There’s a cliché in the world of online services: if it’s free, you are the product. As overused as the phrase is, it hasn’t lost any of its truth.
Websites and free software rely on tracking users and their habits in order to monetize their business. There are obvious examples like the targeted ads you see on Facebook based on what pages you like and the content you’ve shared or ads in Gmail stemming from your emails. With software you may download a particular program but find that it has installed some useless software too and an annoying toolbar in your browser.
With VPN services and a free VPN, the same philosophy applies. The market is overrun with options and it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, especially for newcomers to the technology. Most VPNs charges a monthly or yearly fee, which will give you access to servers and bandwidth depending on your needs.
The more privacy-focused user will be happy to pay up money for a security solution that meets their needs. However some users may be looking for something a little simpler, just to access something like Netflix and for that reason, opt for a quick and easy free VPN or proxy service. On paper it makes sense. Why pay for it when you’re not looking for security and privacy, just a means to unblock content?
This is why the Hola VPN browser plug-in was so successful for so long, it offered an easy to use solution for free. That is until earlier this year when it was revealed that users of the Israel-based company’s free VPN could co-opt each other’s IP addresses to access websites. In theory, someone could use your IP address to view illegal content and you could potentially get caught up in it all.
“We assumed that by stating that Hola is a P2P network, it was clear that people were sharing their bandwidth with the community network in return for their free service,” said the company in response to an awareness campaign against the company called Adios Hola. There was of course one way to prevent this happening and that was upgrading to Hola’s paid packages but the whole incident has damaged Hola’s reputation in the eyes of customers and the security community.
Many security pros have since continued to poke holes in Hola’s software security.
When you use a free VPN or proxy service for a seemingly innocuous task like video streaming, you may still be giving up your privacy unknowingly. Software can scoop up your browsing habits and data and store that data unencrypted.
“It means that all your private information sent over such an unsecure connection can be captured by the operator,” says André Elmoznino Laufer from SaferVPN. “If they’re dishonest, they can then do whatever they want with it – for example sell it to third parties or steal your identity.”
Paid VPN services should route their traffic through their own server and monitoring the bandwidth for performance, says BolehVPN. But it should not monitor anything about the user’s traffic itself – what is often referred to as “logless”. Again in theory a paid VPN shouldn’t need to resort to unethical tactics as they are making money through subscriptions.
A paid VPN’s service shouldn’t be taken as gospel either. Research is important to make sure that the VPN deal you’re getting is a good one with the protection and variety of servers you want but also they need to have a good reputation for protecting user privacy and a commitment to security. Take advantage of free trials if possible.
This is where reviews and user feedback comes in handy, you can check out our full list of VPN reviews here or read up on VPN communities online like r/VPN on Reddit where many VPN users discuss the pros and cons of providers.