As the world turns increasingly digital, virtual private networks (VPNs) continue to be in demand. With VPNs, users and their family can better protect their digital footprint, mask their online activities from scammers and digital thieves, and ensure that they are not being tracked.
Then there are those who use VPNs to gain more access. With some content kept behind the locked walls of select countries and regions, also known as geo-fencing, a VPN’s ability to work around these restrictions can prove extremely valuable and nifty for users, which puts it on the top of the popularity ladder.
Now, the free-to-use VPN services are a crowd favourite, and that’s understandable – why pay for a premium, when you can enjoy services at no cost at all? But like Facebook or YouTube, is it really free?
There’s a certain truth to the saying, “quality comes at a price,” however. Where free VPNs try to solve a problem, they also end up as a double-edged sword that exposes individuals to the threat of shoddy security and slower speeds. The rule of the thumb to keep in mind here, is this: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
What is a VPN?
Let’s start by explaining how VPN services work. Simply put, they allow one to remotely connect to a server via a VPN client, where internet traffic is encrypted with a hidden IP address, making it more difficult to detect visited websites, used apps, and the like.
It’s why they are often used to circumvent geo-fencing or blocking – technology that restricts access to Internet content based upon the user’s geographical location. An example is this is with the region-dependent libraries on streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, which can be accessed from almost anywhere in the world, even if the titles available vary.
What can a VPN be used for?
So what happens when you want subscribe to these services, and want to watch a show that’s on the service but not in your country? Essentially, users can use a VPN and be able to connect to a server in a different country, and spoof their actual location.
Disney+ is one of the platforms cracking down on the use of VPN by limiting its content library, but the latter serves its purpose for the most part. That doesn’t give the ease of data harvesting a free pass, though. Even if the service promises privacy protection, it’s worth noting that anonymity isn’t inherently guaranteed, because its provider system will still have access to all that internet traffic.
Why are free VPN services risky?
Free VPN services are perhaps the most guilty of this privacy breach, despite the likely unmalicious intent. As it costs money to maintain the network of servers, developers are often supported by targeted ads, which dig into the user’s browsing behaviour and internet logs that may be sold to third parties for funding purposes. Of course, this doesn’t mean all non-paid VPNs employ unscrupulous, privacy-invading measures, but it can be difficult to verify the truth behind data protection and anonymity claims, especially with companies having been busted for going against them.
In more severe cases, sensitive and intrusive information have also been found to be in the possession of these services. Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN, explained in a Business Insider article that there are companies storing personal details from “a device’s camera, microphone, and GPS tracking among others” in their database, which creates “vulnerabilities that can be exploited in future.” The possibility is certainly there – after all, users won’t be able to look under the hood and see exactly what companies are doing with their data, and the lack of funds for security tools likely means corner-cutting as well.
Why one should invest in a paid VPN service
Premium VPN services, in comparison, are better equipped to deal with security lapses. Because they depend on subscribers to stay in the business, security failures are a no-no, so features like end-to-end encryption, DNS protection, and various tunneling protocols are common undertakings by some of these top-end providers. Make no mistake though, as not all paid VPNs are the best pick for total online privacy protection, but undeniably, the good ones have a leg up on their free counterparts when it comes to privacy and data security.
Another advantage of a VPN service is the lack of bandwidth or speed limits. With optimised servers for activities like video streaming and gaming, buffer and slow downloads will be less of a concern. There’s also increased server access for that added edge, which allows users to bypass more geo-restricted services and websites, while supplying faster connection speeds. In the case of gaming and video streaming, the latter would prove extremely handy.
Free VPNs, in contrast, tend to restrict the servers one can connect to, resulting in users missing out on the country or region that they need most. As the use of VPN services automatically leads to an increase in latency – or ping, as some may prefer – the limitation of servers doesn’t exactly make things better. Sure, non-paid VPNs are a viable option for casual browsing, but the sluggish speeds just won’t cut out in the long run, especially where more demanding tasks are concerned.
Going free, as such, means less choice for VPN users in general. Between security concerns and decreased connection speeds, non-paid services are unable to live up to the full potential of its express, premium counterparts, which offer additional features on top of efficient connectivity and data protection. Our round-up on the best picks for video streaming can serve as a starting point of reference, but should you decide to invest in a VPN for total, foolproof data protection right now, here’s what we recommend:
Ok, we kid. VPN services are good – some are, in fact, extremely good, such as ExpressVPN – and can get the job done to great satisfaction, but it’s important to know their limitations. Examine that fine print on the sign-up document, read the privacy disclosure carefully, do some research, and you should be all set to embark on that express VPN journey.