Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are being increasingly used by everyone to mask their activities online in light of the increased online surveillance and clamp down on certain websites. In fact, in 2019, India emerged as the 3rd largest market for VPNs behind the US and Indonesia with 57 million downloads and 400% year on year growth.
VPNs are a way to reroute traffic enabling you to hide your identity while browsing the internet. It can also be used to visit websites that are blocked by your internet service provider. However, using a free VPN comes with an inherent risk and you may not be getting the security you assumed that you had. Here’s why you should be careful about trusting VPNs and we’ve also compiled a list of safe options you can explore.
First of all, what is a VPN?
- When you normally browse the internet, requests are sent from your device to the end server and data exchange takes place. Every webpage you visit is built of corresponding code files that are stored on the server. When you visit the webpage, these code files are temporarily transferred to your device browser, processed, and output is visible. This is how every internet-based application works.
- Without a VPN, you directly communicate with the host server via your ISP (Internet Service Provider). It’s similar to using a public transport system. Thousands, if not millions, of other users, are also using the same open-ended infrastructure to use the internet.
- VPNs are used to secure connections from a device to the internet. They create an encrypted tunnel within a shared network — Wi-Fi, wired connection, and local area networks — to keep transmitted data private.
- A VPN protects your online connection so that outsiders with access to the same network cannot intercept your activity. They secure your internet traffic and conceal your browsing data from common third parties, including cybercriminals, internet service providers, and invasive advertisers.
Why should you rely on a VPN?
- A VPN will thwart attempts by search engines, advertisers, government entities, your ISP, and even basic websites that exist to sell your data. Google can often be a creepy follower that knows your Amazon wishlist and will constantly bombard you with ads.
- They can also be used to bypass a restrictive network. Often, entertainment and social networking sites are blocked in schools and offices by a network firewall. You can easily access these sites and bypass the restrictions by switching on a VPN and rerouting your traffic via multiple servers in another corner of the world.
- On a larger scale, VPN is extensively used to access country-wide blocked websites. Due to a court order, a majority of the popular porn sites are not accessible via Indian telcos like Jio and Airtel. Switching to a VPN will remove this block and you’ll be able to access the internet without any of these restrictions.
- Before Netflix officially launched in India, users often created a US account and accessed content via a VPN in India. The corresponding Netflix servers are made to believe that the request is coming from the US, but in reality, it’s just being rerouted via the US, to you.
Hold your horses though. VPNs today come with a twist.
Many who are new to VPN services start by looking for a free VPN to save money. It is human nature to look for a free alternative and of course if you haven’t used a VPN before you’d definitely like to test which VPN is better using the free trials. However, it is actually counterintuitive to stick to a free VPN for long. Here’s why:
- A free VPN is a service that gives you access to a VPN server network, along with the necessary software, without having to pay anything. But, These free services are cashing in on their user base by collecting user data and selling it to the highest bidder. When you route your traffic through a free VPN service, it can easily collect your online activity and sell this to third parties and advertising networks.
- Yes, VPNs were initially designed to offer privacy but with commercialization came practical challenges. Hosting a network of VPN servers incurs monthly expenses along with app development and support. These costs are recurring and need a long-term sustainable model for growth. Hence, even with the free model, you’re paying for the service in kind.
- Keep in mind, there are services out there that call themselves as a Proxy. These are similar to VPNs but don’t offer encryption. Meaning, they only reroute traffic via a remote server and can also read or access all data being transferred because it isn’t encrypted. So, you end up relying upon a service that itself offers no means of privacy.
- Research by VPNPro shows that “the top 10 Google Play search results for ‘VPN’ are dominated by (Chinese) apps participating in potentially fraudulent manipulation practices.” And these apps have secured more than 280 million installs between them. The researchers also found that “seven out of the top ten apps,” found to be manipulating the Google Play system, “are either based in Hong Kong, have Chinese directors or are located in China.”
- A CSIRO study found that 38% of free Android VPNs contain malware. Even worse, many of the most dangerous free VPNs are highly rated and are being used right now by millions of people.
- Not only are these services unsafe, but also slow. When it comes to the internet, speed is the name of the game. Free VPNs intensely share infrastructure with other users, automatically slowing down your connection speed. A paid alternative will provide you with sufficient dedicated bandwidth so that you never have to see the buffering icon again.
These free-to-use apps were found to be violating your privacy:
- Secure VPN
- FREE VPN
- Turbo VPN
- Betternet Hotspot VPN
- VPN Proxy Master
- Thunder VPN
- VPN 360
They all sound pretty much the same and have a very confusing or shady branding. If you’re looking for a “safer” VPN, check these options below.
- Paid-for services make profits by offering security without selling your sensitive details to third parties. A proper VPN encrypts all your data, keeping it safe from snoopers and hackers. If you can find a paid VPN service or one that has in-app purchases for higher levels of service, consider that option instead.
- Paid VPN app doesn’t guarantee security however that can be figured out by reading the T&C. Even a partially paid app is often more protective of your data and gives more software updates than free options.
- A few services we recommend are NordVPN, ExpressVPN, IPVanish, Surfshark, CyberGhost, TunnelBear (paid tier) and Windscribe. They come with a wide range of location options and offer high-speed connection speeds. Best of all, they won’t trade your data for a few pennies.
In this digital world, it’s extremely hard to find privacy. Governments are regularly increasing surveillance, border control organizations are stricter than ever about background checks, and advertising companies continue to eat what they love – your private data. Your privacy is in your hands, don’t sell it to save 700 bucks a month.