There has never been a debate on whether having a VPN service is better for security and privacy or not.
Any expert will tell you it is the best to have. However, should you go for a free VPN, particularly, can you trust the free VPN apps you may find on your mobile app store?
The answer is an emphatic “No.” And this is not by some VPN service provider keen on discouraging you from availing a free app in order to sell their product.
This comes out of a 2017 study done on 283 apps found in the Android app store and putting them through tests to check how secure they were.
And the researchers’ undiluted conclusion was that almost all of them fail the security test one way or the other.
Why Is a Free VPN Not so Secure?
There are different ways to assess an app if it has any security flaws in it. This may apply universally to any kind of software program.
One is the application of logic to see how the app provider is able to produce and release their product for free.
In this particular instance, experts point out that running a VPN service does not come cheap.
There is no way the service provider is going to offer it you for free unless there is some way of monetizing it.
While a game app can have ads on it or share data with your permission, a VPN is a service where you want all your data encrypted and protected.
The last thing you can think of is to have your communications intercepted or monitored. The very purpose of setting up a VPN would be lost.
The other way to make an assessment is to put the app through tests, like you would do in any forensic examination of a software program.
And that is what this research team did in their study [PDF].
Some Major Issues Highlighted
Some of the serious issues that the researchers found are listed here:
- Engaging Third Parties to Track
While professing to offer you better security, it was found that 75 percent of these Android apps believed in handing over the task of managing the tracking libraries to third parties.
And more than this number, they seek permissions to access critical data, such as the details of users’ accounts and the messages sent by them.
- Presence of Malware
Another revelation from the research was that over a third of the Android VPN apps were found to contain malware of some kind or the other.
There were, however, very few instances of the users of these apps making a complaint about any malicious activity while using the free VPN.
- Encryption Not Assured
Another risky proposition for the Android mobile users opting to use a free VPN is the lack of provisions for encrypting the data passing through the VPNs.
These free VPNs do not believe in tunneling the traffic which is essential to keeping the data secure.
One of the main reasons for this deficiency was found to be the absence of IPv6 support as per the protocol.
This would take you back to the point referred to above relating to the cost of running a VPN service and when the service provider cuts corners, you, the customer, are disadvantaged.
Such lack of tunneling and encryption could put you directly in the path of a hacker or surveillance agencies.
Are There Solutions?
The next obvious question would be—Is there a way out? Is paid VPN the only answer?
Well, the response could be yes and no. Experts would say nothing comes for free, and you would be safer choosing a VPN service and pay for it.
But if you would rather use one of these free VPNs, then you will have to do a few exercises.
- One is to check where the VPN’s main hosting servers are located.
Experts recommend if it is either Russia or China, then it’s best to not use that service.
Even the U.S. UK and Australia should be avoided, due to its data-sharing and surveillance alliances with other countries.
If the VPN service is located in a country where there are strict laws obligating companies to share user data with law enforcement in their jurisdiction, then your data may not be fully protected.
- Then check if the VPN service is asking for permissions to access your data.
If these requests appear unreasonable to you, then you should consider using a different VPN.
- And lastly, check if you can get a hold of genuine user reviews online.
If they are positive, you might wish to go for the best-rated VPN service.