal activities.
British Virgin Islands
The British Virgin Islands are a territory of the United Kingdom, but they are wholly self-governed by their own laws and regulations. They do not participate in any of the Eyes intelligence sharing programs, VPNs are perfectly legal, and the physically remote location makes the country unlikely to become a target for privacy warrants.
The nature of the privacy policies of the British Virgin Islands makes it a good home for VPN services. In fact, ExpressVPN uses the BVI as its home jurisdiction.
Bulgaria follows with many European countries and features privacy-friendly policies that do not ban VPNs or force companies to log user data. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are protected rights in Bulgaria. There is some concern surrounding electronic data requests being made without court authorization, along with potential corruption in the government slowly eroding these freedoms, however.
Canada has shown a strong commitment to unrestricted Internet access for all of its citizens. The local laws protect the rights of the individual both in person and online, including freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The government has even expressed support for net neutrality.
VPNs are legal in Canada, but it’s worth noting that the country is a member of the most dangerous of the alliance groups, Five eyes. A number of VPN services, including TunnelBear and BTGuard, are based out of Canada.
China is widely regarded as one of the worst countries as far as online freedoms are concerned. For starters, only government approved VPNs are allowed in China, all other services are completely banned. The Internet is heavily censored to keep certain information out of the public’s awareness, including most foreign news sites and social media services. These restrictions only grow more severe as time goes by, as well.
Current cyber security laws in China impose heavy fines on telecom companies that fail to follow regulations. VPN providers must request government approval before providing access to locals. Citizens caught accessing the open, international Internet with a VPN without prior government approval are subjected to fines.
For these reasons alone, it is safe to assume that if you’re using the Internet in China, you’re being tracked, monitored, and spied upon. There are some occasional workarounds, however, but use them at your own risk.
Overall, the Czech Republic does not restrict or censor Internet access within its borders. The country has several laws in place that actually protect freedoms of expression, as well. Hate speech and other specific types of propaganda are banned, and Internet providers must restrict access to unregulated foreign gambling/lottery sites, but apart from that, the Internet is as open and free as anywhere. Czech IP addresses are popular among spoofers in less progressive neighboring countries.
Denmark has strong protections in place that keep censorship at bay on all levels, including the government. Internet service providers are required to cooperate with police to block child pornography, and certain torrent sites are blocked by a few ISPs, which means locals will not be able to access this content while in-country.
Denmark is part of the Nine Eyes alliance group. This means that data passing through the country may not be completely private due to the intelligence sharing agreements it has in place with other major world powers, including the United States and the UK.
Online freedom of speech and unfiltered Internet access are both officially supported by the government of France. Recent reports suggest there are some restrictions on the horizon as officials attempt to address fake news and terrorist threats that originate from online sources.
With that being said, France is part of the Nine Eyes surveillance group, which is a general concern for privacy. Surveillance and data collection efforts have been launched in recent years that have privacy experts questioning the future of safe and secure Internet access in France, as well.
Germany is a member of the extended Fourteen Eyes alliance group. Despite this black mark on its record, Germany still expresses a commitment to respecting online privacy and freedoms of speech. VPNs are legal in Germany, and a number of services call the country their jurisdictional home.
Newer legislation in Germany suggests the country is preparing to expand online surveillance efforts in the near future. There are also laws in place that allow monitoring and logging of citizens even without suspicion of criminal activity. Germany is also under scrutiny for its harsh data retention laws that make zero-logging policies more difficult to adhere to.
Gibraltar is somewhat similar to the British Virgin Islands. It’s technically part of the UK, but it’s self-governing with its own rules and regulations. VPNs are legal in Gibraltar and the country does not censor or restrict its Internet in any way. It’s also not part of the surveillance groups discussed above.
Serious privacy advocates should know that Gibraltar isn’t completely independent from Britain, however. They rely on the parent country for defense and security matters, giving the UK the right to assume power and make decisions when it comes to issues like online surveillance. This hasn’t happened yet, but it’s a potential mark against the country as a VPN jurisdiction.
The laws in Greece protect online freedoms of speech and the freedom of the press. There is currently no evidence the government censors or blocks websites or interferes with the open internet. Greece is also not part of the Fourteen Eyes surveillance group, and VPNs are completely legal to use.
There are some gray areas when it comes to Internet communications, however. The police do technically have the right to monitor citizen activity and data when they connect. If a VPN is based in another country and keeps no logs, this shouldn’t be a concern, however.
Hong Kong is a Chinese territory, but it maintains its complete self-governing autonomy. There are currently no restrictions on web access initiated by the local government, and VPNs are legal in all respects. Hong Kong is also not part of any international surveillance agreements.
Censorship restrictions common in the neighboring country of China simply do not exist in Hong Kong. Its proximity makes it an incredibly popular jurisdiction for VPN companies to operate from, including BlackVPN and PureVPN.
Iran is one of the countries with the most restricted online environments in the world. For starters, only government approved VPNs are legal, meaning all foreign-run services are completely banned. Major social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are censored by the government, along with a wealth of other content from outside of the country.
Protests and opposition to these strict online laws are currently underway in Iran. Whether or not they can reverse the issue remains to be seen. Until then, no unapproved VPNs may be used inside the country, and you should never trust a service registered inside the country.
Israel provides good protections for its Internet access, allowing free speech and freedom of the press without restriction. So far there have been no documented cases of government censorship or similar restrictions on Internet access within Israel.
VPNs are legal to use in Israel, but it’s worth remembering that the country does have a cooperation pact with intelligence sharing nations in the Fourteen Eyes alliance. They’re not officially a member of the group, but they have been known to cooperate.
Italy actively protects the online freedoms of visitors and residents of the country. The government does not block or filter content apart from select child pornography and gambling sites. VPNs are legal, but telecommunications companies must keep Internet data for up to six years, which may be a concern for some users. Italy is also part of the Fourteen Eyes alliance group.
Japan has the unique position of being a suspected contributor to the Five Eyes alliance, but not a confirmed member. VPNs are legal within the country and censorship is prohibited thanks to strong freedom of speech laws. Some Internet providers do filter child pornography, but this is voluntary, not government mandated.
It’s worth noting that the Japanese Supreme Court recently chose to allow police to monitor online activity of certain residents even without the suspicion of criminal activity. This slippery slope could lead to increased surveillance over the years.
While the government of Malaysia does not seem to be restricting or censoring the internet, there are currently no constitutional rights within the country that protect free speech or online access. The government has the power to seize and retain data at its discretion. The good news is VPNs are legal, however, so it’s easy to protect yourself from these potential threats.
The Netherlands does not currently have any unusual censorship restrictions in place. Torrenting sites that promote pirated content either are or may soon be banned thanks to new regulations, however. VPNs are legal to use, but it’s worth noting that the Netherlands is a member of the Nine Eyes surveillance group and is known to share information with foreign nations.
The Internet itself in New Zealand is largely uncensored, unrestricted, and completely free from governmental control. Free speech is a protected right within the country, and VPNs are legal to use. New Zealand is a member of the most dangerous inner circle of surveillance agreement groups, however, Five Eyes. This alone makes it a dangerous jurisdiction for VPN companies.
Overall, Norway operates an unrestricted and uncensored Internet with some of the best protections in place for preserving freedom of speech. The only country-wide censorship that takes place is voluntarily done by certain ISPs who block child pornography sites, that’s it. This reputation is only slightly tarnished by the country’s participation in the Nine Eyes surveillance group, however, which means it’s possible that your information may be shared with other nations.
Panama’s constitution protects all forms of expression, both online and off. Residents and visitors are able to use the free and open Internet without fear of censorship, and all VPNs are perfectly legal to use. The laws of Panama specifically prohibit arbitrary government or police interference with individuals’ privacy, making this one of the best jurisdictions for VPNs to operate from. One such company is the highly recommended NordVPN.
VPNs are legal in Romania, and the local Internet in general is known to be free and unrestricted. A few government filters are in place to block child pornography, but apart from that, there are no generalized blockades. Romania is actually seen as one of the best jurisdictions for privacy-friendly VPNs due to its repeated refusal to comply with European Union data retention laws, declaring them both unconstitutional and an infringement on the individual’s rights to privacy. CyberGhost, another highly respected VPN, uses Romania as its jurisdiction of choice.
Russia is second only to China in terms of lack of Internet freedoms. VPNs are almost universally banned inside the country, with just a few government-approved companies allowed to operate within the borders. The government actively filters content it deems inappropriate for citizens, including outspoken critics of Russia and its authorities.
The Reporters without Borders organization considers Russia to be an enemy of the Internet and actively hostile towards journalists. The country’s intelligence agencies are known to engage in mass surveillance both domestically and internationally, as well.
San Marino imposes no restrictions on Internet freedoms. There is no censorship, no ban on VPNs, and free speech is strongly supported. There have been no reported cases of San Marino monitoring private citizens or sharing data with international organizations, making it an incredibly appealing destination for VPN hosting.
Seychelles does not participate in international surveillance operations and has not been known to share data with any other country. Residents enjoy open, free, and unrestricted access to the Internet with no ban on VPNs and practically no censorship. A few cases of government interference have been reported in relation to online political content, but apart from that, this jurisdiction is remarkably safe.
The Singaporean actively participates in content censoring across its local service providers. There is known to be an official list of blocked websites kept secret from the public, as well. VPNs are legal, but because the country is a known contributor to the Five Eyes alliance nations, the jurisdiction is seen as generally unfriendly as a VPN host.
Citizens of South Korea have a constitutional right to privacy. This hasn’t stopped the local government from restricting free speech rights, censoring certain content, or collaborating with the Five Eyes alliance for data sharing and surveillance purposes, however.
Spain is a member of the extended surveillance group Fourteen Eyes. It participates in limited data sharing with related countries, though VPNs are legal and the country has laws in place that protect freedom of speech and personal data privacy.
VPNs are legal in Sweden, and there are multiple protections in place that protect freedom of speech, prohibit most censorship efforts, and ban arbitrary interference with privacy causes. Intelligence agencies are required to get court permission before monitoring online traffic, as well, which is a protection even privacy-friendly countries often forego.
Sweden’s relationship with intelligence sharing countries in the Fourteen Eyes group has placed it under scrutiny as a VPN jurisdiction, however, even though companies like PrivateVPN are safely registered there. It is likely your data is secure with a Swedish-registered team, but its political alliances cast some doubt on this.
True to its reputation as a neutral territory, Switzerland has strong regulations in place that protect online freedoms and personal privacy, including laws put in place to punish breaches of those regulations. Citizens recently voted to approve government-level monitoring of online activities, but there is no evidence this infrastructure was ever put into place. VPNs are legal in Switzerland, and the country does not cooperate with international intelligence sharing agreements such as Five Eyes.
The United Kingdom is a founding member of the Five Eyes alliance, giving it unprecedented and long-standing access to the international intelligence and surveillance network. Recent laws passed by the government have started to erode protections put in place to keep the Internet and citizens’ privacies safe, prompting many to wonder what the UK government knows about us. This trend shows no signs of reversing, which makes the UK one of the more dangerous locations for VPN access in the near future.
At the time of writing, the UK does still have laws in place protecting online information sharing. VPNs are legal and censorship is also forbidden. (That didn’t stop them from censoring certain types of porn, of course.)
United States of America
The U.S. is another founding member of the Five Eyes surveillance group, giving it full access to the most frightening amount of data offered by the alliance. There are constitutional acts in place that protect freedom of speech and freedom of the press, both online and offline, but recent controversies surrounding government surveillance and intelligence sharing have cast doubts on just how well those laws are being upheld.
Currently, VPNs are legal in the United States, and there is no sign this will be reversed in the near future. Net neutrality is constantly under attack as corporate interests push lawmakers in new directions, however. Because it’s one of the Five Eyes countries, the U.S. is considered a poor jurisdiction for any VPN service.
Best VPNs (Privacy-friendly Jurisdictions)
Having a VPN with fast servers is nice, but when it comes to your privacy and security, you need to focus on jurisdiction and zero-logging policies. The VPNs below are all registered in countries with excellent records on both counts, and none of them are part of the Five Eyes surveillance group, so you can use them with perfect peace of mind.
ExpressVPN is one of the fastest and most reliable VPNs around, and it provides these features without compromising on privacy, as well. ExpressVPN runs smoothly on PC, Mac, iPhone, Android, Fire TV, and many other platforms, all with the same one-click interface and lightweight design. It’s easy to enjoy full online privacy and anonymity features, complete with a host of security features working behind the scenes to keep you safe at all times.
Data passing through ExpressVPN’s network is secured with military-grade 256-bit AES encryption and backed by a strict zero-logging policy on traffic, DNS requests, and IP addresses. Information stays safe by an automatic kill switch and DNS leak prevention features on its software, as well. All of these work with ExpressVPN’s network of over 3,000 servers in 94 different countries to give you a fast and secure connection anywhere in the world.
ExpressVPN’s jurisdiction is the British Virgin Islands, a country that puts a high priority on the privacy and safety of its citizens.
Read our full ExpressVPN review.
- Unblocks US Netflix, BBC iPlayer and other streaming services
- 94 countries, 3,000+ servers
- Very simple and easy to use
- No personal information logs kept
- Great support (24/7 chat).
- High cost for month-to-month users.
NordVPN is a popular, safe, and reliable VPN that runs an impressive network of over 5,800 servers in 59 countries. Each of these is available without a single limitation on speed or bandwidth, allowing you to sign in and enjoy endless downloads from anywhere in the world. This massive amount of variety also allows NordVPN to offer unique privacy features like double encryption, protection from DDoS attacks, and onion routing over VPN.
NordVPN’s lightweight apps come with everything you need to stay safe on any device, from PC to Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Fire TV, and more. You also get 256-bit AES encryption, DNS leak protection, an automatic kill switch, and a zero-logging policy that covers time stamps, DNS requests, IP addresses, and traffic when you join. It’s extremely easy to set up
NordVPN and use it on your favorite device, and with its jurisdiction in Panama, you can remain confident that your privacy is respected.
Read our full NordVPN review.
- Servers optimized for unblocking Netflix
- 5,400+ servers globally
- Up to 6 simultaneous connections
- Retains no metadata of your browsing
- 24/7 Customer Service.
- Some servers can have average d/l speeds
- Sometimes slow in procesing refunds (but always do).
CyberGhost delivers an amazing VPN experience for all types of users, including anyone interested in keeping data safe on their favorite device. The company’s lightweight app runs on nearly every platform imaginable, from PCs to iPhones and iPads, Android devices, tablets, laptops, and more. As soon as you sign up you’ll have access CyberGhost’s impressively large network of over 6,000 servers in 87 countries, all with unlimited data and no restrictions on speed.
CyberGhost’s privacy features keep everyone safe with 256-bit AES encryption on all data, a zero-logging policy on traffic, time stamps, and IP addresses, and both DNS leak protection and an automatic kill switch. These features hide your identity whenever you go online, allowing you to connect with fully encrypted data and an anonymous IP address no matter where you travel.
CyberGhost’s jurisdiction is Romania, one of the best and safest countries for preserving online privacies.
Read our full CyberGhost review.
- Unblocks US Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Hulu
- Compatible with TOR
- Not in the 14 Eyes
- No logs policy
- Reliable and knowledgeable 24/7 live chat support.
- Can’t unblock some popular streaming sites.
PrivateVPN is a strong, secure, and safe VPN that makes it easy to keep your data locked down tight no matter what. It offers some of the best apps in the industry, all designed with ease of use and security in mind. With PrivateVPN you’ll be able to surf and stream in complete privacy on PC, iOS, Android, Mac, and other devices, all thanks to the company’s lightweight and straightforward software that makes securing your data a breeze.
PrivateVPN operates a strong network of 150+ servers in 59 different countries. Data is locked down and secured with 256-bit AES encryption to keep your connection safe, and an automatic kill switch and DNS leak protection prevent accidental identity reveals. PrivateVPN also delivers a zero logging policy on all traffic ensure your privacy is never at risk.
PrivateVPN is registered in Sweden, a country with strong privacy and anti-censorship laws.
Read our full PrivateVPN review.
PureVPN takes a unique approach to online security. The service offers strong privacy features and excellent anonymous connections, just like any VPN. It also includes a wide array of security extras few of its competitors deliver. Have you ever wanted anti-virus protection on your device, for example? How about malware shields, app blocking features, and built-in website filters? All of this is included with PureVPN’s software, allowing you to toggle protections on and off with a single click.
PureVPN keeps data secure with a zero-logging policy on traffic, an automatic kill switch, military-grade 256-bit AES encryption on all data, and DNS leak protection. These features work to keep your data secure no matter where you access the Internet from. And with PureVPN’s self-owned network of over 2,000 servers in 180 different locations, you’re guaranteed a fast connection and anonymous IP address at all times.
Read our full PureVPN review.
It’s getting more and more difficult to keep your data and identity secure online. Understanding jurisdictional complications such as the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and Fourteen Eyes surveillance groups makes it even more complex. With a little research, though, you can take extra steps to ensure you stay safe at all times.
The VPNs above are great choices for online privacy. They’re located in countries that aren’t a member of the Five Eyes surveillance network, too, which makes them even more reliable.
Got any tips on learning about VPN jurisdictions or Five Eyes efforts? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
If you need a VPN for a short while when traveling for example, you can get our top ranked VPN free of charge. ExpressVPN includes a 30-day money-back guarantee. You will need to pay for the subscription, that’s a fact, but it allows full access for 30 days and then you cancel for a full refund. Their no-questions-asked cancellation policy lives up to its name.