Since Trump signed that executive order repealing FCC privacy protections, searches for VPN services have apparently gone through the roof. Google says searches have increased over 200 percent over the past month alone. If you are one of those searchers, you will notice that there are both free and premium VPN services out there. If you don’t want to pay for privacy, are free VPN services worth using?
At the moment, any protection is better than no protection but as always, there is more to it than that.
Free VPN services are popping up all the time but there are a few things you need to be aware of before signing up and using one.
- If the product is free, you are the product.
- Not all VPN services are created equal.
- Much depends on how much you use a VPN.
- Due diligence is vital if you use a free product
Let’s take a look at each point.
If the product is free, you are the product
VPN infrastructures cost a lot of money to set up and run. A VPN app needs to be created, VPN servers need to be built, maintained and operated, data links into and out of the VPN data center need to be paid for and the entire operation needs to be managed and run. All that costs money. A lot of money.
If you’re not paying for that service, who is?
With many free VPN services, you are paying, just not in cash. Browsing data is sold to third-parties, ads are served and many of your actions will be tracked by cookies wanting to market and advertise at you. Now not all free VPN services will do this but the money has to come from somewhere.
Not all free VPN services are created equal
As mentioned, a VPN takes a lot of money to create and run and not all outfits have the kind of budget necessary to run a top tier service. There are several compromises necessary in a lower rent VPN service. You have to use outdated or weak encryption like PPTP or WPA, sometimes you cannot access HTTPS websites and some have data limits or run very slowly at peak times.
Why would a VPN operator not let you use HTTPS? Because it’s encrypted and they cannot sell the data to make their money back.
Some leading free VPN services are operated by legitimate companies, some of which also offer premium VPNs. Often these come with other compromises such as data limits, the inability to choose your own destination or use outdated or leaky protocols. Some free VPN services don’t even offer the option for OpenVPN, which is the only truly secure protocol right now.
You really do have to shop carefully if you want to use a free VPN.
Much depends on how much you use a VPN
If you just want a VPN to circumvent geoblocking or to run a bit torrent client, a free VPN service is not for you. Most will have data limits or be speed limited, neither of which is conducive to streaming or torrents.
The other downside is that you will be limited to the IP destinations you can select. This can compromise your attempt to circumvent geoblocking as the destination may not have access to the content you’re looking for.
Due diligence is vital if you use a free product
So far I have painted quite a disparaging picture of free VPN services and rightly so. They are an inferior answer to an important question. Yet, if you shop carefully and only require the VPN for occasional web surfing, they can have a place on your computer.
However, I could counsel caution as some of the lesser known VPN programs have been found to contain nasty surprises in the form of spyware.
So what free VPN service should I use?
I’m not going to name names here as I haven’t personally tested all that many free VPN services. I use a premium one that costs a whole $2 a month for unlimited traffic. What I would suggest is either use TOR for occasional browsing or the Opera browser as it now comes with a built in VPN.
Free VPNs I have tried include TunnelBear, Windscribe and PrivateTunnel. While each has limitations compared to premium VPNs, none had any detectable spyware, connections were relatively fast and each was easy to use. There are lots of other free VPN services out there though so your mileage may vary.
So are free VPN services worth using? I would say only if you’re an occasional user or really cannot afford or want to pay the couple of dollars a month for a premium VPN. Otherwise, Opera VPN or TOR can get the job done.