I know, free VPNs are tempting. After all, why would you want to pay for something you can get for free? It’s the same reason illegal Kodi boxes and IPTV subscriptions are so popular.
But just like pirating the latest films has a downside, so too does using a free VPN. You’re going to compromise your safety, security, and possibly even your personal data. Oh, and your privacy, even if they are “virtual private networks.”
Paid VPN services — like ExpressVPN — don’t charge a lot of money per month. They are will within the budget of most people and offer a much better product.
If you’re thinking about using a free VPN, hold on. You should read this article first. Here are the biggest risks with using a free VPN service.
1. Track and Sell Your Data
VPNs are supposed to keep you safe while you’re online. One of their biggest marketing points is that they will stop ISPs and other data trackers selling your data for profit.
The premise is simple. By encrypting your data and routing it through the VPN servers, your ISP can no longer see what you’re doing online. However, the VPN company can. You’ve essentially swapped one tracker for another.
Of course, most paid VPN services don’t do this. They have extensive privacy policies and pride themselves on their complete lack of tracking.
Free VPN's are in many cases worse than no VPN. Might be a couple that are ok, but recent paper from EFF found most log, track, sell ur data
— Mike Cecche (King M) (@MikeCecc) March 31, 2017
But a free VPN? You cannot be so sure. After all, hosting and operating a VPN network with thousands of users is expensive. In many cases, you become the provider’s primary source of income. Remember, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Don’t believe me? A recent CSIRO study investigated 283 VPNs. It found that 75 percent of free VPN apps contained some form of tracking. It’s frightening.
Bottom line: If you mainly use a VPN for privacy (rather than geo-blocking or downloading pirated content), you shouldn’t use a free one.
2. Lack of Regulation
This point is closely linked to the previous one.
In North America and Europe, ISPs are tightly regulated. Yes, they can commandeer and sell your data, but the rules for such transactions are transparent and accessible to users.
VPNs do not operate by the same set of rules. Indeed, many VPN providers are located in shady offshore jurisdictions. Not only does their provenance make them difficult to regulate, but it also makes them difficult to learn about.
Free VPNs originating in known security weak spots, such as China and Russia, should be avoided. There is a much higher chance they are tracking your data and using it for unscrupulous purposes.
Free VPNs provide a huge source of potential victims for hackers and cyber-criminals. Many users see the word “free” and fall over themselves to give away personal information during the sign-up process.
Once in the system, all your traffic is logged against your account. The criminals have a complete picture of your personality within a matter of days.
3. Your IP Address Could Be a Network Endpoint
In an article like this, it’s impossible not to regale the story of Hola VPN. The app was once the king of free VPNs. Tens of thousands of people used it to circumnavigate geo-blocking restrictions in the days before services like Netflix started blocking VPN access.
But in mid-2015, the charade came crashing down. A team of experts discovered the app was turning users’ connections into endpoints. It was using your connection to increase the network’s bandwidth and offer a portal to other users. It was also selling your endpoint via a subsidiary called Luminati.
The process is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, your IP address is going to be on server logs. If the person using your exit node has been doing something illegal, the police are going to come knocking on your door.
Secondly, anyone accessing a site in your country via your exit node will be leaving an IP address trace with the sites they visit — thus negating the very thing you were trying to protect against in the first place.
The Hola case is well-documented, but how many other free VPN providers are doing the same thing? Are you 100 percent confident in your provider’s morals? Our advice: don’t take the risk.
4. Adverts Get Traffic Priority
Even if your free provider isn’t selling your data or turning your connection into an endpoint, the provider still has to make money. In many cases, this is done using advertising revenue.
It might not sound too unusual. After all, it’s how the majority of websites make money. Indeed, it’s how we at MakeUseOf (and every other tech publication you read) continue to provide you with free content.
But ads on free VPNs have one crucial difference: the VPN providers use third-party advertisers who are unique to your proxy server session. Because the VPNs want you to click those ads, the ad network’s traffic gets priority.
The result? Slower page-loading times and a less fluid online experience.
5. IP Address Leaks
A correctly-functioning VPN is like a secret tunnel. All your traffic flows through the tunnel away from prying eyes. When it emerges into the open web, it’s impossible to know where it originated.
However, if you use a free VPN, the craftsmanship of the tunnel is less robust — it’s more likely to be full of holes. Your data and IP address can leak through those holes, where it’s picked up by anyone who’s looking.
Should i leak a scammers ip address? He thinks if he uses a vpn it ll save him LOL ??
— ITS EVERYDAY VRO (@FlashGives) June 8, 2017
The process is called a “traffic leak” or “DNS leak.” Both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses can escape, leaving you utterly exposed.
Several experts say paid VPNs are also guilty of traffic leaks, but they are less common. Just like paying more for a builder is more likely to result in a quality job, paying more for a VPN provider is more likely to result in a well-built tunnel.
Are You Using a Free VPN?
I really hope the five points I’ve covered have made you think twice about signing up for a free VPN. The risks are so high that in many cases, you’re better off not using one at all. Just send all your traffic through your ISP instead.
If I’ve convinced you to ditch your free VPN, you have two options. You can either sign-up for a leading paid service (check this detailed comparison of VPN providers) or you can use the TOR network. The TOR network comes with its own set of concerns, but they’re far less worrisome than those arising from free VPNs.
Do you use a free VPN? If so, why? What’s making you stick with the service? Feel free to leave your input in the comments section below. And don’t forget to share this article with your friends on social media to continue the discussion.
Image Credits: boykung/Shutterstock