“There’s no such free thing as a free lunch” used to be a life maxim your grandfather would share with you. And nobody seems to have any doubts whatsoever. But then, the internet broke out of the academic world to become mainstream. Suddenly, things like free music, movies, books, audiobooks, and TV shows were on the cards. So naturally, millions of users worldwide were delighted — many of them remain so.
So what are we to make of granddad’s old rule? First, free things have kept popping up. Free email services, proxy servers, and digital services are now around. Some became veritable institutions like Hotmail, Yahoo, or Gmail. Did the world go crazy? Do we need a new Adam Smith to make sense of the digital economy? And the most important and sensitive question of all: was grandfather wrong about lunches?
We need neither of the things mentioned above, and granddad wasn’t wrong either. Instead, we need to understand that all those free services take a payment. It’s just that it’s not money.
Let’s take Gmail, for instance. In the current times, it’s almost equivalent to a digital passport. And you don’t have to pay for it. Or do you? Google’s business model is to offer you ads. And they have the technology to show you advertisements you could click on.
So how do they know how to pick the suitable ads for you? Gmail scans your emails to figure out what you’d like to buy with the highest probability. And every time you click, Google gets paid. So it’s not so free when you think about it. You pay for your Gmail by clicking on ads and providing Google with all the information they need about you to decide which ads to show you. So you see, there is no free lunch in Gmail.
So the stream of supposedly free things keeps flowing on the internet. One of the latest ones is the free VPN. They have great marketing campaigns; they claim they’re as good as the best-paid ones. So why not use them? To have all the power a great VPN affords you for nothing? Except they’re not free. As with Gmail, Yahoo, and other “free” things, you will pay for your VPN with something other than money. Let us tell you what that will be: you.
So here’s a new granddaddy’s maxim for the brave new digital world: whenever you’re not paying for something with money on the internet, you are the product that’s on sale. And that’s why free VPNs are not the neat idea they purport to be. Here, we will tell you how free VPNs sell your information to make money. But before diving into the perils of free VPNs, let’s start by reviewing the basics.
What is a VPN? What does it do, and why would you need one?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a digital service that performs two operations on your behalf.
Firstly, it will encrypt all the incoming and outgoing traffic from the device you have connected to the VPN server.
Secondly, it will spoof the IP address, showing the world an IP address taken from the VPN network as if it were yours. These two neat little tricks ensure that no third party can make sense of your traffic and that every computer you interact with on the internet doesn’t know where you are; they assume you’re in the VPN server’s location because that’s the IP address they see.
So, if you are on a VPN, nobody can see what you’re doing or know where you are, right? Wrong. Your VPN sever knows. That is the critical link in the chain; if you can trust your VPN, everything is all right. But what happens if you don’t? And what’s the deal with free VPNs? Can you trust them?
A top-notch VPN can cost you about a hundred USD yearly, depending on your choice’s vendor. So free VPNs look like a sweet deal. They seem like they’re here to save the day out of the kindness of their hearts.
However, free VPNs are not in business out of compassion. They are businesses, and they’re around to make a profit–by selling you out.
Data privacy and free VPNs
Ok, so Gmail scans your emails to determine your buying potential. But do they sell that information to anybody else? As far as we know, Gmail doesn’t share the profile it has on you with anybody else. It’s just happy to use it for its purpose. But is every other “free” service respectful to the data you provide? In the case of free VPNs, do they sell your information?
The answer is, unfortunately, yes. It’s not a secret, and while free VPNs don’t publicize it loudly, they provide you with that information in their terms and conditions of service. But you have to read all the small printing.
Every time you connect to a free VPN server, your traffic will pass through it. And your activity will be recorded into logs and stored. Those logs then are sold to the VPN’s commercial partner, most commonly advertisers. And it all happens with your consent because you agree to the VPN’s terms by using it.
So whenever you use a free VPN, your data is not safe nor private. These companies will sell their logs to whoever will pay for them. Yes, most commonly, those are advertisers. But how can you tell that other malicious actors won’t buy the record that includes your data?
The whole point of using a VPN is ensuring you can be online with complete privacy, anonymity, and security. Using a VPN that will log everything you do to sell away defeats that purpose, even if it’s through the backdoor.