Online security and protection are a priority in today’s world, given how our personal data and cyber footprint have become such valuable commodities. Virtual private networks (VPNs) have risen in popularity to enable anonymous browsing and effectively prevent third parties like the government, hackers, and your internet service provider from tracking your online activity.
VPNs, however, may not be the faultless savior that they’re made out to be. Free VPN services have recently come under fire for their supposed dark side that unsuspecting users hardly know about.
This article seeks to serve as your free guide in navigating the pitfalls of using free VPN, including how to mitigate the risks that come with these services.
What is Free VPN?
A VPN stops prying eyes from seeing the sites that you visit along with other data you’re accessing online. How does it do it? The precise answer is it creates an encrypted connection – usually called a tunnel – between your computer and a server that the VPN provider controls. All network activity then passes through this guarded tunnel, safe from intruders on the network you’re connected to.
A VPN service can be particularly useful when you access public Wi-Fi network hotspots, since these wireless services are public and thus pose a number of security issues. VPNs reroute your traffic to show that you’re located in an entirely different place.
Another perk of using a VPN service is being able to access geo-blocked content, or content on the likes of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime that are restricted in your region. This comes in handy for viewing streaming content or services that are blocked abroad or are unavailable in your country at present.
Unlocking the Mystery of Free VPN
Free VPN services can be broken down into two types:
- Unlimited VPNs – They offer unlimited access to the network. In case you’re wondering, these services are making money off the users themselves, collecting user information and selling it to third parties to earn a profit.
- Freemium VPNs – They attract users with a “free sample” or a limited amount of bandwidth for a time period, hoping you would eventually upgrade to a paid account.
From these descriptions alone, you can conclude that free VPN isn’t free at all – it comes at a certain price for users, just in a form other than direct payment. Any free or community VPN, after all, will always come with a drawback because the providers themselves need to generate revenue and keep their service up and running.
Someone definitely has to pay for the “free” service: it’s a matter of knowing whether it’s your personal information getting harvested, or your browsing history and information getting sold to another entity.
The Untold Risks of Free VPN Services
The intention may not be as sinister as it appears, but free VPN services have their own secrets that users need to know. Here are some of them:
- Data Tracking and Selling – Contrary to their big marketing come-on that they stop ISPs and data trackers from monitoring and selling your data, free VPN services practically do the same. You’ve essentially swapped those usual trackers for another, which is the VPN company itself!
Since it can be costly to host and operate the network, a free VPN provider would naturally look for an income stream, in this case collecting user data for advertising and analytics. As we speak, a free VPN app’s tracking is already embedded in the source code, with the tracking library working as you use their service.
- Prioritizing Advertising Network Traffic – Advertisements on a free VPN network can enjoy the special privilege of being prioritized in order for users to click on those ads right away. While you may think this isn’t necessarily harmful, you can actually suffer from it through slower page loading and less-than-optimal browsing experience.
- Traffic Leaks and Stolen Bandwidth – When the tunnel’s quality isn’t topnotch, it could likely be filled with holes that could see your data and IP address falling into the hands of dubious characters. Free VPN services with a criminal intent can also downright steal your bandwidth and resell it to others for a profit, such as in the case of millions of users of the Israel-based Hola VPN service. In mid-2015, the scheme started to crash down, with experts discovering that Hola was turning its users’ connections into endpoints to increase its bandwidth as well as offer a portal to other users.
- Lack of Regulation – While ISPs in North America as well as in Europe comply with tight regulations and make the rules of data selling transparent to their users, the same cannot be said of VPNs. Many providers operate in shady offshore locations, making them difficult to track and research on. If a free VPN originates from a known weak security spot such as Russia, there’s a good likelihood that the data tracking stems from an unscrupulous mission.
Moving to Paid VPN Options
Not all is lost, though, as you can still access free VPN services – but with caution and awareness this time. It’s recommended to limit your use of free VPN to access blocked content, and not if privacy is high up on your list.
If you decide that free VPNs are not worth the risk, then it’s high time that you switch to paid VPN services in order to ensure security. A proper VPN, at the end of the day, makes it a priority to encrypt all your data and keep it safe from hackers and third parties that stand to gain a lot from online snooping.
Since not all paid VPNs are created equal, there are a few considerations to make when choosing one, including the following:
- High-quality VPN protocols – There’s no downtime or disruption, thanks to these reliable protocols.
- Decent connection speed – High-standard services don’t cause a decrease in connection speeds, so choose one that engineered its server network to deliver the fastest internet connection possible.
- Global network
reach– Pick a paid-for service with an extensive global network of VPN servers in many countries, offering maximum internet freedom.
- No-obligation trial – It’s best if a paid VPN service offers a 30-day trial without any risks or strings attached, helping you make informed buying decisions.
You don’t need a free lunch in the form of “free” VPN if its inner workings and undeclared data logging cost you so much more. Opt for a paid VPN service instead if it means getting the privacy, security, and peace of mind that you deserve and signed up for.