Here we are taking a look at Psiphon who the company says has been opening the internet for millions of users around the globe since 2006.
This hybrid service is offered by Psiphon which is a Canadian based company, but what is a hybrid VPN service, and does it work?
It is stated that the service can be used as a full VPN product which comes with L2TP/IPsec security, but that is not the sole purpose.
It is intended to bypass censorship, and which makes use of HTTP proxy, SSH and VPN technologies. Again the question is asked, does it work?
That is what we aim to find out from this easy to use service that comes in two flavours, a free one, and a paid for alternative.
Before looking at all the benefits of this online security tool, we should take a more in-depth look at what it is.
What is Psiphon?
Psiphon is an open-source product that has been designed to combat censorship by using HTTP/SOCKS proxy, Obfuscated SSH (OSSH), VPN and SSH, technologies as mentioned.
It unblocks content on local firewalls in universities and businesses, but the primary purpose is to get around government forced restrictions.
China is the main culprit of this, followed by Iran, other middle-eastern countries and other countries that pose restrictions on their residents.
Because there is little going on that you can see in the client, it is hard to actually tell what is working and what isn’t. So now, let’s check out its features and benefits and see if it does as it says.
Features and Benefits
Psiphon differs from traditional VPN’s because they can use different architectures to help bypass government censorship.
You can also set the software to act like a more conventional VPN using the L2TP/IPsec protocol for security and data encryption.
If the connection to the VPN fails, it is possible to try connecting via SSH, and if this is blocked in the sending location, the software will use obfuscation during the handshake section of the connection.
At this point, random static signatures are used by SSH to hide the fact an anti-censorship tool is being used.
One feature that prevents the software being blocked by traditional methods is there is only a portion or subset of the private proxy server network allocated to each user.
The default protocol in use is OSSH which uses SSL with password authentication which tunnels data from the client to the server and is authenticated by public-key cryptography. This is considered secure, but it doesn’t offer the same levels of protection as protocols used by other VPN’s, OpenVPN being the main one.
One downside is that all user traffic might not be transferred securely because only applications that support SOCKS proxies and local HTTP will be encrypted.
Some governing agencies have also been shown to be able to partially intercept and possible decode SSH encrypted transfers.
At this point, it should be highlighted Psiphon isn’t designed as a tool to increase online privacy, it was built as an anti-censorship tool.
With this in mind, if you are torrenting, Psiphon doesn’t hide what you are doing so you are still unprotected.
With this, it should be asked if Psiphon can access US Netflix. ON occasions, it might be able to, but during testing, even the BBC iPlayer outside of the UK was a hit and miss affair with there being more misses than hits.
The software does offer a split tunnelling feature, and this is easily activated from the side menu.
As far as other features go, it is thin on the ground, and most of this being what the software was designed to do, and judging it in the same light as a VPN service would do it an injustice.
When performing a speed test, using the Psiphon OSSH protocol show minimal speed loss which was good, but at the expense of security, and when it was switched to the full VPN protocol, the speeds dropped quite significantly.
- It can bypass online censorship
- Psiphon for Windows offers a VPN option (not as secure as a full VPN)
- Apps look good and are easy to use
- No installation needed on Windows and no sign-up process
- Apps can be sent to your email address if it isn’t accessible by direct downloads from the Psiphon website or the Apple and Google Play Store
- Can only select the VPN server country and not the location
- Psiphon does log quite a few things, and this can be passed onto partners.
- Only supports 17 countries
- When using full VPN mode, it can prevent censorship being bypassed
- Limited customer support
- No Netflix or BBC iPlayer
The Psiphon Windows software is free to download and use. If you download the apps from the site, you can sideload the Android or iOS for free. The company will email you the app if you come up against any restrictions.
In countries which don’t ban the app store version, you can download it onto Android, and this is where it can become a little confusing.
These Play Store versions, which are the same as what you can download from the website besides the fact it runs some ads and like all of the free versions, it limits connection speeds to 2Mbps (actually received more than this in testing).
At this point, there is a Psiphon Pro app where the free version shows a higher number of more prominent ads.
These and the reduced download speeds can be removed for a fee. The costs for these were only found inside the app and are not available on the company web page.
- A “Maximum” speed connection cost is £4.99 if you wish to use the app for 7-days, and increases to £9.99 per month.
- The subscription for a “High” speed connection costs £4.99 per month.
Each of the software pricing plans comes with a 30-day free service through the Play Store, so you can cancel up to this time and won’t be charged. It should be noted “Maximum” speed is 5Mbps, but it was hard to tell what the “high” speed option brings.
The Psiphon offer is a little expensive when you compare it to a fully-fledged VPN, the prices are as good as the same, but with a regular VPN, you are guaranteed security for torrenting and also the circumnavigation of geo blocks for Netflix etc.
However, if you look at Psiphon from the perspective of an anti-censorship tool and using the free apps, then it is the kind of app any traveller should have on their device for the times they might need to bypass something.
Because it isn’t the same as a regular VPN and the Psiphon server count is nowhere near on the scale of a top-tier provider. Placing it in the same bracket is hard.
With no installation required, a user interface which is easy to use( and puts some other companies to shame), you can increase your online security a little, for nothing, but don’t expect it to bypass geo-restrictions or hide you away while you download torrents.
The Psiphon VPN was never designed for that, and as of yet, that doesn’t look like it will change. It’s good to have, but not so good to pay for.