Within the past five to ten years, free VPN services have become very popular. Users seeking privacy and a way to get around browsing restrictions set by network managers at work or school turn to them as a tool for digital freedom. However, these free VPNs aren’t as private as you may assume.
This isn’t to say that VPNs themselves don’t protect your privacy. They are better than nothing in most cases. However, the timeless saying “if something is too good to be true, it probably is” comes into play here. Companies aren’t offering VPN services for fun.
Although there might not be an upfront price to use these tools, there is still a cost—your privacy.
What is a VPN?
Virtual private networks, or VPNs, were first designed to allow employees to remotely access their office network. Today, they are used more frequently by those trying to browse the web with privacy or trick services into thinking they’re located in another country, explains TechCrunch’s Zack Whittaker.
Essentially, a VPN works by routing traffic to a VPN provider’s server rather than your internet service provider’s. Along the way, that traffic is encrypted. This makes it more difficult for people to see what sites you visit or which apps you use. To be clear, this isn’t the same as making your internet traffic anonymous.
Many people assume that VPNs erase their internet traffic from existence. In reality, it is simply getting routed through a different server.
Although not all VPN providers are untrustworthy, there is no way to know for sure how they handle your data. As a consumer, it isn’t possible to see their security protections or analyze their logging systems—the tools used to keep digital records of how users browse the internet.
This leaves consumers with nothing to go on but the word of the VPN provider. Unfortunately, this isn’t always reliable.
What’s the Issue with Free VPNs?
It isn’t clear when VPN services got the reputation of being privacy champions. However, that’s something that consumers should be careful of. As noted, companies need to have some sort of incentive to offer a free product.
For the companies behind free VPNs, the incentive is usually ads. Like many other free services, no-cost VPNs are often supported by selling customer information in order to show you targeted ads while you’re browsing in “private.”
Logging policies also tend to be an issue with free VPNs. Some claim to protect users’ privacy by not storing logs of what users are browsing on the web. Unfortunately, these claims aren’t always true.
UFO VPN, which had about 20 million users earlier this year, claimed to be a no-logging service. Reports later emerged that it not only kept logs but that they were exposed on the internet for anyone to find.
Of course, premium or paid VPNs aren’t a perfect solution either. Though these companies are generally more reliable, there is still no way to verify their claims. Your data could be just as vulnerable on a paid VPN server as it is on a free one. Still, that’s better than not using a VPN at all.
Users should keep in mind that they may not be as protected as they feel next time they’re browsing with a VPN—especially if the service is free.