A free VPN seems like an attractive proposition – a powerful tool to assure you that you’re browsing securely and privately at no cost to you. But is that really true?
It turns out that there really is no free lunch. Not only is a free VPN not likely to live up to your expectations, but it may also actually make you less secure than when browsing with a bog-standard browser.
How do they make money?
Free VPNs are not charities. They’re out to make a profit, but they do it by selling you out instead of charging you. Almost every free VPN monetizes its users’ traffic by collecting detailed logs of their traffic, which defeats the entire purpose of using a VPN to boost your privacy.
What they then do with your data depends on the VPN, and some are less scrupulous than others. They might inject their own ads into the sites you visit or lay their ads over existing ones. Others could also sell your data to third parties to use to whatever ends they desire.
When a VPN is free, its designers are going to have to cut corners to keep costs down. Free VPNs are notorious for leaking your IP address, which eliminates your anonymity. Paid VPNs can also suffer from similar problems, but they tend to suffer from fewer leaks than their free counterparts do.
For the same reason, free VPNs often use outdated encryption algorithms that are less secure than up-to-date algorithms used by paid VPNs.
The delights of freemium VPNs
Some VPNs operate on a freemium model. They’ll provide a free service but limit the data, time, or features that you can use to encourage you to become a paying customer. There are a few problems with this model. First of all, the free portion of it is designed to make users switch to the paid version, so making a convenient VPN that does everything you want it to would ruin their business model! Second of all, if you do decide to pay to unlock additional functionality, keep in mind that you are paying in part for the free users’ service as well. That can mean lower quality software, slower speeds, or less essential features.
One of the greatest dangers of a free VPN is that it can give you the illusion of safety or privacy that you do not have. This can be even worse in the case of a fraudulent VPN that lies about its services or is even used as a platform to attacks its users.
There are plenty of cases of VPNs that have engaged in problematic business practices to make a quick buck. Hola, a VPN service based in Israel, operated by harnessing users’ unused bandwidth to power their servers. Sometimes, however, users’ bandwidth was also sold off to large business that needed more bandwidth to transfer large amounts of data. Eventually, this network of users was also used as a botnet to launch a DDoS attack.
A free VPN named Hotspot Shield advertised itself as a secure and private VPN that didn’t keep logs of its users’ traffic. However, not only did it keep logs for advertising, it sold those logs to third parties – something that led to some Hotspot users being targeted by scammers and malware.
There are even indications that some free VPNs are malware – at least, that’s according to a CSIRO study that found that as many as 38% of free VPN apps on the Google Play app store contain elements of malware.
How Do I Know If My VPN Is Trustworthy?
The answer is simple – get a paid VPN. Paid VPNs are accountable, first and foremost, to the customer, so they are going to suffer if their services don’t deliver top-notch performance.
One of the key things to pay attention to when choosing a VPN provider is their logging practices. You want to look for a VPN service that guarantees a zero log policy, has no record of disclosing customers’ data to third parties and, ideally, is based in a jurisdiction with no mandatory data retention laws. Using a reliable no-logs VPN service provides a high degree of privacy, protecting you not only from ISP tracking but also from blanket government surveillance.
Paid VPN providers can also support large teams of well-qualified developers and system administrators who will ensure that their services and your data remain up-to-date and secure.
Paid VPNs’ prices can seem off-putting at first, but that’s only because they often prefer to charge for longer prescription periods. Once you’re buying a 2- or 3-year subscription, you’ll be paying only a few dollars a month – probably many times less than your phone bill.