There is a famous saying that states that a buyer of goods or services generally “gets what they pay for.” Often used by companies selling expensive products, it implies that cheaper alternatives are often inferior and offer a false saving.
With a Virtual Private Network (VPN) the savings offered by free or low-cost services could present another, greater, risk though.
If you are using a VPN already, or considering doing so, you are probably well aware of the benefits they bestow, such as ensuring your privacy on unfamiliar networks, preventing search engines from logging your searches, preventing snooping of your VOIP calls and far more besides.
But if you are looking for the cheapest means of enhancing your internet privacy, the cost of the service may not be the only factor you should consider.
While many people you know may sing the virtues of free VPNs, the end cost of using one may prove much higher than expected.
In order to provide private and secure traffic, a VPN must have a connection to a large internet backbone. While this wouldn’t be an issue if it was serving a single user, most services obviously try to acquire hundreds if not thousands of users. The bandwidth required to service them all is huge and, as I’m sure you are aware, bandwidth costs money. And lots of it.
Not only that, a Virtual Private Network also has other costs to consider, such as maintenance of the service, operational and other staffing costs, security, etc.
So, with that considered, why would any individual or organization offer such a service for free? The answer is, they wouldn’t
With very few exceptions, no-one offers anything for nothing, especially if it is anything but free for them in the first place.
Any company worth its salt in the business world will be looking to make money one way or another, and that includes VPNs.
To do so, some free services look to make money from third party advertisers who will pimp their wares through your proxy server session. The company then makes money either based on the number of clicks those adverts attract or simply through the number of impressions generated (a metric that needs to be tracked you’ll note), or through a set monthly cost arrangement.
The problem here, beyond the annoyance of seeing ads in the first place, is the fact that the service providers have a vested interest in you seeing or clicking on the adverts and so the ad-channels will see priority over other traffic and connection times may well reflect that – after all, the longer you end up looking at an advert, the more the advertiser will benefit from that.
The other key issue with free and ultra-cheap services is the fact that some are run by exactly the sort of people you may be hoping to avoid by using a VPN in the first place – cyber criminals.
Hackers, conmen and other ill-intentioned web denizens are always looking for opportunities to make money off the back of others’ misfortune.
By running their own proxy server, especially one that promises free usage, they can garner a huge number of signups from unsuspecting users who are far too eager to hand over their personal information.
If you have been on the internet for any length of time and have watched VPN services come and go then you will have seen many pretenders start up and then disappear in a short period of time. Why is that? Simply, it’s because the operators have started a service on the back of fake accounts, paid for with stolen credit card data. When they get found out the service is shut down but by then of course they’ve already snagged a huge amount of data from their users.
What they do with that personal information can vary. Some may sell on basic details to advertisers which is bad enough but the far greater risk is that they logged everything the user did via the proxy server, including bank login details, credit card information and all manner of account access and password details. It goes without saying that such information has value in the hands of the wrong sort of people.
So, at the end of the day, a VPN can be an essential tool in your arsenal if you wish to enhance your privacy on the web and remain secure, but the wrong service could prove to be the very antithesis of such an aim.
So choose your service carefully if you want to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft, having your financial details stolen or see your computer surreptitiously used for spam runs or to commit online crimes without your knowledge.