As the old adage goes, if it’s free then you are the product. What that means is that they make money off you — specifically, your data. Like any service that costs nothing, VPNs are often supported by ads. That means taking your internet traffic and selling it to the highest bidder to serve you targeted ads while you’re connected to the VPN. Other free VPNs have been accused of injecting ads into the websites that you visit.
While paid and premium VPN services are generally more privacy-conscious, it’s important to keep in mind that they aren’t completely anonymous. These services can still be linked to your billing address, so it’s not a foolproof way to maintain your privacy. Additionally, even with a paid VPN, you are still directing all of your internet traffic through a third-party company, which can be a cause for concern if that company is not trustworthy.
Some VPN providers also claim to protect your privacy by not storing any logs or track which websites you visit or when. While that may be true in some cases, there’s no way you can be completely sure.
In fact, some VPN providers have claimed they don’t store any logs — but were proven completely false. Take UFO VPN, which at the time had about 20 million users. It claimed to have a zero-logging policy. But security researchers found the company’s logging database exposed to the internet, no password needed. The database was packed with logs of user activity, including which websites users were visiting.
Former NYPD director of cyber intelligence and investigations Nick Selby, now the chief security officer at fintech company Paxos, said he only uses VPN providers that he knows do not store any logs. During his time as a police officer he would serve search warrants and know which providers were “the best at giving me nothing,” he told TechCrunch.
It’s not to say that all VPNs are unscrupulous or invading your privacy. Much of the problem with VPNs is that you can’t look under the hood and see what’s going on with your data. Standalone VPNs, like Algo and WireGuard, let you create and control your own VPN server through a cloud service, like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud or Digital Ocean. But remember: your encrypted data is stored on another company’s cloud, making it potentially susceptible to being grabbed by the authorities.
VPNs can be useful, but it’s important to know their limitations. Just don’t rely on them to protect your privacy or your anonymity.