Today, we often consider their smartphone as their most computer’, and last year, we watched cellular online usage surpass desktop use. Those seeking greater solitude online frequently take a leap of faith and put in a VPN on their device with the anticipation that all of their online activities will be less visible. On the other hand, the concern is that too often it’s unclear how personal their information will be.
Perhaps the greatest offenders in this regard are free VPN downloads, both desktop and mobile, that utilize the information which is delivered through them for analysis, targeting ads, and potential sale to third-parties.
Mobile VPN providers signify a bigger potential worry, though, as they are happy to monitor their users’ every move, using the telephone’s sensors to provide plenty of data such as the location (from the GPS), and level of activity from the accelerometer. All of this, of course, is a veritable realization of big Brother’ which should certainly give us pause for concern.
While the better VPNs are compensated solutions, there’s no lack of free ones. A fast search of the Google Play store for Android reveals dozens of options, and many of them are highly rated with lots of seemingly satisfied users. There is no denying that a free VPN could be useful on specific events, for example, to protect your information when using an insecure public Wi-Fi hotspot.
However, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, as they say, and any VPN that’s given at no cost should earn some money to keep the lights on at their headquarters, and also pay workers. We’ve previously discussed and debunked the myth that the free VPN is just as good as a paid support, and we would not recommend a freebie for most users as a permanent security option when there are other choices available.
Hola is a popular free VPN service, and some years back had gathered 47 million consumers and still has one of the better-ranked Android apps on the Google Play store. Hola VPN was able to provide its support on the cheap as the company came up with an innovative (and lousy) solution to save on overheads.
Just a little explanation is needed here. The trick to a VPN is the encrypted tunnel for the information to travel down, and this tunnel needs to end somewhere. A robust VPN has servers located throughout the world for departure points, however, Hola didn’t possess its own VPN servers, rather utilizing their users as possible’exit nodes’. In other words, the firm employed a peer-to-peer version, so the information of different users are moving through your smartphone (and vice versa).
So in this specific case, a free VPN service surely had a higher cost than many users would have guessed.
In a more recent affair, Hotspot Shield, a favorite VPN that delivers a free provider, was found to have a worrying issue following an investigation by the middle for Democracy & Technology (CDT), an online watchdog organization.
The organization further called for an investigation by the FTC regarding claims of redirecting network traffic to associate websites (including online advertising firms). All of which is a far cry from keeping up the online privacy of users.
Hotspot Shield prides itself on many fronts, such as assertions that it doesn’t keep user IP addresses, which shields the users personally identifiable information’ out of itself and third-parties — but the entire affair clearly caused a lot of suspicions.
These stories concerning the lack of safety of mobile VPNs have captured the interest of researchers, and an Australian report entitled Analysis of the Privacy and Security Risks of Android VPN Permission-enabled Apps’ looked at exactly this issue in great depth. After a comprehensive analysis of 238 VPN programs on the Google Play shop, the investigators made several worrying conclusions:
- 38 percent of the apps included malware
- 75% used third-party monitoring libraries
- 82% requested permission for access to sources on the smartphone including email and text messages
- 18% didn’t disclose who is hosting the server in the end of the VPN tunnel
- 16 percent did not use servers to forward traffic, but rather forwarded data through users at a peer-to-peer fashion
- 18 percent of the VPN tunnels created did not use some encryption (beating the entire purpose of a VPN)
Ultimately, it’s worth noting that two VPNs were found to inject code to the consumer’s traffic information with the intention of advertisements and monitoring.
The moral of this story is you should definitely think twice when installing a cellular VPN, and it is safest to stick to reputable providers (such as the ones we recommend in our finest free VPN essay ). Otherwise, you might easily end up less secure than you would be if you did nothing — and there is even the risk a bad VPN app may install malware itself.