When looking for the best VPN, you’ll quickly notice that all VPNs, from the best to the worst, promise to be “no registration”, “no registration” or some variation of these words. However, how do these services get rid of logs or even avoid creating them?
What are the records?
To find out what happens to them, let’s first recap what logs are. When you make a connection between two devices, it doesn’t have to be through a VPN, or even over the Internet, a log is created that records that connection. A collection of these records is called a log file, or log for short.
The name probably comes from the logbook kept by a ship’s captain to record events on board his vessel. In the same way, a device keeps a log file of everything it has been in contact with. Logs are a useful tool: you can see if a problem has occurred before, or find out if there were any telltale precursors before a problem occurred.
Logs and VPN
However, for VPNs, logs are a bad thing. A common use of virtual private networks is to hide what you are doing online, and having a record of all your connections is detrimental to that purpose. After all, if a VPN kept logs, anyone with the authority to do so could request them and see what a VPN’s customers have been up to.
As a result, all VPNs claim to be no-log VPNs, meaning they keep no logs, although whether they always deliver on that promise is a different story. There are several examples of VPN services that were able to produce some kind of log when law enforcement showed them a warrant. However, even if we just take bona fide VPNs as an example, how do they get rid of logs?
How VPNs destroy logs
Essentially, there seem to be two ways to get rid of logs. The former is less about destroying them and more about banishing them into a deep, dark hole, while the latter involves not creating them in the first place.
Writing to /dev/null
Most VPN servers run on Linux, which is good for a number of reasons, one of the biggest being a file called /dev/null. This file has been described as a “black hole” by almost everyone we spoke to. It is a file that if you write any data to it, it will be discarded, it will simply disappear from the system. There’s no record of it, and you can’t find it again; it’s just gone as if it never existed.
However, after talking to several of the best VPNs out there, we get the impression that the industry is moving away from /dev/null and more towards no logging at all. ExpressVPN already lifted some of the veil when it overhauled its TrustedServer technology, and it involves a special type of server that only runs on random access memory (RAM).
These RAM-only or diskless servers do not have any long-term storage capacity. The logs that exist are saved only in the server’s RAM and therefore only exist temporarily. Some traces of the connection remain within RAM, but are then cleared when the server is restarted. ExpressVPN resets weekly, for example, while other services may maintain a different schedule.
Not that there’s much to delete: ExpressVPN has designed its VPN protocols in such a way that almost no logs are created. The weekly reset cleans up just a few breadcrumbs. Other VPN providers may do something similar, or somehow combine the two approaches, writing logs to /dev/null and then using diskless servers to erase the last traces.
No more records?
Confirming all of the above is impossible among a group as diverse and secretive as VPN providers, but it seems that diskless servers are the wave of the future, if nothing else. In an email, NordVPN confirmed that it uses this method, and Mullvad is currently transitioning to this way of doing things. Private Internet Access NextGen servers are also just RAM.
It is not clear if there is a problem writing to /dev/null or if this move is done solely for practical considerations. RAM-only servers are lightning fast and can handle a lot more traffic before losing speed, plus they write no logs. This is great news for VPN consumers as well as services, as better speeds should attract more customers.
Of course, there’s also the peace of mind that diskless servers provide. Since this type of server should make it impossible, or at least much more difficult, to keep logs even if the VPN wanted to, there is additional protection in a system that still relies heavily on users’ trust in their provider.
If you’re thinking about using a VPN or aren’t happy with your current choice, consider our recommendations for the best VPN services available.