People use VPNs to protect their privacy from hackers, ISPs and data thieves. But do VPNs themselves collect your browsing data and sell it to third parties? Here̵
This is the most important point: you rely a lot on the VPN provider you use. Choose carefully! Do you trust your VPN provider more than your ISP?
VPNs can track you, and they can
The main selling point of using Virtual Private Networks or VPNs is to protect your privacy. They prevent malicious hacker attacks, prevent your Internet Service Provider (ISP) from peeking at your traffic, and mask your information from websites that may collect your personal information. While these claims are generally true, there is one party you should still be careful about: the VPN companies themselves.
Before we get into how a VPN can track your browsing data, let’s explain how a VPN works. A VPN essentially routes your Internet connection, provided by your ISP, through a secure, encrypted network powered by the VPN. This changes the IP address that websites can see, while at the same time obscuring your ISP’s ability to see your traffic. These encrypted networks can simulate different IP addresses and locations, and that’s how you can trick a streaming service like Netflix into thinking you’re in a different country.
During this process, your traffic goes through a third party, the VPN company’s server. A VPN company can log all the traffic that goes through their system, essentially giving them a complete picture of a user’s online browsing behavior. While most reputable VPNs don’t spy on their users and have no reason to do so, it can happen, and there are several examples of this.
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VPN espionage incidents
The most high-profile incident of a VPN spying on its users came to light in 2018, with a controversy surrounding Facebook’s Onavo Protect app. Facebook has released a VPN that claims to protect and encrypt user traffic. Yet in reality it was collecting sensitive information from users, such as websites they browsed and apps they opened on their devices. While Facebook revealed that the app would forward information to Facebook, people who haven’t read the fine print may not have noticed.
Facebook would then feed this data to the Facebook Research program, which enabled the sale of Facebook ads and business development initiatives. It would also give Facebook insight into how users browse competing apps, such as Snapchat. You can read more about what happened in our piece on Onavo Protect.
In addition, dozens of free VPNs were found to spy on their users. An article from Buzzfeed News reported that Sensor Analytics, an analytics platform used by investors and developers, owned several free VPN apps that collected user information without their knowledge. These apps had millions of downloads and did not explicitly state who owned them. The company would then migrate this browsing data to their analytics platform.
Be especially careful with VPNs that are free and don’t appear to have a paid version or clear business model. Chances are these apps will make a profit by harvesting user data and reselling it to third parties.
RELATED: Don’t use Facebook’s Onavo VPN – it’s designed to spy on you
No Logging and VPNs Policy
So should you use a VPN? If you do your research and select a paid VPN with a good reputation, your VPN is unlikely to spy on you.
The best way to avoid such incidents is to look for VPNs without logging. This policy is a guarantee that these companies will not register any user traffic at all. Many paid VPNs, such as NordVPN, ExpressVPN and Mozilla VPN, explicitly don’t have logging policies on their websites and apps. Having these on their websites could make them liable for violating their policies.
Before signing up for a VPN, make sure to check its website carefully and read some trustworthy reviews first. Here are some of the questions to ask before signing up for even a free trial:
- Does the VPN have reliable property?
- Does it offer paid plans?
- Does the VPN have many reliable user reviews?
- Has the VPN been verified by reliable third parties?
- Does the VPN have an explicit policy not to log in to its website?
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Secure your privacy
Protecting your privacy doesn’t stop with owning a VPN. There are plenty of ways you can expose yourself if you’re not careful. Even something as simple as using identical passwords on different websites can put your security at risk.
And if you log into websites, you can be tracked by that site even if you’re using a VPN. If you are signed into Google with firstname.lastname@example.org and you enable a VPN, Google will still know you are email@example.com. Cookies in your browser stores can also identify you to websites, even after connecting to a VPN.
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