Why you should avoid VPNs that use trackers in their apps

Person pointing to padlock - privacy when using a VPN
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

You are surely familiar at this point with the various protocols and encryption methods touted by VPN companies’ industry-wide. Whilst this is very important information, it isn’t the full story when it comes to your privacy when using a VPN.

About the author

Sebastian Schaub is CEO and founder of hide.me VPN.

Something you have to also take into account are trackers. In this article, we are going to explain why VPNs that use trackers can not be trusted.

What is a tracker?

As the name may suggest, a tracker is something that can track what you do all over the internet. The vast majority of websites and apps use trackers in some way and these trackers will follow you pretty much everywhere you go. The information these trackers gather about you is then normally used for things like targeted advertisements. Essentially, trackers exist to make these companies money at the expense of your privacy.

The difference between first and third party trackers

There is an important distinction to be made though, regarding first and third-party trackers. First party trackers are things like cookies that are used to remember things like your language, layout preferences, or even save your shopping cart. These are often necessary for many websites to help give you a more seamless experience, and it is often easy to refuse cookies from being stored.

Third-party trackers, on the other hand, are trackers made by other companies that websites and apps will implement to gather information that can be used to make money from you. And the information that is gathered by third-party trackers varies, but it is often personally identifiable information (PII). Things like your IP address, what browser you use, what you click on, for how long you are on a specific web page, your device specs etc.

All of this information is used to create a profile about you, and then use that information to make money from you, usually through targeted advertisements. The most common third-party tracker you will find is probably going to be something from Google.

It isn’t just websites that make use of third-party trackers, many mobile apps do as well. And this is where you have to be aware when it comes to using a VPN that implements trackers in their apps.

VPNs that use trackers are compromising your privacy

VPN apps that make use of trackers are compromising your privacy simply to make a quick buck. These trackers are not needed for these VPN apps to work and are actively leaking your information to the likes of Google, Facebook, and other big data companies. The extent of the information being collected will vary from app to app. But the use of trackers regardless means information about you is being shared, and this isn’t being communicated to users whatsoever.

Third-party trackers are advanced

Many third-party trackers are so sophisticated and have such a wide net of data to pull from that PII, like an IP address, isn’t even necessarily needed to create a targeted profile for you. These trackers can use the huge amount of information they have and the unique ID for you to connect the dots and still trace everything back to you. So, even if something as easily traceable as an IP address isn’t being shared with these trackers. Third-party trackers still have the ability to piece everything together and track your behavior online.

When it is laid out like that, it is clear that a VPN service that is making use of trackers in the apps, simply cannot be trusted. And they should be avoided at all costs. And you would be surprised at just how many services out there are using trackers in apps. Giving information without your express permission.

A step in the right direction

For your average user, the only real way to find out what trackers are being used is to look through lengthy privacy policies. Whilst the Exodus tool is handy for Android-specific information, it doesn’t extend further than that. And that is where many services look to take advantage of end-users. It’s easy to throw such information in a privacy policy and not worry because the majority of the time people aren’t reading such a long document.

More disclosure is needed

Apple is taking a step in the right direction though with their brand-new guidelines for App Store apps. Apple is now making it mandatory that every single app disclose the information they are collecting, the permissions needed, and also what trackers are being used (if any). That includes things like analytics and data shared with third parties.

This is a great idea by Apple because it makes it easier for people to see just what exactly the apps they use are tracking about them. And it also has a knock-on effect of making app developers maybe steer clear of using a large number of trackers. If only to make the app not look so nosy. Not to mention actually bringing the concept of trackers to a mainstream audience that may not quite understand that there are these “invisible” forces working in the background to learn more about you.

Goodbye, Google Analytics!

Previously we used Google Analytics on our website, but have since moved to a much more privacy-centric option in Plausible.io. An open-source alternative to Google Analytics. This puts us one step further away from Google’s long reach. Which is always a positive.

It is also important to make the distinction here between trackers just on a website and trackers in apps. By implementing trackers in an app, you essentially render the privacy features worthless. As trackers can match your IP address before and after you connect to a VPN server. With trackers on a website, this isn’t possible as the app and website are completely separate from one another.

Not all VPN services are created equal

Like much of the internet, there are almost invisible forces out there that are looking to undermine your attempt at privacy at every turn. Many outlets will not even think to check for the trackers being used in apps, because it’s simply not in your face, and that is by design. If you know you’re being watched, then the data is being influenced, leading to worse revenue.

And VPN providers should know better than to include these trackers, ESPECIALLY in apps. Many VPN providers have become part of the problem they claim to be fighting against. And their users are none the wiser. We are proud to seemingly be amongst a small minority of VPN providers that do not take advantage of our users in this way.

Sebastian Schaub

Sebastian is the founder of hide.me VPN and he has been working in the internet security industry for over a decade. He started hide.me VPN to make internet security and privacy accessible to everybody.