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Is it a good idea to trust a free VPN service?

Whether someone wants a VPN for security or to bypass geo-blocking, going for the free option isn’t worth the cost.

woman using vpn service
Image: Unsplash

VPN usage has increased exponentially in the past couple of years. Thanks in part to privacy concerns, people know that they need to use a VPN to keep their digital data safe. Of course, there’s also the added bonus that VPNs let people access streaming services from anywhere they want. 

Back in 2017, at least 25% of internet users were accessing the web through a VPN, with Asia Pacific countries leading the pack. Since then, the numbers kept increasing enough to bring VPNs to the forefront of cyber security-minded people the world over. Market data and insights leader Statista puts the global VPN market value at an estimated 35.73 billion U.S. dollars in 2022. Which translates to massive popularity – under both individuals and businesses.

Yet despite this popularity, there’s still a big entry barrier to VPN usage – the price tag. While most paid VPNs offer competitive prices and discounts, many people still choose to forego rather than pay for the service. Which has brought about the rise of the free VPNs.

The Free VPN Market

In a bid to siphon off some of the safety-conscious but unwilling to pay market, free VPNs started popping up by the hundreds.

These providers promise their users the same benefits that paid services offer. Though, in the end, they almost always fall short of their paid counterparts. They generally have low speeds and limitations on how much data can pass through the server per month. Most of them also greatly limit the number of devices that can be connected to one account. 

Staunch Security Proponent or Privacy Disaster?

Trust is an integral component of the relationship between a security-oriented provider like a VPN and its clients. After all, the service is given immense power over people’s entire digital identity.

Once turned on, every single online action and activity is routed through the VPN service. If it’s unscrupulous, the provider can then gather a person’s entire browsing history and sell it to whoever pays. Or, depending on where the company is located, they might be obligated to retain and hand data over to the government.

So it begs the question – why would people entrust their digital safety to the lowest hanging fruit? These VPNs aren’t offering their services out of the goodness of their hearts, after all. This means there’s a payoff somewhere – and with anything that’s free on the internet, it usually translates to people’s personal data.

To see how trustworthy (or not) these services are, let’s delve into the hordes of free VPNs available for Android devices, for example: 

According to an investigation by one VPN reviews site, 85% of the VPN apps on popular app stores did not outline sufficient user data protections in their privacy policies. Of these, more than 150 of the most popular free VPN apps had intrusive permission requests. 

If that’s not concerning enough, then a study by researchers at UC Berkeley and other institutions revealed something even more sinister. Of the 283 free VPNs they studied, 38% were found to contain serious malware.

The most concerning thing is that people aren’t aware of these risks. These VPN apps remain extremely popular, and few of their users seem concerned with how secure they are. Only about 1% of negative user feedback is even security-oriented.

Free Rarely Means It’s Free

That “free” tagline always comes with a catch. Take Facebook, for instance. It’s one of the biggest social media giants in the world. People use it for free, but in return for their service, the platform gathers massive amounts of personal data. It then sells, uses, and distributes that data for profit.

Nothing is stopping VPNs from doing the same, except they aren’t always upfront about it. Although some do tuck away their motives in plain sight. For instance, this privacy policy clearly states that the provider will use users’ data to deliver targeted marketing to their customers.

The other, even more ominous possibility, is VPNs that weren’t created to sell anything at all. Cybercriminals come up with quick and easy ways to steal from people all the time. What could be easier than creating a free VPN service and just have people hand over their data willingly?

A VPN that offers true privacy and security, however, shouldn’t be collecting any data whatsoever from their customers. Otherwise, what’s the point of installing one in the first place?

Conclusion

Whether someone wants a VPN for security or to bypass geo-blocking, going for the free option isn’t worth the cost. People are now starting to realize the value of their digital data and how much cybercriminals can do with it. But those who decide to solve their concerns with a quick free fix might have to pay a bigger price down the road.

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