VPNs are very much in demand lately. Regardless of whether it is for Americans trying to maintain access to TikTok and WeChat in the midst of an impending government ban or for Germans who Access to the American Netflix offer want to receive. There are dozens free VPNs, that promise to protect your privacy by staying anonymous on the internet and hiding your browsing history. But free VPNs are bad for your privacy!
Free VPNs are bad for you
The internet is not a good place for the privacy conscious. ISPs can sell your browsing history, governments can spy on you, and tech titans can collect huge amounts of data to track you online and serve you personalized advertisements. More and more users are turning to VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) and hope that they can protect you from these data sniffers and spies. But now the rude awakening follows.
VPNs can also expose you to far greater privacy risks
VPNs were initially developed for employees who needed to connect virtually to their office network from home or on a business trip. Today, however, VPNs are mostly used to hide your online traffic and trick streaming services into believing you are in another country. The same technique also helps activists and dissidents bypass censorship systems in their own countries. Keyword: China VPN.
VPNs forward all Internet traffic to the VPN server via an encrypted tunnel. This makes it harder for anyone on the internet to see which websites you are visiting or which apps you are using. VPNs, however, do not inherently protect your privacy, nor do they necessarily give you anonymity on the Internet. VPNs simply reroute all of your Internet traffic from your ISP's systems to the VPN provider's systems.
That begs the question: why should you trust a VPN to protect your privacy more than your internet provider? The answer is that you can't, and in many cases you shouldn't.
What is a VPN anyway?
But now again in simple terms. What the hell is a VPN anyway? Okay, we'll make it as easy as possible:
Can you see it? Not that complicated at all.
Beware of free VPNs!
But who pays for the tunnel? Can I really use it for free? As the popular saying goes, "If it's free, you are the product". This means that the tunnel operators, i.e. the operators of the free VPN, earn money with you. Especially with your data. Think back to the movie scene again. Here too, the tunnel operators know exactly where the perpetrator fled to. You can now sell this knowledge to the highest bidder. That's exactly why free VPNs bad for your privacy!
Like any free service, VPNs are often advertised. This means that the VPN operators will sell your Internet traffic to the highest bidder in order to serve targeted ads while you are connected to the VPN.
However, there are paid and Premium VPNs, who generally pay more attention to your privacy, but they are never completely anonymous as they can be linked to your billing address. Paid VPNs also don't solve the problem that all your internet traffic can be directed to a potentially untrustworthy company. Just because the tunnel operators charge tolls for the use of the tunnel does not mean that you will not sell your information anyway.
So what should you look out for with a VPN?
Some VPN providers state in their terms and conditions to protect your privacy by not saving logs. In relation to our example, this means that there are no video recordings of you in the tunnel. You should make absolutely sure to only use a VPN that is guaranteed not to save your logs! But even if you pay attention, there may be nasty surprises in some cases. Who guarantees you that the tunnel operators really do not make any video recordings?
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In fact, some VPN providers have claimed that they don't keep logs but did so anyway
The most famous incident is UFO VPN. At one time, this VPN had around 20 million users. The VPN promised to have a zero-logging policy. However, security researchers found that the company's logging database was exposed to the Internet. The database was filled with logs of user activity, including the web pages users visited.
Former NYPD director of cyber intelligence and investigations, Nick Selby, now chief security officer at fintech firm Paxos, said he only uses VPN providers that he knows are do not save any logs. During his time as a police officer, he worked with search warrants and knew which vendors "were best at not giving me anything," he said.
The main problem with VPNs is that you can't look under the hood and see what's going on with your data. With stand-alone VPNs such as Algo and WireGuard, you can create and control your own VPN server via a cloud service such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud or Digital Ocean. But remember: your encrypted data is stored in another company's cloud so it may be captured by the authorities.
VPNs can be useful, but knowing their limitations is important. Don't just mindlessly rely on them to protect your privacy or anonymity. Free VPNs in particular are bad for your privacy! According to our research, the most trustworthy provider is currently NordVPN and CyberGhost.