Why you should avoid free VPNs

By , Jan 29, 2016

vpn

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  • Lack of or outdated data encryption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.

For example, straight out of the privacy policy of Onavo Protect, a popular free VPN in the App Store: “We may use the information we receive to provide, analyze, improve, and develop new and innovative services for users, Affiliates and third parties; to communicate with users; to support advertising and related activities; and to help protect ourselves or someone 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.

Conclusion

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.

Related:

If you use a VPN, share your opinion about it in the comments below!

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  • I only occasionally use a VPN, but mine is great. I use Cloak, which has been around for several years and I even met the guys behind it at a Macworld show. They’re cheap, from $2.99 per month to $9.99 per month or $99.99 a year. I highly recommend this Cloak.

  • Isaac Vazquez

    I occasionally use better net as a free vpn when i do get onto some shady wifi spots.
    are they pretty bad?

    • You’d have to dig in to their privacy policy and terms and conditions to know how good or bad they are. This is of course assuming they’re telling the truth. My advice would be don’t touch a free VPN simply because you never know how trustworthy they are. If you’re paying for something the company providing the service is under more scrutiny. If it’s about price and you want something free just use Tor. Tor is just as secure if not more secure than a VPN however you pay a speed penalty for this security.

    • Anthony Bouchard

      I agree with Aidan, but I will say that I use betternet fairly frequently simply because some protection may be better than none and I’m cheap.

    • Nolan I.

      Betternet is not that bad in terms of what’s stated here.

      I use it to get around the overprotective school wifi. It works like a charm, except that you have to turn off two different toggles in Settings if you want to turn it off.

  • Ja1lBreak K1nG

    I use Private Internet Access. I haven’t had any issues with them!

  • (JailbreakQA) King Shoot

    I use Betternet and I haven’t had any issues with it. Works flawlessly.

  • Mr_Coldharbour

    How would you rate TunnelBear’s VPN service? Is it one of the more/less secure ones in terms of encryption and anonymity? Anyone?

  • osmang

    I also need some advices for hotspotshield vpn. otherwise Im gonne try cloak or pia?

  • :D

    What about betternet?

  • Gucciipad

    I agree just pay. It’s not that much.

  • Gucciipad

    60 for lifetime

  • I like SurfEasy. Can use on my PC too (5 total devices) and you keep your rewards. You start at 500MB free. With the rewards, you can get up to 2.1GB a month. It’s getting high reviews on the App Store

  • Nolan I.

    I only use VPN when I’m being blocked from using some websites by other networks, such as my school wifi or some public wifis, like hotels and such.

    I use Wallcy on Chrome for internet (seems to be the only one that works on my school wifi for computers) and Betternet on iOS (again, same). I don’t do shady stuff online, so I figure I’m pretty safe.

  • Sean Kyle

    The free ones are really very dangereous. It is better not to use a VPN than using a free one. Thankfully I use Purevpn and I am quite satisfied with its service, privacy policy and locations. Itis a well known service but couldn’t find it in this article.

  • Harsh Sac

    What about Tor?
    I just use it to circumvent my country’s censorship…

  • Jack Wong

    I have my own VPN with Sonicwall TZ500, by the way I am a IT guy, this is why I would invest that much for a firewall at home lab.

    Moreover, the paid VPN service mostly doesn’t work well in China… this is another reason why I prefer our own VPN connection.

    Again, this is a great article.

  • Khang Nghi

    Any more good suggestions ? I’m still a student and use a lot of Public Wifi so I need a cheap VPN …

  • nullcode

    I have used FrootVPN for years

  • Bill Smells

    Personal VPNs are easy. Buy a Mac Mini, install Apple’s Server app on it, set up the VPN on that. Takes about 15 minutes and you’re done.

  • Orenokoto

    I just started using IPVanish, seems good so far. I’m in Thailand now, connected to a server in Seattle. I’m having to do some online bill pay, so hoping IPVanish does what they say!

  • Diogo Pires

    Great article Anthony! It maybe out of your range to do an “How to create your own VPN” but that would be on my “to read” list 🙂

  • Billy Edwards

    That’s right. That’s why I use Ivacy VPN, which claims no-logs policy.