Why A Free Vpn Is A Dangerous Idea

Joel Timothy

Apr 06 2021

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The internet can be a hostile place for privacy enthusiasts. ISPs are actively monitoring user activities, governments are increasing spying on users, tech titans are using every possible way to track you across the web, and hackers are always ready to pounce on your data. All this has led to millions of users adopting VPNs to restore internet privacy and freedom.

However, choosing the right is no easy feat, and it often comes down to two broad categories: free and premium VPNs. The former are often a popular choice, and you can use them without spending a penny. However, most people don’t realize the dangers that come with free VPNs, and today we’ll look at several reasons why you should avoid free VPNs.

Free VPNs vs. Premium VPNs – What Are the Differences?

Premium VPNs are basically Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that charge a fee to offer the service. They usually have a subscription period that often ranges between one month and three years.

As they charge for using the service, the best VPN options usually compete to offer great privacy and security levels. They also have huge server networks, advanced functionalities, and even extra services such as a Smart DNS service.

On the other hand, free VPNs don’t require you to pay a penny. They typically provide their service for free, and sometimes you won’t even need to create an account.

However, the problem comes in that running a VPN service is expensive. These services still have to pay their bills and eventually make a profit. How they accomplish this is what makes them potentially dangerous.

Why you should avoid a free VPN service

Every VPN is different, and some free VPNs are much better than others. However, most of them pose several risks that you should beware of.

They monitor and sell your data

One of the main reasons for using a VPN is to hide your activities from the ISP. It does this by encrypting your data and coming in between your ISP and the internet. The encryption provided makes your traffic unreadable to both the ISP, hackers, and the government.

However, some free VPNs collect the same data, which means that they’ve just shifted it from your ISP to their servers. This can be even more dangerous because the VPN may then sell your data or share it with third parties.

Tracking and collecting user data a huge contrast from the best premium VPNs which pride themselves in keeping zero connection and usage logs. Some of them have even subjected themselves to a public audit to prove this claim.

Note that some free VPNs claim to keep zero logs, but they collect user data in reality. One free VPN that was recently exposed as keeping logs contrary to their policy is UFO VPN.

They may sell your bandwidth

Besides your data, a free VPN can also share your bandwidth for profit. This is true for VPNs such as Hola VPN, a very popular product. The VPN was exposed for selling user bandwidth by turning their devices into exit nodes for other users through their sister company Luminati Networks (now Bright Data).

This means that if you use such a VPN, the highest bidder can use your IP address and processing power to carry out their internet activities. Therefore, it is easy for your device to be recruited into a botnet attack or be used for click fraud. And as it will still bear your IP address, you will be responsible for any activities that were conducted using your bandwidth.

They contain malware

According to a study conducted by CSIRO on free Android apps, 38% of the 238 apps contained some form of malware. These tests were conducted using Virus Total, and most Hong-Kong-based free VPNs still test positive for malware.

Most of the malware found in VPN apps is adware. However, some of them go beyond serving ads to spying on users. One of the famous products here is Facebook’s Onavo Protect VPN. The product billed itself as a way to “limit apps from using background data” and “use a secure VPN network for your personal info.” However, it was essentially spyware meant to track users across apps and websites. The VPN was pulled from the Apple App Store in 2019 for violation of Apple’s policies.

Potentially insecure

The amount of privacy and security you get from a VPN is essentially determined by the company’s investment in security. And as free VPNs don’t charge you to use their product, their security is often low.

According to a recent report, UFO VPN, SuperVPN, Rabbit VPN, Free VPN, and three other VPNs leaked over 1TB of user data due to poor configuration. This data contained email addresses, passwords in plain text, and connection time stamps, among other details. SuperVPN had earlier been pulled from the Google Play Store as security researchers found it to leave users susceptible to Man-in-the-Middle attacks. This means that although you can download VPN apps from official stores, you can’t just take their word about the security you get.

They display aggressive ads

Free VPNs often display ads to make money, which is understandable as users don’t pay for the service. However, some free VPNs bombard you with lots of ads that are both annoying and potentially dangerous. Some of these VPNs won’t tell you that they display ads until you open the app.

Displaying third-party ads also means that these apps may track you and share or sell your online activity logs to third-party advertising companies.

Redirecting your traffic

Free VPNs often redirect your traffic to third-party websites without your permission. They do this by injecting or removing headers while you are browsing. Others even go further to inject JavaScript code on your traffic to redirect e-commerce traffic to external advertising partners.

One VPN that was famously exposed for such practices is Hotspot Shield. In 2017, The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) submitted an FTC complaint against the company’s free service. The VPN was accused of undisclosed and unclear data sharing and traffic redirection, which was being done using the free version of their free app. It was redirecting traffic to websites such as Alibaba and eBay.

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Data leaks

Most free VPNs don’t have advanced features such as a kill switch and data leak protection, and this means that they may leak out your real IP address to the websites you visit. According to the CSIRO study, 84% of free VPNs leaked IPv6 addresses, while 66% leaked DNS queries.

Premium VPNs prevent such exposure by frequently verifying that they have configured their servers correctly and that DNS queries are encrypted. They also provide IPv6 and DNS leak protection features within the app.

No advanced features & functionalities

Today’s VPNs go beyond privacy and security to enhance our online experience. For example, some VPNs such as NordVPN can bypass deep packet inspection (dpi) systems that block VPNs in highly censored countries such as China and the UAE. They also let you unblock streaming services that block VPNs such as Netflix and BBC iPlayer.

However, free VPNs aren’t equipped with these capabilities. It is quite expensive to keep unblocking systems updated and frequently refresh IP addresses to avoid blacklists. This means that if you wish to access Netflix titles that are not available in your country, you will have to go for a premium VPN. VPNs like Surfshark even offer a free Smart DNS service that you can use to stream without losing any speeds.

Tough Restrictions

Even the best free VPN options impose tough restrictions that are meant to both bring costs down and entice users to upgrade to premium. These restrictions are often implemented through the available servers, speed caps, and bandwidth limits.

For example, Hotspot Shield’s free VPN service provides only 500 MB bandwidth a day and limits users to a single server. This means that you can only use the VPN for light browsing, and you can’t change your location. Other VPNs such as Windscribe have more servers, but they cap the free users’ speeds.

Are there trustworthy free VPNs?

Not all free VPNs have shady practices, and there are trustworthy VPN companies that offer a free VPN service. However, these free VPN services usually have restrictions that you can only remove by upgrading to a premium plan.

If you wish to have a reliable VPN without restrictions, the best VPN products such as ExpressVPN usually offer a no-questions-asked 30-day money-back guarantee. This means you can try out the service for an entire month risk-free and access all premium servers and features.

Conclusion

Free VPNs can be tempting as they allow users to enjoy some VPN benefits without reaching for their wallets. However, it’s important to note that these VPNs don’t operate as a charity and are out there to make money. Most of them accomplish this by making you the product, and the risks often outweigh the benefits.

You can avoid risking your data or device by going for a trustworthy premium VPN. We usually test and review the best VPNs in the market, so check out our review section for the latest.

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