We all want to be safe, and we’re all on a budget. But where can we cut corners? Free VPNs seem like a promising compromise. Sure, it’s evident from the start that they won’t be as fast and flashy as a paid VPN. Many of them at least appear to offer the security we need. Many people opt for free VPNs as a compromise, but at there’s a lot more at risk than they may realize.
The Way VPNs Work
A VPN, short for virtual private network, is a tool to encrypt everything you do online and send it through a remote private server. This server can be selected almost anywhere in the world. If you’re in the United States, you can use a VPN to spoof your location as Australia. You can then hide your identity as a random private person from Australia whenever you visit a website. Your internet service provider will have no idea where you’re going.
People use VPNs to bypass government censorship or region restrictions on streaming sites. Sometimes, people will use VPNs for something as innocuous as streaming the latest episode of their favorite show a day before it becomes available in their country. Some people use them to download torrents anonymously without leaking their personal IP address.
In short, a VPN is a complicated service that does a lot to hide your identity, remove restrictions, and provide you freedom online. Finding one for free often seems too good to be true, and it almost always is. VPNs are expensive and complicated to run, and this requires money. Most free VPN providers do ambiguous or shady things to get that money – they’re not running a charity, after all.
Security Concerns and Malware with Free VPNs
Some free VPNs come preloaded with terrifying ulterior motives. Investigations as recently as June 2019 found that VPN companies directly share information with the Chinese or Russian government, making them the exact opposite of private. These decoy free VPNs were used to watch Chinese citizens hoping to use them to bypass the government’s censorship of the internet, and all the details were hidden in the fine print.
Countless other free VPNs, particularly in the form of mobile apps, have a history of sharing data with third parties. Is there even a point to using a VPN if your data is being collected and stored? Isn’t that the exact scenario you’re attempting to avoid by using a VPN? These companies hide their disclosures in obtusely worded language in long privacy policies that most users never bother to read. They’re only barely getting a VPN, and the encryption doesn’t matter at all in regards to the lack of privacy they ultimately receive.
More than a third of free mobile VPNs have been found to be bundled with malware. Shady businesses, app developers, and hackers release free VPN apps that lull users into a false sense of security. Then, the app steals the very data they were attempting to keep safe.
Performance Issues Many Free VPN Users Experience
Even if your VPN is clean as a whistle and really does all it promises to do, without monitoring you or stealing your data, you’re still likely to have a hard time. VPNs are very costly to run, and you’re getting this service for free. The $0 price tag is going to come with some disadvantages that are hard to ignore.
Many free VPNs compromise on convenience and speed. They’re weighed down heavily with paid ads, because the operator needs to pay off the operating costs. They’re also overloaded. With so many people attempting to use the same server, speeds barely crawl. Good luck trying to stream a 4K video with thousands of other people on the server attempting to do the same thing.
Some VPN companies will even steal and re-appropriate the bandwidth of their users in an attempt to boost speeds for everyone else. This bandwidth leeching is often not specified to users when they sign up for the service and is merely considered to be the cost they pay when signing up for a free VPN service.
The Level of Trust Required
Free VPNs can and will do whatever they want. Many of them are plants put in place by governments with strict censorship policies or high surveillance. The information goes places you don’t want it to go. Make sure you understand the VPN company’s logging policy. If they store any logs at all, they’re automatically less secure. You want a VPN that collects nothing. If they don’t collect anything, there’s nothing to be sold, traded, monitored, or handed over to a third party.
Why Affordable Paid VPNs Are the Way to Go
Since VPNs are expensive to run, the companies need to make their money somehow. It’s better to pay the company to use the VPN than it is to make compromises with your security. If you’re giving them an affordable flat rate every month, they’re less likely to have a need to weigh you down with ads, jam you on overcrowded servers, or collect and sell your data.
They’re profitable because you’re a customer – not because they’re blindsiding you. Your monthly bill allows them to create a service that’s much faster and much safer than what a free VPN would ever be able to provide.
Affordable VPN services based in countries without mandatory government censorship are always going to be a better alternative to free VPNs. In the long run, free VPNs are going to cost you a lot more. It’s possible to get great VPN service without your information being stored for a low flat rate every month, and if a few bucks can put your mind at ease, it’s well worth the cash.