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While we only consider very few free VPNs as possible alternatives to top-notch premium services, we also have to admit that there is no perfect VPN, either paid or free.
Obviously, certain VPN security risks are more common in the case of free VPNs, while some may not even relate to paid VPNs. Let’s see how a VPN that should protect your anonymity may do just the opposite and risk your virtual as well as your physical security.
These are the 7 most dangerous VPN security risks
In our view, one of the most problematic VPN security risks is obviously the logging practices of a VPN. Why? Because logging is a gray area where your privacy no longer exists, depending on what gets recorded and how long such data is stored.
Most paid Virtual Private Networks claim to have no logs or zero-log policies. Unfortunately, not all of them mean it. However, when it comes to free VPNs, these providers definitely log more than is “healthy” for your privacy.
Basically, there are two types of logs:
- Connection logs
- Usage logs
While connection logs may be innocent and may not include your true IP address or any other personally identifiable data, usage logs can surely identify you.
Whenever there’s any limitation on your VPN service, you can be sure that logging is involved. Otherwise, how would the provider know how much data you’ve used, how many devices you have connected, and so on?
Some logging may be necessary but beware of VPNs that collect sensitive data.
Not all logs are evil. There are certain data that VPN providers do need to be able to maintain their quality service. As long as this information can’t lead to your identification and exposure, you should be safe.
Apart from these logs, another possible place to leak your identity is when you actually pay for a premium service.
When you buy a VPN plan, you need to be very careful. Choose a service that offers you at least one anonymous payment option, such as cryptocurrency (Bitcoin, Dash, and Ethereum) or other alternatives.
If you pay with your credit card or via PayPal, there will be an identifiable transaction. This means you could be linked to a VPN account personally. It’s not an option for those who want complete privacy and anonymity.
We don’t advise you to sign up for any VPN service before reading the legal documents from beginning to end. We have seen a couple of unfortunate cases in the past years like the one we mentioned in our PureVPN review. You know, when the FBI asked PureVPN to share theoretically non-existent logs regarding a cyberstalker.
While we all condemn illegal VPN practices (cyberstalking), you also can’t forget the main selling point of these services, i.e., your privacy and no logs whatsoever.
#3 VPN service based in a Five/Nine/Fourteen Eyes country
Of course, some consider the third VPN security risk as arguable. We’re sure there are people who wouldn’t consider a VPN provider from a Five Eyes country like the US or Canada as a serious security risk.
Some premium services choose a privacy-friendly country as their base to avoid strict data retention laws; for example, NordVPN is based in Panama.
Nevertheless, even that may not be enough.
If a VPN provider logs your connections or keeps other data about you, it might still feel compelled to share those with the authorities. We’ve also seen some good examples like ExpressVPN (based in the British Virgin Islands, a Fourteen Eyes country). The provider was forced to share data with the Turkish authorities. Yet, it had no logs whatsoever to share.
Global surveillance fails when the VPN provider can’t share usable logs.
As you can see, it all boils down to what kind of logs the company has about you and whether they’re willing to share these. Some dedicated premium VPN providers will go as far as moving their HQ to another, more privacy-friendly country or even shut down their servers in a surveillance-friendly country.
So, whether you choose a provider based in a surveillance-friendly country or not, make sure the logs can’t hurt you and your anonymity. With that said, we would still consider a privacy-friendly country as a more secure base.
Well, even if the previous three VPN security risks are not present, leaks can change everything in a second. No matter how good, powerful, and secure protocols a VPN offers, a leak can expose you right away.
Basically, a VPN can leak your IP (IPv4 and IPv6), DNS, or WebRTC address. These all can be disastrous if the leaked information lands in the wrong hands.
A leak can disclose your physical location and your online activity. Therefore, we advise you only to use a VPN that offers leak protection and a kill switch, too. Do not settle for less because it could cost you dearly.
Unfortunately, more than a third of Android VPNs have been found to contain malware. These infections can be Trojans, adware, riskware, or spyware programs.
VPNs for Android and iOS devices are also more dangerous when it comes to online privacy. This is because they can ask for all kinds of permissions for access to other third-party apps and data. However, granting these permissions could seriously lower your chances to stay anonymous.
Your entire online life can become an open book with the wrong VPN installed.
Being distracted by annoying third-party ads when using your smartphone is only one thing; however, these infections may spy on you, collect personal data, record your text messages and calls, and steal your banking credentials, as well.
#6 Collection and sale of personal data
Certain free VPN services can only keep their lights on if they collect data about you and sell these to third-party marketers (or whoever pays a good price).
Seeing more customized ads during browsing may not be such a high price to pay for VPN protection. That said, let us remind you that this practice is totally opposite to what such a service is for: keeping you anonymous.
This practice is the exact opposite of privacy and security.
So, how are you anonymous if data about you and your online habits are collected and shared with third parties? Again, if the usual snoopers intercept such information, you could be held responsible for anything in connection with your internet traffic.
Or worse: online fraud could be committed in your name, your home could be robbed, and so on. Of course, these are the worst scenarios, but in today’s world, you’d better be safe than sorry.
#7 Your IP address used as an exit node
Finally, the last of the VPN security risks in our list of the 7 “deadly sins” is one that can practically incriminate you for something you haven’t even done.
There are some free VPN services like Hola VPN that use a questionable approach to building a VPN network by using volunteer peers and their bandwidth as well as their IP addresses. This can be dangerous because when you join such a network, you also become an exit node. This means that other people will use your IP address and bandwidth.
While this could be used for good and beneficial practices, in our world, you need to be prepared for when duality strikes. And it does strike hard.
On the dark side of this volunteer computer network is the possibility to use an exit node for illegal activities. Or such a network could also be used as a botnet for all kinds of malicious attacks like DDoS.
Want to be on the safe side? Never sign up for a service that uses your IP address and bandwidth.
Secure your traffic with the safest VPN on the market
If you value your security and privacy online, you need to use a VPN. And not just any VPN, but one that’s the best of the best.
We’ve tested and researched hundreds of VPN services to enable you to make an informed choice when shopping for a tool that caters to your specific needs.
If you’re in the market for a risk-free VPN, NordVPN is the safest possible provider that can secure your connection right now.
- Excellent security
- Great server list
- Awesome for Netflix
- Good for torrenting
- Very easy to use
- Affordable prices
Still on the fence? Check out our leading VPN services page for more detailed information and a VPN ranking. We’re confident that this list will help you make the right choice that’s not related to any VPN security risks.
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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.