Cybersecurity threats to both businesses and individuals are increasing daily. As a result, consumers are also increasingly aware of the amount of personal data they disclose to companies online. Many cyber security experts advise both individuals and organisations to use VPNs to increase security when using the web.
A VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It masks your IP address, encrypts your browsing data and lets you bypass geographical restrictions. There are both paid VPNs and free VPNs.
Ideally, when you use a VPN, your data should be one hundred percent secure and within your control. Unfortunately, this may not always be true, and the security of your data will depend on the kind of VPN you use.
You may be lured by some VPN providers' promise to keep your data safe and make your internet traffic anonymous at no cost. Given the technology that makes VPNs work, don't rely on it.
When it comes to VPNs, remember that creating a good, secure VPN doesn't come cheap. A VPN requires specialized software and expensive infrastructure to run. If someone offers you that service for free, you'll definitely pay in other ways.
Here are five downsides to using a free VPN:
1. No personal data protection
Standard VPN connections don't guarantee total anonymity on the internet. A VPN only hides your IP addresses and encrypts your data. The websites where you have accounts, such as Google, will always have your data whether you have a VPN or not.
With a free VPN service, it's even worse. Free VPNs embed tracking mechanisms into their service and collect users' data. Furthermore, sites with newer and stronger tracking mechanisms, like browser fingerprints, will be able to track and collect your data despite you using a VPN.
Paid VPNs, on the other hand, need your money through a subscription, so they can't risk security breaches. They never share your data or track activity because that's not what they make their money on.
2. Slow internet speed
A VPN connection reduces your internet speed. Two processes - encryption and decryption of your browsing data - need to happen to make your internet use truly private. The connection between you and the internet via a VPN is redirected and encrypted via a VPN server. However, this adds a significant amount of delay to your internet speed.
With free VPNs, this delay is further amplified. This only means that you will waste more time waiting for web pages to load.
3. Increase in phishing attacks
Using a VPN doesn't guarantee you against cybersecurity threats or hacking, and a free VPN can actually make you a bigger target. Some of these free VPNs can be gifts for malware distribution schemes because the technology behind them is either outdated or poorly monitored. This makes these kinds of VPNs filled with plenty of vulnerabilities that cybercriminals can exploit.
Intrusive ads are part of free VPNs. Free VPN providers don't charge for their services, and it's usually through ads that they generate revenue. They display pop-up windows or sometimes redirect you to pages with harmful or inappropriate content.
These ads can pop up at any time when you're browsing the web and can make the experience frustrating. If you deliberately or accidentally click on these pop-ups, you could risk a phishing attack and your device could easily be infected with malware before you even know it.
In fact, if an employee in your organisation falls victim to a phishing attack in this way, it could open the door for cyber criminals to infiltrate your entire network. Many widespread, large-scale ransomware attacks begin as phishing attacks.
It's for this reason that proper employee training in cybersecurity and ransomware preparedness is crucial today. And, of course, why you need to use robust security measures.
4. Restricted access to websites
A big reason why VPNs have become popular is their ability to bypass geographical restrictions on content-based websites. For example, Netflix only allows streaming of their shows and movies in certain countries due to copyright issues.
Accessing such content from another location requires you to find a way around this restriction. VPNs and proxies can easily be used to achieve this.
However, using a free VPN to access Netflix content, or content from other streaming services, will mostly be unsuccessful. Free VPNs use poor encryption technology, and sites with strong security protocols willblock access when they detect such attempts.
Only premium VPNs can unblock Netflix content. You may find it difficult to stay connected through an entire movie or several episodes of a series.
5. Increased data usage
As explained earlier, a VPN connection involves an encryption and decryption process. These processes increase the amount of bandwidth you use when connected to the Internet. You will end up consuming data faster than if you don't use a VPN at all.
Free VPNs make it worse as your data would be wasted due to intrusive ads, poor encryption technology and selling your bandwidth.
Remember that free VPNs are never completely free. You may avoid some risks by using them, but with the risks involved, it's usually not worth it.
In order for you to ensure that your data and internet traffic is protected on the internet, it is much better to use premium VPN services or alternatives to VPN as an anti-detect browser. If you use a VPN, make sure it is reliable and secure. And you have to pay for it.
Sofie Meyer is a copywriter and phishing aficionado here at Moxso. She has a master´s degree in Danish and a great interest in cybercrime, which resulted in a master thesis project on phishing.