VPNs are great tools for helping secure your internet access on an unsecured Wi-Fi network, such as those at McDonald’s, but did you know that not all VPNs are created equally?
By using a free VPN that you haven’t carefully read the terms and conditions of, you might be putting your privacy at more of a risk than it would have been just using the unsecured Wi-Fi network to browse the web in the first place.
Just how private is your data?
Depending on the VPN that you choose to use, your information may not actually be as secure as you think it is. Not all VPNs are as secure as others, and this is especially the case with free VPN services.
Why? Because free VPN services have to pay for their servers somehow, and this typically means tracking information about your web browsing activity to sell to third parties, whether anonymous or not. Many free VPN providers claim to provide you with shelter from snoopers, just to snoop on you themselves.
Some VPNs disclose whether or not your web traffic is being logged for this purpose, but most people don’t bother to read the terms and conditions of software before using them to know that – hence the issue.
The kinds of things that a free VPN service might take note of in their little history books are:
- Your IP address with time stamps
- How long you’re using the service
- The types of websites and services you’re using
Sounds a little scary, right? That’s all the information you wish was secured from third parties, but often times isn’t, even with a free VPN to hide behind.
Other downsides of free VPNs
If the VPN service is free, and is truly keeping your data private, then you’ve at least struck gold in that department, but there are typically a few other side effects of a free VPN that can lessen the user experience of web browsing, and those include:
- Ad-ridden web experiences
- Throttled bandwidth speeds
- Monthly capped data usage
- Lack of or outdated data encryption
While they all seem like fair trade-offs for something that isn’t costing you anything out of pocket, there are a few questions you should be asking yourself about the trade-offs:
- Are those ads they’re showing me safe, or will I get redirected to a malicious website if I click on one?
- Will throttled bandwidth affect my ability to complete a data-heavy task in a limited amount of time?
- How quickly am I going to blow through my data cap before I need more secure data to keep me safe?
- Is the encryption method, if any at all, strong enough to prevent prying eyes from stealing my information?
All of these are valid questions you’ll have to ask yourself when choosing the right VPN for you, and many times, free VPNs will get a certain job done, only to cause other issues down the line with something else.
Not all paid VPNs are perfect either
By now you’re probably thinking I’m trying to sell you on some kind of paid VPN service, but that isn’t the case. The whole point of this piece is to get you thinking about your privacy.
The fact of the matter is, even paid VPN services might over-indulge in user tracking, and the only way to be sure is to check the terms and conditions of the software before proceeding with using it.
The reason even some paid VPN services will track their users (even just an IP address) is because when some users try to use VPN services to avoid the law when doing things they shouldn’t online, law enforcement will then go after the VPN service to obtain information about users who were misusing the service. In no way do we condone using a VPN to avoid law enforcement either, but this was a statement that needed to be said.
Paid VPN services will typically fight harder for your privacy than a free VPN service would, but only because they want your business. That’s not to say that they’re immune to hacking or court orders, however.
The best choice for a VPN
When it comes to trusting a third-party with your personal information for web browsing, it can be a tough choice. Some people opt to create their own VPNs using a server they create at home because it’s the only way to be sure your data isn’t being mishandled. Ideally, this may be one of the best solutions, but for some, the skills to create a VPN server at home aren’t in arm’s reach.
On the other hand, there are some paid VPNs out there that have a good reputation for security. One of the more notable is Private Internet Access, which promises two major things according to the company’s website: “encrypted connections,” and “anonymous IP addresses” so that your information and usage is never logged. The price is also fair, at anywhere from $2.50-4.98 per month.
These are the kinds of things you should be looking for when shopping around for a VPN. You don’t want your IP address getting logged or time-stamped, and you want your data being sent back and forth to be encrypted with up-to-date encryption methods.
There are other paid VPN services out there that offer similar standards for privacy and I encourage you to do your research before subscribing to one.
My personal advice
Never sign up for a VPN service without reading the terms and conditions. Despite what the advertisements may say, you always have to read the fine print to know whether or not the service has your best interest at heart.
In most cases, I use a free VPN myself because I just want a simple security standard while I’m out and about. I’m okay with having anonymous web logging, so long as my IP address isn’t being posted up all over, because I won’t go on privacy-sensitive websites until I’m back on a secured network anyway.
I would never recommend doing any kind of banking, social networking, or other sensitive things while connected to a VPN, because then your passwords and private information get sent through a potentially insecure network of servers.
When I use a VPN while I’m out and about, I’m usually just looking at the news, searching random queries on Google Search to increase my knowledge, or something else inconspicuous that isn’t likely to cause great harm to my privacy. Likewise for you, I would encourage you to be aware of what you might be passing through a VPN when you use it, and limit what you do.
The big picture here is things aren’t always as they seem to be. Although a company may advertise immunity from being snooped on, they may be the ones doing most of the snooping in the end, so you should always be wary about what VPN you choose to trust and read the terms and conditions before toggling on that VPN service and allowing your personal web traffic to pass through it.
- How to uninstall a VPN from your iPhone or iPad
- Increasing web browsing security in Safari for iOS
- Ten ways to increase privacy in iOS
If you use a VPN, share your opinion about it in the comments below!