When it comes to VPNs, most people think of them as a security precaution. And while that’s certainly true, there are also risks associated with using them—especially if you’re using a free VPN service.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the hidden dangers of using free VPNs, and we’ll explain why you should be careful before signing up for one.
Main dangers of a free VPN
The first thing to know about free VPNs is that they’re often not as secure as their paid counterparts. This is because they have fewer resources and may not use the same level of encryption. As a result, your data could be more vulnerable to hackers.
Another risk is that free VPNs may sell your browsing data to third parties. This information can then be used for targeted advertising or even identity theft.
Finally, free VPNs may contain malware or malicious code that can infect your device. This can lead to all sorts of problems, from decreased performance to data loss.
What is a VPN?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is software that allows you to establish a secure, private connection between two devices over the public internet.
Your computer, phone, or tablet connects to the VPN server, and all the data sent between them is encrypted in what’s called a tunnel.
When the data reaches the VPN server it is decrypted and then it’s forwarded onto the site you really want to visit.
By accessing the internet in this way, the company that connects you to the internet is unable to see the sites that you are visiting. They only know that they are carrying the traffic to the VPN server. Similarly, the site that’s receiving the traffic from the VPN server only sees that it originated at the VPN server.
This is why VPNs can be used to bypass restrictions or censorship, in countries where certain websites are blocked, and let you access US Netflix and BBC iPlayer which are supposed to only be available in these countries.
What are the dangers of free VPNs?
Lack of security
The main danger of using a free VPN is the lack of security.
A CSIRO study analysed 283 free VPNs and found that 18% did not encrypt traffic and 84% leaked user data
When we talk about VPNs it’s often in the context of how they improve security, but a bad VPN provider is in the perfect position to steal or leak all your data.
Everything that’s leaving your computer is travelling through their servers.
This is as true of paid VPNs as it is of free VPNs, but free VPNs often have fewer resources than their paid counterparts. They might use older VPN protocols like PPTP which has known security issues and makes it easier for hackers to intercept your data.
Free VPNs are unlikely to allow a 3rd party to audit their security. You have to take them at their word that they’re really keeping your data private. The best providers will pay for independent companies to come in and make sure that their practices are up to scratch.
Selling your data
Running a VPN service is costly. The servers have to be paid for and maintained, customer support has to be provided, and there are marketing and other overheads. VPN providers are a business. They aren’t running a charity, because they really want everyone to be able to access US Netflix. Free VPN providers have to make their money somehow, and one way they do this is by selling your data. Along with Chrome browser plugins like Hola, VPNs for Windows and Mac are also prone to these problems. Your browsing data is valuable to advertisers. In extreme cases, free browser plugin VPNs have faced lawsuits for redirecting traffic to sites. A famous free VPN, which you may have even used yourself ‘Hola VPN’ had millions of user’s computers hijacked and used in a botnet to attack other websites. The craziest part about it is that Hola is still on the Chrome Web Store and has a 5-star rating.
Malware can either exploit a security flaw created by the VPN to find its way onto your device or the worst-case scenario is that the free VPN provider is knowingly infecting your computer. A 2016 CSIRO study, found that of the 10 VPNs most likely to be infected with malware, six were free. Once a computer is infected, malware can collect all sorts of sensitive information including passwords, banking details, and browsing history. It can also be used to launch DDoS attacks and hack into other computers on the same network.
While not as dangerous as the other issues with using a free VPN, slower speeds are still a big problem.
Free VPNs tend to have fewer servers, which results in more people using the same server and competing for bandwidth. This can make it difficult to stream video or even load a simple webpage. Less than 1% of VPN reviews are about privacy and security. The majority of people accessing these services are doing so to get around geo-blocks and access content that’s overseas, you see the appeal of a free service? The problem is that the free service will likely be so slow it’s unusable, and then it will be forgotten about. A festering security vulnerability.
Let’s wrap this up
There are many dangers of not using paid VPNs, the main ones being a lack of security, selling your data, injecting malware, and slower speeds. It’s important to be aware of these dangers so that you can make an informed decision to use a reliable & paid VPN instead of the free one. After all, your security and privacy are at stake.
Featured image: Stefan Coders/Pixabay