With so many new options to choose from, you may be wondering, what’s the best free VPN? None of them. Serious. While free VPNs are a popular option for discount buyers, new security concerns illustrate why it’s worth paying for this suite of technologies that encrypt your data while you surf online. In short, a free VPN provider is never the right choice.
For example, in July, Hong Kong-based VPN provider UFO VPN was among seven free VPNs that kept detailed information about its users, as discovered by Comparitech. A database of usage logs – including account credentials and possibly user-identifying information – was unmaskedTo make matters worse, six more VPNs, all of which apparently shared a common “white label” infrastructure with UFO, were reportedly also logging data.
It is useful to come up with a good VPN, such as a bodyguard for your bank account. When you take a stroll through the busy public Wi-Fi streets, your VPN protects you from password bags and keeps you out of unsafe areas. You entrust your VPN with your online privacy and most valuable information. Maybe even your family’s. So if a VPN provider offers to monitor your digital life for free, the first question to ask yourself is, what’s in it for them?
Whichever virtual private network you choose, here are five reasons why you should never use a free VPN.
1. Free VPNs just aren’t that secure
As our sister site Download.com previously reported, free VPNs can be very dangerous. Why? Because VPN services have to pay expensive bills to maintain the hardware and expertise necessary for large networks and secure users. As a VPN customer, you pay for a premium VPN service with your dollars or you pay for free services with your data. If you don’t order at the table, you’re on the menu.
About 86% of the free VPN apps on both Android and iOS – accounting for millions of installations – have unacceptable privacy policies, ranging from a simple lack of transparency to explicitly sharing user data with Chinese authorities, according to two 2018 independent surveys of Top10VPN free VPN apps. An additional 64% of apps had no web presence outside of their app store pages, and only 17% responded to customer support emails.
As of June 2019, Apple has reportedly brought down the hammer on apps that share user data with third parties. But 80% of the top 20 free VPN apps on Apple’s App Store seem to be breaking those rules, according to a July 2019 update on the Top10VPN survey.
As of August 2019, 77% of apps marked as potentially unsafe in the Top10VPN VPN Ownership Investigation – and 90% of apps marked as potentially unsafe in the Free VPN Risk Index – are still at risk.
“Google Play downloads of apps that we have identified as potentially unsafe have increased to 214 million in total, up from 85% in six months,” the report said. “Monthly installs of the App Store were stable at around 3.8 million, which is a relative increase as this total was generated by 20% fewer apps than at the beginning of the year as some apps are no longer available. “
On Android, 214 million downloads represent a lot of user credentials from unwitting volunteers. And what’s one of the most profitable things you can do with large amounts of user credentials?
2. You can catch malware
Let’s get this out of the way now: 38% of free Android VPNs contain malware, a CSIRO study found. And yes, many of those free VPNs were highly rated apps with millions of downloads. If you’re a free user, your chances of catching a nasty bug are greater than one in three.
So ask yourself what costs less: a secure VPN service for about a hundred dollars a year, or hiring an identity theft recovery company after some bastard stole your bank account and social security number?
But it can’t happen to you, can it? Wrong. Mobile ransomware attacks are on the rise. Symantec detected more than 18 million mobile malware instances in 2018 alone, representing a 54% year-on-year increase in variants. And last year, Kaspersky noticed onein password-stealing Trojans.
But malware isn’t the only way to make money if you’re using a free VPN service. There is an even easier way.
3. The advertising valanche
Aggressive advertising practices of a free plan can go beyond being hit by a few annoying pop-ups and quickly get into dangerous territory. Some VPNs sneak ad serving trackers through your browser’s media reading capabilities, which then remain on your digital trail as a prison keeper in a B-class remake of Escape from Alcatraz.
HotSpot Shield VPN gained some painful notoriety over such allegations in 2017, when it was hit by an FTC complaint for over-the-top privacy violations in displaying ads. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that not only did the company have a baked-in back door that was used to secretly sell data to third-party ad networks, but it also employed five different tracking libraries and actually sent user traffic to secret servers.
When the story came out, HotSpot parent company AnchorFree denied the researchers ‘findings in an email to Ars Technica: “We never redirect our users’ traffic to third-party sources rather than the websites they wanted to visit. free version of our Hotspot Shield solution openly and clearly states that it is funded by ads, but we do not intercept traffic with neither the free nor the premium version of our solutions. ”
AnchorFree has since offered annual transparency reports, although their value is still up to the reader.
Even if potential credit card fraud isn’t an issue, you don’t need popups and ad lag to bother you if you’re already dealing with another major problem with free VPNs.
4. Buffering … buffering … buffering
One of the main reasons people get a VPN is to access their favorite subscription services – Hulu, HBO, Netflix – when they travel to countries where those companies block access based on your location. But what’s the point of accessing the geo-blocked video content you’ve paid for when the free VPN service you’re using is so slow that you can’t watch it?
Some free VPNs are known to sell your bandwidth, potentially putting you on a legal hook for everything they do with it. The best known case of this was, which in 2015 was caught quietly stealing their users’ bandwidth and sold it, mercenary-style, to any group that wanted to use their user base as a botnet.
Ofer Vilenski, CEO of Hola, then admitted they had been caught by a ‘spammer’, but argued in a lengthy defense that bandwidth harvesting was typical of this kind of technology.
“We assumed that by stating that Hola is one [peer-to-peer] network, it was clear that people were sharing their bandwidth with the community network in exchange for their free service, ”he wrote.
If being deployed as part of a botnet isn’t enough to slow you down, free VPN services usually pay for fewer servers, too. That means your traffic will generally bounce around longer between distant, overcrowded servers or even wait behind paid users’ traffic.
To top it all off, subscription streaming sites are useful for those trying to sneak onto their video services for free. These services routinely block large numbers of IP addresses that they have determined to belong to turnstile hopping freeloaders. Free VPNs cannot afford to invest in a long list of new IP addresses for their users like a paid VPN service can.
That means you may not even be able to log into a subscription media service that you paid for if your free VPN uses an outdated batch of IP addresses. Good luck gettingto load over that VPN connection.
5. Paid options keep getting better
The good news is there are many solid VPNs on the market that offer a range of features depending on your needs and budget. You can browse our ratings and reviews to find the right VPN service for you. If you’re looking for something specific for mobile, we
If you want an introduction before deciding which service to drop the money on, we’ve got itto help you get to grips with the basics of VPNs and what to look for when choosing a VPN service.
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