Virtual private networks, also known as VPNs, provide people who work from home extra online protection from hackers. The software creates a secure connection with another network, and then encrypts traffic between those two points.
With many office workers and students required to “shelter in place” because of the coronavirus pandemic, VPNs are in much bigger demand these days. But choosing the correct one can be complicated.
Many large employers provide laptops loaded with VPNs, which they pay for. There are also dozens of VPN services people can subscribe to on their own for around $10 per month.
But there are also a number of free services, which often come with a cost: Users give up some of their personal data.
“The great majority of free VPNs make money from intrusive advertising and selling your browsing data,” Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN.com, a privacy research and VPN review site, tells Fortune. “Ironically, your privacy can be impacted more by using a free VPN than by using nothing at all.”
What to look for when shopping for a VPN
Experts said the choice of a VPN should be based on when, why, and where it will be used. Many VPNs perform well for one or two specific purposes, such as privacy, streaming, gaming, or accessing material in a country where the Internet is censored.
Robert Siciliano, CEO of security education company Safr.me says it’s okay to download certain free VPNs that also offer a paid version. Examples include TunnelBear and Windscribe.
“They’re usually a little bit slower,” he tells Fortune about the free VPNs. “However by downloading the free version, one can get a general idea if they enjoy the product. Additionally once a user downloads the free version, after a short period of time they often receive multiple offers at a discount.”
Migliano, from Top10VPN.com, recommends that people avoid simply searching Apple’s and Google’s app stores for a VPN without doing prior research. He says app stores feature a “minefield of highly risky free apps” in their top search results.
“Instead try Googling around, reading review sites, and getting an idea of who the established brands are,” he says.
He also recommends signing up on a highly-respected VPN provider’s website and following their link to download an app. In that way, users can bypass the dodgy rivals in app stores. Furthermore, legitimate companies will have a policy that states about how they handle personal data. In some cases, the policies are quite readable, unlike many privacy policies online.
Bill Conner, CEO at SonicWall, a network security company, says smaller companies that typically haven’t had a need are now clamoring to set up VPNs because their workers are at home and need to access confidential company information.
“The mobile workforce is increasing, leaving many organizations scrambling for virtual private network licenses to ensure employees’ company-owned and personal tech products are secure,” he tells Fortune.
The stakes in choosing a VPN are high. An investigation by Buzzfeed News earlier this month found that a number of free VPN apps from analytics company Sensor Tower had been quietly collecting user data.
Those apps, including Free and Unlimited VPN and Luna VPN — were recently available for download in the Google Play store. Luna VPN is still available in Apple’s App Store.
The apps required users to install a root certificate, which allows the app maker to essentially follow a person as a they browse the Internet. A spokesperson tells BuzzFeed News they only collect anonymized information about how they’re used, however experts say the report is another example of why it’s important to do research before choosing a VPN.
The top reasons for using a VPN
As of January 2020, as many as 31% of Internet users worldwide use a free or paid VPN, according to Top10VPN.com. While growth has been slow but steady, adoption doubled last year to 7% from 3.5% in 2018.
Nearly one-quarter of VPN users in the United States and the United Kingdom also rely on a VPN to access streaming content that could be restricted in their countries due to licensing agreements. (For instance, an American in the United Kingdom wanting to watch the latest episode of Saturday Night Live would need to use a VPN, since they’re outside of the United States.)
Failing to install a VPN has risks. With more people now working from home, there’s an opportunity for wardriving, a cyber security term for people who drive around and look for vulnerable Wi-Fi networks to hack.
“To a wardriver, an apartment block in a nice part of town now represents dozens of opportunities to access the data of residents working from home with potentially valuable data,” Migliano, from Top10VPN.com, says. “Again, anyone using a VPN would be protected in such a scenario.”
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