Following the fall of Roe v. Wade and the ensuing abortion bans, women in the US have been recommended to use one of the best VPN services to protect their sensitive health information. However, not all VPN providers live up to their security and privacy claims.
This is why lawmakers are urging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take action against what they describe as "deceptive advertising and data collection practices."
On July 13, US. Rep. Anna Eshoo and Senator Ron Wyden wrote a letter (opens in new tab) to the FTC Chair Lina Khan to call for the Commission to better regulate the sector.
"The VPN industry is extremely opaque, and many VPN providers exploit, mislead, and take advantage of unwitting consumers," they wrote.
Lawmakers lamented a lack of tools to carry out independent VPN audits to back up providers' security claims. They also pointed out how some VPN review sites are actually owned by companies selling such security software.
Today @RonWyden & I urged the FTC to address abusive data practices by VPN companies.As women are increasingly told that VPNs will protect them when seeking info on abortion, this breach of privacy poses a real risk to women seeking reproductive care. https://t.co/pR8gcjz3dcJuly 14, 2022
VPNs' shady activities
There are so many VPN apps around that it can be difficult to understand which ones you should trust – especially with many companies having somewhat shady pasts.
In 2021, for example, Consumer Reports (CR) found (opens in new tab) that three-quarters of leading VPN providers were guilty of misrepresenting their products or making hyperbolic claims over the degree of protection that can offer to users.
A year before, BuzzFeed revealed (opens in new tab) that a popular analytics platform, Sensor Tower, secretly owned at least 20 VPN and ad-blocking apps. The company managed to collect data from millions of people who downloaded one of these on their phone, undisturbed and without their consent.
Other major VPN providers have also been failing to match their no-logs policy claims, exposing terabytes of private user data or handing sensitive information to law enforcement.
A great number of free VPN services even use ad-trackers that share users' data with third party organizations. As a study on 283 Android apps (opens in new tab) found out, 72% of the free services included at least one third-party tracking library against only 35% for the premium versions.
"With abortion illegal or soon to be illegal in 13 states and severely restricted in many more, these abusive and exploitative data practices are simply unacceptable," the letter concludes.
"We urge the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take immediate action under Section 5 of the FTC Act to curtail abusive and deceptive data practices in companies providing VPN services to protect internet users seeking abortions. We also urge the FTC to develop a brochure for abortion-seekers on how best to protect their data, including a clear outline of the risks and benefits of VPN usage."