Have you downloaded a free VPN or ad-blocker app for your phone? Over 35 million users have – but many don‘t realize these apps are secretly accessing and sharing their private data.
Recent findings uncovered major privacy violations by popular free VPNs like Unlimited VPN, Luna VPN, and Mobile Data. I‘ll explain how they are capturing user information, why "free" VPNs cannot be trusted, and how to protect your data with more secure alternatives.
The Alarming Scale of the VPN Privacy Breach
Research by analytics firm Sensor Tower revealed that apps like Unlimited VPN, Luna VPN, and Mobile Data prompted users to install root certificates that granted extensive access to their data, including:
- Browsing history
- Device information
- Other activity logs
By 2021, just Unlimited VPN alone had over 20 million installations on Android devices. And these apps were found collecting data continuously – in Unlimited VPN‘s case, a full 18 months of user information.
This data was anonymized and aggregated, then likely used for targeted advertising or sold to third party brokers. Either way, users were making themselves vulnerable without realizing it.
In light of the violation, Google and Apple banned many of these apps from their app stores. But countless users had already enabled the risky root certificates.
How "Free" VPNs Exploit Your Data
Free VPN services come with an obvious red flag: if you‘re not paying, you‘re the product. Here‘s how they monetize your information:
- Usage logs: Collecting browsing data, location, IP address
- Bandwidth throttling: Slow speeds push you to upgrade
- Injecting ads: Showing additional, intrusive ads
- Selling data: Sharing or selling logs to data brokers
Even if they claim not to "log" activity, free VPNs have misrepresented their practices before, like HolaVPN.
Some go as far as inserting malware or viruses into your device. A study by Simon Migliano found 38% of free VPN apps contained malware.
When your security and privacy are on the line, the risks of free VPNs outweigh any benefits. Paying a small amount each month for a trustworthy VPN is worth it.
Choosing the Best Secure, Paid VPN
Paid VPN providers like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, Surfshark, CyberGhost and Private Internet Access can be trusted to safeguard your data.
I compared the top options based on important criteria:
|VPN Provider||Pricing||Server Locations||Encryption||Speed|
Look for these hallmarks of a reputable VPN:
- Rigorously proven no-logging policy
- Independent audits of practices
- Based in a country with strong privacy laws, not China or Russia
- Uses technological safeguards like kill switches and split tunneling
- Supports torrenting and streaming
I personally recommend ExpressVPN for the best peace of mind. But be wary of free VPNs – they undermine privacy instead of protecting it.
Fortifying Your Privacy Beyond VPNs
Along with a paid VPN, you should also:
- Use encrypted email (ProtonMail, Tutanota)
- Browse privately in incognito/private mode
- Change passwords frequently with a password manager
- Use the Tor browser or VPN + Tor together
- Opt out of data sharing/collection when possible
- Evaluate browser extensions; only install trustworthy ones
Every privacy step matters. VPNs are just one piece of the puzzle.
Take Your Privacy Seriously
Free VPN and ad-blocker apps are red flags when it comes to security. Invest in a premium VPN, paired with other privacy-enhancing tools and habits.
Your personal data is immensely valuable, and plenty of companies will try to profit from it behind your back. Fight back by being informed, vigilant and proactive. Your security is worth investing in.