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December 12, 2017

Do Some VPNs Put You at Greater Risk of Cyber Crime?

The growing popularity of secure message apps and the continued push by major tech companies to encrypt web data are a testament to the current boom in online privacy. Virtual private networks (VPNs), which protect your online browsing habits, have thrived in recent years. That’s resulted in unregulated VPN services cropping up all over the world. While they all promise to keep users shielded from prying eyes, the truth is that some VPN services do more harm than good.

In an ideal world, a VPN moves your web traffic from an exposed public network and funnels it through an encrypted, private network hosted in another location. This makes it possible for users to access restricted regional content, such as Netflix, from anywhere on the planet.

This all sounds ideal on paper, but the reality is somewhat murkier, as a user’s browsing habits are still exposed to the VPN service provider. That includes information such as what websites they visit and what files they download. Some VPN providers have been accused of logging their customers’ online activity without notice and then selling that data to advertisers.

Malware packaged as VPN software has also increased dramatically, particularly in the shape of mobile apps. A recent analysis of 283 advertised mobile VPNs on Google’s (News - Alert) Play Store by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization found that 38 percent contained some form of malware. Nearly two in ten (18 percent) left users’ web traffic unencrypted, leaving them susceptible to cybercrime.

Knowing which VPN providers you can trust to protect you online is, therefore, turning into something of a minefield. There’s certainly not many of us with the skills to analyze an app’s requested permissions or the time to read through lengthy terms and conditions. One factor that does seem to give an indication of trustworthiness is cost.

Maintaining the online infrastructure to provide a VPN service is expensive, yet some VPN providers are seemingly able to offer a free service. It’s little surprise then, that this has raised some eyebrows amongst consumers. How exactly are these free providers paying for the servers, staff, security and advertising to run a financially viable business? One clue was revealed in 2015, when one of the most popular free VPN providers of the time, Hola, was discovered to be selling its users’ bandwidth under a separate company name. While it’s an old mantra, in the world of VPN providers, you do seem to get what you pay for.

Consumer concern over the logging of data has led to many paid-for VPN providers advertising themselves as “no logging” services. The validity of these claims is questionable, however, as it isn’t possible to run a server without some form of logging, due to DNS requests.

In fact, there have been incidents of so-called “no logging” services handing over data on their users to aid in police investigations.

So, where does that leave you? Well, one thing you should be aware of when picking a VPN provider is the difference between “usage/browsing logs” and “connections logs.” The former refers to data such as your browsing history and the time spent on any given website. Any VPN service that collects this data should be avoided. The latter is generally used by VPN providers to improve the speed and reliability of their services, so shouldn’t be regarded as a deal-breaker.

Whichever service you do end up choosing, always remember that your browsing history can never be completely anonymous. Cyber privacy, however far it advances, will always leave an inadvertent paper trail.

About the Author: Gareth Mooreland is a full-time writer and a content marketing expert and have previously worked for technology companies in the US, UK and Australia. He is the go-to expert to write about technology and business. When not writing, Gareth enjoys taking landscape photos around the world. His lifetime ambition is to visit every country in the world. Only 128 to go!

Edited by Erik Linask
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