Some Twitter users noticed something unusual earlier this week: Five different VPN apps, which allow you to hide or change the physical location of where your internet connection is coming from, suddenly showed up in the iOS App Store's "trending searches" section. Normally, VPNs are useful but low-ranked apps in the App Store's ecosystem.
The feel-good theory about the sudden surge in VPN popularity? High school students wanted to use VPN apps to look up their AP test scores early.
I'll explain: The College Board staggers the release of its Advanced Placement test scores state-by-state, presumably to control the overall number of students who access its servers at any given time.
VPNs, or virtual private networks, allow you to change where it seems your connection is coming from. From New York, I could use a VPN to make it seem as though I was in California (or anywhere else), allowing me to bypass the College Board's artificial block.
If you're using a VPN to get early access to your AP test results, you are a NERD and we should be friends. However, it seems unlikely that this trend is responsible for the bump in VPN downloads.
It's true that nerdy high school kids do indeed use VPNs to get their test scores early—there are a few posts about the phenomenon from the last couple years on the /r/teenagers and /r/apscores subreddit and instructions about how to use a VPN for this purpose on Pastebin, which are the digital equivalent of shopping malls in that they are places constantly frequented by flocks of cool #teens. There are a handful of tweets from teens who have done this, and there's even an opportunistic corporate blog post from software company Avast about AP students who "go nuts" for its VPN software.
All of this evidence would reasonably lead one to believe that there are so many anxious innocent students out there who are desperate to see whether they'll have to take physics again in college that they've made all this VPN software trend in the App Store.
I have another theory: Pokémon Go, perhaps the most highly anticipated mobile game of all time, was released on iOS this week as well. The game came out first in Australia and New Zealand, but was unavailable in the US App Store right away (it's still not available in many countries around the world). While it was possible to use a VPN to download the game early on Android, Apple's user accounts, which are tied to the region you're in, made this process slightly more difficult in the United States. To access Pokemon Go early, would-be Pokémon masters had to sign out of their Apple ID, change the region of the App Store to Australia, and create a new Apple ID.
That VPNs don't work to download Pokémon Go would suggest, then, that the initial hypothesis that high school nerds have caused VPNs to trend on the App Store would seem to be correct. But that would be discounting the fact that many people were so desperate to get Pokémon Go early that surely they tried, in vain, to use a VPN to access it.
There is another reason to use VPNs for Pokémon Go. It's not a normal mobile game—it's an "augmented reality" game that allows you to catch different Pokémon depending on where in the world you are physically located. And so there are many people who have been using VPNs and GPS spoofing to catch Pokémon they otherwise wouldn't be able to.
APPlyzer, a website that tracks App Store popularity, shows that Whale VPN, one of the trending apps, went from being the 300th most popular "productivity" app to being the 14th most popular productivity app earlier this week. But that spike still made it only the 259th most popular app on the App Store.
Pokémon Go, meanwhile, is the top app in all of the app store, bar none. Without talking to people who actually downloaded VPN apps, we have no way of knowing why VPN apps spiked in the App Store. Unfortunately, the mystery of the VPN spike is one that I cannot conclusively solve.
That said, given that Pokémon Go is the most popular app in the United States, I feel confident that, while kids checking their AP scores may have played a small role in making VPNs trend, test scores still got nothin' on Charizard.