Free VPN: are VPNs safe? What are the hidden risks?

DECCAN CHRONICLE.
Published Jul 29, 2017, 3:08 pm IST
Updated Jul 5, 2018, 4:25 pm IST
VPNs are basically services (or software) that spoofs your IP address
Do note that there are many paid VPN services that are also equally dangerous for use. Choose wisely.
 Do note that there are many paid VPN services that are also equally dangerous for use. Choose wisely.

As an internet surfing user, you would agree that there are a million phishing and unsafe websites out there which could jeopardize your life by compromising on your personal identity and even giving out your personal details such as name, age, email ID and phone numbers. You have to trust the website first and then give out your personal details. However, there is no surety on these lines to make sure where you are heading online.

Those who are browsing through porn, or even downloading pirated stuff, know that using a VPN is the safest way to keep them anonymous on the internet, especially from their ISP and the government. VPNs are basically tunneling software, which attaches you to random servers across the globe so that the website you are browsing does not know your exact location from where you are coming. Additionally, VPNs are also used to bypass continent or geographical blocks put forth by various websites so that they cannot be viewed from other locations other than the authorized one.

 

VPNs are basically services (or software) that spoofs your IP address (a unique identification of your presence on the web) to look like someone else or being used form somewhere else other than the current location.

For example, if a particular website is blocked for viewing in India, and only allowed for users in the US, you can use a VPN to tunnel through the internet and make computer’s internet connection look like it is being used form the US, to the particular website.

There are many VPN services out there, ranging from free to paid ones. Paid VPN services charge a nominal fee for use of their services, and the rates depend from hourly usage to monthly and yearly packages too. Each service has multiple servers around the world so that you can choose to spoof yourself from whichever country you desire. For example, you can use a VPN service to show yourself in a particular country or location from the list of available servers.  

But do you think using VPN services is really safe for you? Think twice.

VPN services are available across multiple brands. While some are genuine, others are rogue services that offer cheap-to-free services, to attract freeloaders, but in turn they could be stealing from you in the background. Or even worse, they could steal your browsing habits and use it against you, and even hold you to ransom.

So what are the hidden risks of using a free VPN? The list could be long, really long!

Security researching firm Restore Privacy did a short test and research on free VPNs around the world and state that ‘free VPNs are a privacy and security nightmare.’

The research mentions that many of these solutions could actually make you less secure, and also endanger your online privacy. Scammers and shady VPN services from around the world are actually cashing in on the growing needs of online privacy. And these services, in return, are actually stealing your data in the background.

The research highlights seven such dangers and risks that are hidden in free VPN services.

Malware: While these infections come in various forms, they all usually have one intention — making money using your data against you. Malware in hidden VPNs can use your browsing habits and your data to target you with ads, spam email, hijack your accounts, steal your banking accounts, steal your debit/credit card details, or even hold you for a ransom. A CSIRO study has found that nearly 40 per cent of free VPNs for Android have a malware.

Tracking: Yes! Foxy VPNs are tracking your private data passing through their VPN services. This data is collected and sold to third parties, who can target you with spam and malware. The study also revealed that 283 VPN services were analysed and around 75 per cent of the free ones contained tracking possibilities.

Third party access to your data: As the research firm states, ‘trusting a free VPN for your privacy is as good as trusting a wolf to guard your chickens.’ Well, we totally agree with them. As a perfect example, they have highlighted Opera’s privacy statement which says that their ‘free VPN’ service is actually a data collection tool. Most people fall for the word ‘free’, but never usually read the fine print. Collecting data is a popular business model and using free services could give away your privacy, putting your security at high risk.

Stolen bandwidth: There are a few free VPNs that also steal your bandwidth. Don’t be alarmed as the practice is not new. Such VPNs actually, similar to a P2P service, steal your data for their services. In short, they could make your PC behave as another server on the web, and route others through your internet connection and use your data. In short, you may even ‘probably’ find it in their fine print that by accepting their terms and conditions, you are allowing them to consumer your internet data for their services. They probably also sell your data bandwidth to other companies. Restore Privacy also gives an example of one such VPN service named Hola. ‘Hola was found to be stealing user bandwidth and then fraudulently reselling it through its sister company Luminati,’ mentions Restore Privacy.

Browser hijacking: fraudulent free VPN services can also hijack your browser. This is a way to make money as they can redirect your browser to partner websites without your permission. For example, the research company cited a classic example of the famous Hotspot Shield VPN service, which was redirecting HTTP requests to e-commerce websites such as Alibaba and eBay, and a few advertisement companies too.   

Traffic leaks: data is usually supposed to be encrypted when you pass through a VPN service, so that your data cannot be hacked or leaked. However, many free VPN services do not encrypt your data, resulting in IP leaks.

Fraud: You could end up with a huge data risk and security threat if you are using an unknown free VPN service. These type of services usually partner with third parties and give them access to your data, causing identity thefts and financial fraud. The reason they do this is because they offer the services for free to you, but have to collaborate or partner with third parties in order to finance them. They monetize their free service by putting you in the line of risk.

So which are the free VPN services that can be trusted?

Well, Restore Privacy does mention that you can safely use some trusted free VPN services, Tor Network is one of a kind. However, if you are using a free or paid VPN service, we advise you to first research online and make sure that they are safe and have passed all tests to protect your privacy. If you want to test some VPNs for yourself before heading down that dark alley, Restore Privacy has a good article up online for your perusal. They also have another article which can help you choose the best VPNs that can help you safeguard your privacy and security, apart from maintaining your data network speed.

 Do note that there are many paid VPN services that are also equally dangerous for use. Choose wisely.

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