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Is a free VPN worth the hassle?

Dominik

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Free VPN

A “free” VPN arguably isn’t worth the hassle for most people, though that isn’t to say such services are entirely useless.

However, those who truly care about privacy as an ideal will eventually find that the majority of options in the segment have been devised with entirely different goals in mind as they come to the terms with the fact that nothing in life is truly free, not even a sketchy website promising to make their digital footprint Vietnamese. But let’s elaborate on that a bit…

Privacy is a luxury

In terms of sheer functionality, VPNs are inherently superior to proxies. Regardless of whether you care about online privacy, data security, or both, they simply present you with more options, while also coming out on top of most overlapping segments, such as anonymization.

Those advantages unsurprisingly come at a higher cost seeing how full-fledged VPN services are more expensive to run than proxies. Privacy is a luxury, luxury obviously has a price, and literally no one in the industry is in the business of not making money. Well, at least until someone like Uber tries its hand at VPNs.

Many privacy-conscious netizens are, meanwhile, finding themselves forced to choose between what they deem pricey virtual private networks and proxies that appear much more accessible – to the point of being free.

Yet a quick Google search also reveals quite a few supposedly free VPN services that promise to keep your Internet browsing history and identity a secret without dipping into your wallet.

How can that be? Well… it can’t.

You’re either a customer, or a victim

To be frank, you can also be both, as evidenced by the data-hungry Internet economy – just ask Facebook. Nevertheless, any service that offers to handle your sensitive information for free has to be up to something because there are quicker and more painless ways to go bankrupt.

In many cases, the explanation is that the supposedly free VPN provider is actually not running a truly virtual network but a mere peer-to-peer platform, utilizing your PC as a node for rerouting other people’s traffic in a Tor-like fashion. Sure, that approach still achieves theoretical anonymity, but circumventing YouTube’s regional blocks will be the least of your worries if someone ends up using your real IP to perform all manners of illegal activities on the Internet.

Even if such dire consequences did not exist, some free P2P VPN browser plugin you carelessly installed could always turn your computer into an obedient part of a malicious botnet. If that sounds paranoid, let’s just recall that Hola somehow still exists. The potential for third-party abuse of such platforms is simply too massive to ignore.

Then again, some free VPN providers have a foolproof method of addressing these dangers by preemptively abusing people’s naivety themselves, whether by spying on them or loading their devices with good ol’ malware.

A recent Berkeley study revealed that out of 283 most popular VPN apps on Android, 37% were packing some sort of malicious code, including a number of paid ones. About three-quarters of the sample were also leveraging tracking libraries, whereas even more asked for access to critical information like text messages and contacts. Yep, not suspicious at all, everyone knows a mobile VPN needs to know your wife’s phone number in order to circumvent a regionally restricted Vimeo clip.

Note that these are Play Store apps we’re talking about, software vetted by Google’s artificial intelligence magic and security experts. Just imagine what kind of trouble you can invite upon yourself if you just end up installing a random VPN addon for your Windows version of Chrome?

Does this mean that literally every single free VPN out there will infect you with malicious code, spy on you, turn your smartphone or laptop into a botnet, or abuse your trust in some other way? No, but the chance of that happening at any point certainly seems too great for you to risk using one in the long term.

As a matter of fact, you’re not so much using a free VPN as its creators are using you under the guise of providing a free service.

If you’re looking for more data points to worry about, the latest edition of the Free VPN Ownership paper reveals that nearly 60% of the top 30 most popular VPN apps on Android and iOS are run out of China. Unfortunately, China isn’t near the top of the list of best countries for VPN anonymity. In fact, it’s arguably at its very bottom.

Ok, but what if…

What if you happen to find a truly honest VPN service that simply offers a free tier for promotional purposes and otherwise treats your data like its management’s lives depended on it? Is a free VPN worth the hassle in that completely hypothetical scenario?

Anyone asking that question has likely already made up their mind and is simply looking for validation. In that case, at least do your best to stick with the rare few known providers of “free” VPN services whose track records are still devoid of scandals and approach them as trials, not permanent solutions.

Of course, be prepared to deal with severe bandwidth limitations, poor throughput speeds compared to your regular connection, aggressive advertising, and the fact that your Good Samaritan of a provider might still end up enabling any single one of the aforementioned catastrophes in the future.

We’re in the third decade of the 21st century; if you can pay for an Internet connection and electricity, you can find an affordable VPN subscription that covers your needs. Maybe not this very month, but surely moving forward, as the risk-to-reward ratio of indefinitely sticking with free alternatives simply isn’t in your favor.


Editor’s Note

Is a free VPN worth the hassle?” was written by Dominik Bosnjak, a long-time VPN-user-turned-advocate who spends more time scrutinizing VPN Providers on a daily basis than he’d like to admit. When he isn’t writing VPN Guides and covering general Tech News, he’s probably spending time with his dog, video games, or both. Fun fact: the Shih Tzu in question is the only remaining creature in Dominik’s life who hasn’t told him they’re sick of him talking about Best VPN practices and government-sponsored erosion of digital privacy which made using the Internet less convenient over the years. He occasionally dabbles in video editing, Wall Street memes, and demonstrating a remarkable lack of guitar-playing ability.

If you want more tidbit-sized rants about any of those things, you can find him on Twitter @dddominikk.

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