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When it comes to VPN services, a single leak can expose your real IP address and other sensitive personal data, and jeopardize your anonymity. Therefore, if you are looking for a reliable and secure VPN, the single most vital information is whether it may leak personally identifiable data.
Your chosen VPN service can have all the most secure protocols and features, but if it doesn’t have a kill switch and other leak protection, you could easily be in trouble.
Just to make it clear: A leak can cost you dearly depending on the sensitivity of your online activity. If you are a political activist, an ethical hacker, a geo-unblocker, a BitTorrent user, or anyone who simply doesn’t want to be tracked, monitored, and spied on, a leak can expose you to snoopers like your ISP, cybercriminals, and governments. As a consequence, you could be fined, prosecuted, or even jailed in the worst-case scenario.
The following are the four aspects of leaks you can encounter in relation to VPN services:
All of these leaks can lead to your identification and link you to a particular internet activity that could be the subject of an FBI investigation, for example.
Let’s see how the top 5 free VPNs can leak such sensitive data, which makes them potentially so dangerous.
Top 5 free VPNs leaking your personal data
Based on our experience and researches in the VPN field, we can state that it’s quite likely that out of the hundreds of free services, most have at least one of the above leaks. This makes such services completely redundant since they can cause more serious security and privacy issues by leaking your personal information than not using one at all.
When we talk about personal data leaks, it’s vital to know what kinds of data a VPN provider logs in the first place and who they may share this information with (e.g., advertisers and authorities). What’s not logged cannot be leaked or shared, right?
Drumroll! Here come the top leakers:
#1 Hola VPN
No wonder why this volunteer-powered VPN network can claim the first place again and again when it comes to ranking the most questionable and dangerous free VPNs. Hola VPN logs some really worrisome personal data about you and also shares these with third parties like marketers:
- Log data: browser type, web pages you visit, time spent on those pages, access times and dates
- Personal information: your true IP address, your name, email address, screen name, payment and billing information, and other information Hola may ask from you
- Social network account information: when you choose to register through a social network account (e.g., Facebook), Hola VPN will have access to your full name, home address, email address, birth date, profile picture, friends list, and whatever else you made publicly available
Oops, exactly the data you want to share with anyone when using a VPN service to stay as anonymous as possible online, right?
Hola VPN also keeps records as required by applicable laws, and will share them with the authorities readily. But, this is not the only way for your sensitive personal data to leak. Hola has been found having WebRTC and DNS leak issues as well. In essence, you should clearly stay away from Hola VPN if your security and privacy are of importance to you.
#2 Opera VPN
This free VPN comes as a built-in function for the new Opera browser. When talking about data privacy, it’s always worth checking where the VPN provider is based. In this case, Opera is located in Norway. Lovers of fjords may have a good feeling about this location; however, lovers of privacy may have a cold shiver going down their spines, and not because of the Norwegian weather for sure.
Norway is a Nine Eyes global surveillance alliance member, which is not particularly a good sign with regard to your anonymity.
WebRTC leak tests indicate that Opera VPN leaks your true IP address, which is certainly bad news since you can be identified and located physically if such leaked data ends up in snoopers’ hands. Of course, you can install an add-on to prevent the WebRTC leaks if you configure it properly.
#3 Betternet VPN
Although this provider is quite transparent about how they keep up the free service, it is still a free VPN that we advise you to avoid if you are concerned about your online security and privacy. Let’s see why.
You must avoid free VPNs with embedded tracking libraries if you don’t want to be monitored, spied on, and leak personal data to third parties. This security issue affects mobile clients even more as they seem to be more invasive trackers than other platforms.
Betternet VPN has no kill switch, no leak protection, and no cloaking, which simply means that leaks are almost inevitable. In fact, the Betternet Chrome extension has been found the worst of its clients with its DNS and IP leaks, which could seriously endanger your online anonymity.
A thorough study (2017) also found Betternet VPN as the 4th worst VPN from the examined 283 Android VPNs. But, let’s top it all with a surveillance-friendly base in Canada as well as a very limited number of VPN servers all distributed in Five/Nine/Fourteen Eyes countries. Sounds like you can trust your life on Betternet? Well, better not.
#4 Hotspot Shield VPN
Because, even if this VPN service doesn’t collect personally identifiable data and doesn’t share them, either, its third-party advertisers may still end up leaking vital information about you: “Your personal information may be available to a third-party content provider.”
So, even if we don’t mention that Hotspot Shield VPN is based in the US, the “all-seeing eye” of the Five Eyes surveillance alliance, which may not be the best choice for privacy when a provider keeps all kinds of logs about you, well, it should be clear that 38 million free users may actually be mistaken choosing this service.
#5 VPN Gate
At the bottom of our Top 5 rankings is no other than VPN Gate, one of our favorite services to drag across the floor of criticism. While this completely free VPN has a good variety of security and privacy features, due to its sheer nature of being a volunteer-based network and its data logging practices, it is simply one of the worst and most dangerous VPNs out there when it comes to privacy.
Not only does VPN Gate keep all kinds of personal data about you and your traffic, but all volunteers can also snoop on your traffic and log information about you as they wish. If we add that this VPN has no kill switch, let’s just say, chances are it will leak your real IP address and DNS requests at one point. And that, dear reader, can end pretty badly for you since you could be identified and linked to your sensitive traffic, if there’s any, of course.
VPN Gate is also quite willing to share any logged data with the authorities when asked, so that you know.
Other free VPNs leaking data
We tried to set up the top 5 free VPNs leaking your personal data rank list based on their popularity so that you can surely avoid these when you search the web for the best free VPNs to keep you anonymous online. Of course, there are plenty more you should steer clear of, such as Hoxx VPN, VPN.ht, SecureVPN, Speedify, DotVPN, Psiphon, and Onavo Protect. These free VPNs can all leak your personal information and, thus, defeat the whole idea of Virtual Private Networking.
If you’d like to find out which few free VPNs we consider to be worth a try, please click here.
VPNs with leak protection
If you want to avoid being totally exposed by the aforementioned leaks, it’s crucial that you choose a VPN service, either free or paid, that offers DNS/IP leak protection as well as a working kill switch. These are basic requirements for a privacy-friendly VPN service. Of course, if all you want is some general geo-unblocking and browsing, you should be just fine with a better free VPN until your data cap runs out.
Nevertheless, we are here to promote real online freedom and the best possible privacy you can get; therefore, we need to mention ExpressVPN, NordVPN, PrivateVPN, and CyberGhost, which we consider the most reliable overall VPN services. For more information, please visit our top Ten VPN list page.
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Ethan is a security researcher and digital privacy advocate. He spends his time unraveling various anonymity and security tools, plus contributing to open-source projects. Otherwise, he keeps a low profile by hiking or cycling around the countryside.