There’s much buzz surrounding free VPN services, and for a good reason: a free Virtual Private Network (VPN) gives you access to a VPN server network and the necessary software without having to shell out money. But is free VPN all the nice, harmless things it is painted to be?
This article will guide you through the risk of free VPN, from free VPN leaks to that much dreaded VPN malware.
But first, what’s free VPN?
VPN software creates an encrypted connection, typically referred to as a tunnel, between your computer and a server that’s controlled by the VPN company. It then passes all network activity through the guarded tunnel. What this means is even though you are using an airport’s WiFi network, none of the other individuals on that network can view what’s taking place inside that tunnel.
Not only does this make your data safe from intruders on the network you’re connected to, but advertisers and unauthorized online entities are also unable to see your actual IP address or confirm your current location. What they will see instead are the IP address and location information for the VPN server, keeping even your ISP – which can try to sell user information about you – in the dark.
As no technology is 100 percent foolproof, your traffic can eventually be tracked and even intercepted once it exits from the VPN server, particularly if you’re linked to sites that aren’t using HTTPS. Even intricate timing algorithms can be deployed to predict when as well as where you leave the encrypted tunnel.
The myth of free VPN
Many experts are quick to point out the age-old adage: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
This means that someone could be paying quite a cost for so-called free VPN. These services, after all, come with high recurring costs, and maintaining VPN servers worldwide is rather expensive to support and maintain, as well as to update and develop in the first place. A VPN service entails servers and data lines, or you’re actually paying a cloud vendor for every bit that’s received, sent, and then stored.
Take a look at the two categories that free VPNs can be broken down into:
- Unlimited VPNs – They offer unlimited access to the free VPN network, where the VPN service is typically monetizing the user in this case. They do this largely through collecting user information and selling it to third parties for a profit.
- Freemium VPNs – They entice you with a “free sample” in hopes of getting you to upgrade to a paid VPN account. The offer is a limited amount of bandwidth for a certain period of time. Here, paying VPN customers are left to cover the costs for free users.
Whether it costs money or personal data, it turns out that free VPN isn’t free at all – someone has to pay for it, and there’s a good likelihood that that person’s going to be you.
The untold risks of free VPN
Now, let’s get to the biggest risks and dangers of using free VPNs:
- Free VPN malware – Malware comes in varying forms and shapes, but the real danger lies in the fact that they can be hidden inside VPNs and steal your data to achieve the following:
- Bombard you with targeted ads and spam mails
- Steal digital products you’ve purchased
- Steal your money through your bank details
- Hijack your online accounts
- Lock or encrypt your devices in exchange for an amount, also known as ransomware
- Free VPN leaks – When you’re using a free VPN, the quality of the tunnel is less robust and is likely to be filled with holes. Your data and IP address, for instance, can leak through those holes and can be picked up by just about anyone looking. According to some experts, while paid VPNs are also exposed to traffic leaks, those are far less common occurrences and their tunnel is probably better built.
- Traffic priority for adverts – Let’s say your free provider isn’t selling your data. The truth is they still need to make money, and in many cases this is done through advertising revenue. Ads on free VPNs enjoy a specific privilege, where the provider uses third-party advertisers who are unique to your proxy server session. The ad network’s traffic is prioritized since VPNs want you to click those ads away. The consequences? Slower loading of pages and a less-than-ideal browsing experience.
- Free VPN tracking – Hidden tracking has the same nasty agenda as malware’s: to amass your private data. A CSIRO study, which analyzed 283 VPNs, discovered that 75 percent of free VPN apps had tracking embedded in the source code. The tracking libraries serve as a way to collect user data for the purpose of advertising as well as analytics. This practically makes free VPNs spyware in disguise, ironically as privacy and security tools.
- Stolen bandwidth – Some of the worst offenders also steal your bandwidth and resell it to others. Learn from the example of the Israel-based Hola VPN service, which was found to steal user bandwidth and then resell it through a sister company. Until the issue was exposed, millions of Hola users had zero idea that their bandwidth were being stolen and resold to outside parties.
Free VPNs are probably not worth the risk
There are a number of well-meaning institutions and groups such as activists and universities that offer free VPNs. The problem, though, is they’re also suffering from a strain in resources, which is bound to lead to slowdowns or stoppages. It’s not also entirely impossible for them to harvest personal user data for future use in their own agendas.
The cost of identity theft is becoming steeper by the day, both in out-of-pocket expenses and in the time and hassle involved in cleaning up the mess. In this day and age, your personal credentials are worth more than gold, and it takes due diligence to keep them safe.
Add these to the fact that free VPNs have baggage, quality issues, and their own motives.
At the end of the day, it’s your personal choice to use a free VPN service. What we’re trying to achieve here is good education for you to arrive at smart, informed choices. You can, for example, check out VPN comparison resources online to get hold of reliable VPNs and become familiar with the latest issues.
In choosing a reputable VPN provider, you’re assured of getting the protection you need on top of safe and secure internet surfing and the benefits of VPN access on several computers or devices. On the security front, you’re guaranteed of high-speed connection with unlimited bandwidth, no activity logging, military-grade AES-256 encryption, and the ability to bypass firewalls and internet censorship. You’re off to a great, easy start in installation and setup, updates and support, and access from multiple devices across all platforms.
What do you think is the ultimate risk of free VPN? What’s your own experience with these risks? Let us know in the comments section below!