“Why pay for something when you can get it for free?” That’s probably how most people rationalize the use of a free VPN service instead of a paid one. However, are free VPNs really “free” or are there some hidden costs that you may have overlooked? It’s a good question, especially in today’s digital age where many businesses can get away with employing deceptive strategies to market their brand. The VPN industry is no exception.
Why Would You Need to Hide Your IP Address With a VPN?
Before we get into the hidden risks of using free VPN services, it is essential to understand why people use a VPN in the first place. In a nutshell, people use the latter to unlock geo-blocked content and hide information about their online activities from prying eyes. It accomplishes this by encrypting data flowing in and out of a user’s computer or mobile device and then routing it to a VPN server which directly interacts with the target server (website or app). As a result, ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and other third parties do not see the user’s IP address and other sensitive information.
Of course, it’s not to say that no one can ever see your information online as long as you’re using a VPN. The company itself that provides you with the VPN service has access to your data, and therein lies the potential problem. When you rely on a VPN to protect your identity over the Internet, it’s crucial that you opt for a service provider that you can trust.
When many of the premium VPNs on the market cost $100 or more per year, a free VPN might seem like a knight in shining armor, which isn’t the case. Like the real knights of the medieval ages, free VPNs are almost always self-serving, and it’s not that difficult to see why. After all, servers cost a significant amount of money to run and maintain which even free VPN companies have to pay for. The only possible means to accomplish the latter is for free VPN companies to sell the data of its users. Information about one’s online activities is much more valuable than most people realize and a VPN company gets all of it when you use their “free” service.
Why would anyone want to buy your information from a free VPN service?
To better understand just how valuable your online information is, consider Facebook’s acquisition of a VPN company called Onavo in 2013. The social media giant paid as much as $200 million to finance the acquisition. While they marketed the move as a necessary step towards protecting user data, it turns out that Facebook was doing quite the opposite by gathering sensitive information from users which included the following:
- Website visits
- Preferences and interests
- Shopping history
It is believed that the information above was then sold to interested parties to use as they see fit. As you might imagine, this was a nightmare for users that value their privacy; many of which denounced Facebook’s Free VPN Service as a form of spyware as it secretly collected information in an environment that promised its users a measure of privacy. As a result of the backlash, Facebook pulled Onavo from iOS App Store in August 2018 followed by the Android Play Store in February 2019.
Popular Free VPN Services That Sell Your Data
If you've ever looked for ways to unlock geo-restricted content on Netflix for free, then you have probably heard of a free VPN service called “Hola.” The latter has more than 150 million users around the world and if you are one of them, then you may want to pay attention to the next paragraph.
As it turns out, Hola is one of the worst “free” VPN services out there. This is because it not only collects and sells user information but turns computers into exit nodes that allow them to cash in on their user’s bandwidth. The latter was discovered in 2015 by a team of researchers investigating reports of illicit tracking over the Internet.
Betternet is another free VPN service with a user base of around 38 million people, most of whom are unaware of how their personal information is being treated.
Of course, Betternet is relatively transparent about the ways they make money from their users which include the following:
- Video and display ads
- Tracking and logging user information
- Advertiser cookies
- Sponsored apps
While the monetization methods mentioned above are not unusual for a free VPN, Betternet is notable in that it reportedly has one of the largest numbers of tracking libraries out of all free VPNs on the market. If the latter is a fact that you’re not comfortable with, then Betternet is something that you would want to avoid at all cost.
Opera’s free VPN service is unique in that it is an integrated feature of the Opera Browser. Users need only enable it from the Opera Browser and start enjoying a secure connection to the Internet without having to install or configure anything. You might think that such a feature is Opera’s strategy to increase adoption of their browser, but that’s just one part of the story.
If you are after the most popular free VPN service on the Internet, then you’ve no doubt heard of Hotspot Shield. With a user-base of more than 500 million users around the world, the latter is probably the most widely used free VPN service on the web. Unfortunately, this also means that it is a virtual gold mine for marketers and Hotspot Shield has been monetizing the platform extensively over the years.
Like many of the free VPN services on this list, Hotspot Shield makes money by selling user information to interested third-parties and display ads. What makes the latter’s reputation so notorious though is that they don’t just stop there. Hotspot Shield also makes money by redirecting users to affiliate pages — a practice that has since sparked thousands of complaints to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission).
As far as free VPN services go, Psiphon is one of the oldest names on the Internet and has been around since 2008. For more than a decade, they’ve managed to keep their free VPN services running by selling user information to third-parties. It is estimated that Psiphon makes at least $2.2 million through the latter alone.
As mentioned earlier in this article, Onavo was Facebook’s free VPN service which was used to mine and sell user data for marketing and advertising. Facebook also monetizes the platform through display advertising and sharing the information it collects with affiliates and other interested parties.
In February 2019, Facebook officially announced that they were pulling the plug on Onavo and other related Facebook research programs amid controversies over privacy and data security.
Despite its obscure name, ZPN’s free VPN service has over 8 million active users around the world which is nothing to scoff at. One reason for its surge in popularity is that they offer 10 GB of bandwidth which is considerably more than what most other free VPN services provide.
FinchVPN is one of the better choices when it comes to free VPN services and is widely regarded as more secure than many of its counterparts. While they do restrict user bandwidth and server locations for their free service, FinchVPN does offer some advanced features which include the following:
- Protocols for bypassing VPN blocking (SSH VPN, Anti-DPI, SOCKS VPN)
- Port forwarding support (enables remote computers to connect to another computer or service within a private local network)
- HTTP and SOCKS5 Proxy
- OpenVPN support
However, FinchVPN is similar to other free VPN companies in that they share user information with third-parties. This includes connection/disconnection time, bandwidth use, and IP addresses.
Of course, what makes TouchVPN one of the worst free VPN services around comes down to three reasons:
- Touch VPN is based in the US which means that it falls under the “Five Eyes” jurisdiction — an intelligence alliance between five countries which include the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. This means that any of the latter can force the VPN company to hand over all the information they’ve collected from their users.
- No support for torrenting or Netflix. If you plan on using TouchVPN to do any of the latter, then you’d best look elsewhere.
- Reports of DNS Leaks which cast doubts in its ability to protect the privacy of its users.
Key Differences Between Paid and the Best Free VPNs
Now that we have gone over the ways on how free VPN services make money out of their users’ information, it’s clear that they are not a good choice for protecting yourself against cybersecurity threats and keeping your online activities anonymous. Keep in mind that running a dependable VPN network costs money. VPN companies are not charitable institutions and everything from running global servers, providing user support, and developing applications have a price, and users end up paying for them in one way or another.
So how is a paid VPN service any different? Well, quite a lot as you might imagine and we highly recommend them for the following reasons:
- They are in the business of providing real data protection and privacy online. Most reputable paid VPN services don’t log any information at all resulting in truly anonymous user experience.
- Paid VPN services use top-tier digital security protocols because that is the single product or service they offer. Such protocols include Advanced Encryption Standard such as 256-bit AES, VPN Tunnelling and “end-to-end” encryption. These features make it extremely difficult (if not impossible) for unscrupulous individuals to get hold of sensitive user information online.
- No limitations in terms of bandwidth and speed. Such tactics are only purposely employed by some free VPN companies to compel their users to upgrade to a paid plan.
- More server locations which make them better for unlocking geo-restricted content. Free VPN services cannot afford to run hundreds of servers all over the world.
5 Best Paid VPN's to Protect Your Online Privacy
It’s no surprise that the premise of getting anything of value for free is an extremely effective marketing strategy. This is why the use of free VPN services are so prevalent, although it is something that we cannot recommend for obvious reasons. The whole point of using a VPN is to keep your information safe from interested parties — something that a free VPN service doesn’t offer. If you’re going to use a VPN service, it would be best to opt for a reputable service provider that gives you the utmost privacy and data protection for a price — nothing more and nothing less.