Are there any truly ‘free’ VPNs?

Are there any truly ‘free’ VPNs?
Image Credit: Pixabay (Image credit: Image Credit: Pixabay)
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For those in the know, a VPN has become an important tool to safeguard their privacy, providing a higher level of security when using public Wi-Fi, protecting from hacking, and bypassing geo-restrictions to access content. 

There are plenty of both free VPN (opens in new tab)s and paid VPNs, and the latter have all types of plans from monthly subscriptions, to lifetime ‘pay once, use forever’ offerings - and everything in between. Many users are better off with a paid VPN plan, that can protect all their devices, has servers in the major countries, unlimited data, high throughput rates, a robust no logs policy, and a customer service department in case support is needed. 

Also realize that all of this VPN goodness is available - even some of the very best VPNs start at an affordable $3 per month - which is quite reasonable compared to what you pay your ISP monthly for your internet connection.

Free, with downsides

That being said, for the cash strapped, ramen noodle eating college student, or other casual VPN user, there are some options for a free VPN. Just be aware that finding a decent one too often involves some serious compromises, so look and compare exactly what you are getting before blindly signing up. 

A number of paid VPNs offer a free tier, often dubbed ‘Freemium’, but these offerings are limited with a low monthly data allotment, and often the restriction of a single supported device, fewer available servers, lower priority for transmitted data, and less options for customer service. 

Still, for those folks that think a 4-cylinder under the hood of their Mustang is a palatable idea, these freemium VPN services can get the basic job done. Also, if the user collects and installs several of these, it is possible, with enough effort, to get adequate data to last the month with lighter usage.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Image Credit: Pixabay

Malware - no extra charge

Using a mobile device is a risk, with data being transmitted both over the Wi-Fi and cellular radios, and unencrypted at that. Users must be aware of this, as Android VPNs are quite popular, with millions of downloads.

However, these free VPNs tend to be a hotbed for all types of malware, particularly on the Android platform, which tends to be less curated than in the iOS App Store. Earlier this year it was reported that of 150 free VPN apps studied by Top10VPN, astonishingly, 27 of these apps came up positive for malware when scanned with VirusTotal, an anti-malware utility.

Given this situation, users who want a free VPN are better off seeking it out for another platform, such as Windows or Mac, where the malware is less rampant, and there are better tools to identify and scrub it out.

Also, there have been previous stability issues, and concerns about privacy with the Opera browser’s included VPN. Previously it ran through SurfEasy, but now Opera runs the VPN in house. A recent development has been to reintroduce this free VPN integrated into the Android Opera browser (the standalone VPN got pulled about a year ago from the mobile browser). We continue to watch this carefully, as it does offer a free VPN for Android with unlimited data from the Opera browser that otherwise has a solid track record.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Image Credit: Pixabay (Image credit: Image Credit: Pixabay)

Trading the ads out for... yet more ads

A primary reason to use a VPN is to avoid those pesky ad trackers, to regain a user’s privacy while they are online. However, ad trackers tend to be a profitable business, and a free VPN is eager to make a profit somehow. Therefore, it is quite simple for the VPN to track the user, and then sell the resulting data to a third-party advertiser.

This is not a hypothetical by the way. Hotspot Shield (opens in new tab), from AnchorFree, which was installed on 10 million Android devices at the time, was reported by Tom’s Guide (opens in new tab) to have: “Actively injected JavaScript into web pages, and redirected e-commerce traffic to AnchorFree's partners.” 

Dismally, many of these Android free VPN apps also got overly grabby with the phone’s data, and went into the user’s other accounts, including text messages. Finally, yet even more concerning, some of these VPN apps did not even encrypt the user’s data via a tunneling protocol; in other words they did not perform the core function that a VPN should, making this a situation of ‘risk without reward’.

Know what you're getting into

Free VPN software is literally ‘The Wild West,’ with major disclaimers, and caveat emptor certainly applies - you need to apply a healthy dose of skepticism when considering going the freebie route.

The argument can seriously be made that there really are no free VPNs, as these companies need to make some money somehow, and therefore the user’s data gets monetized into a revenue stream, which goes against a critical primary reason to employ a VPN - to regain privacy.

Those looking for some gratis choices should be sure to check TechRadar’s list of the best free VPN providers, which has already done the legwork to weed out the offenders of the practices mentioned above, and makes some some solid recommendations.

Jonas P. DeMuro

Jonas P. DeMuro is a freelance reviewer covering wireless networking hardware.