How do free VPNs make money?

Posted on January 6th, 2023 by in Privacy basics.

how free VPNs make money

 

Most “free” VPNs aren’t really free because you pay with your personal data.

If you’re looking for a virtual private network (VPN), it’s tempting to go for one of the hundreds of free services on the market. But you pay for most free VPNs with your privacy or security, and the cost can be high.

We explain how free VPNs make money and how to choose a free VPN that’s safe and genuinely free to use.

Why use a free VPN?
5 ways free VPNs make money
1. Target you with ads
2. Sell your personal data
3. Share your details with partners
4. Infect your device with malware
5. Support you with their paid service
How to choose a free VPN
A free VPN you can trust

Why use a free VPN?

Using a VPN is a great way to protect your privacy and security online. By encrypting the data from your computer, tablet, or smartphone, a VPN keeps your online activity from the prying eyes of your internet service provider (ISP), government, or anyone else who gains access to your network.

Shows how your ISP can't see your personal data, but your VPN can and some VPNs make money from it.

A VPN also changes your IP address, the numerical label that identifies your device online, so you can hide your location or appear to be in a different country.

There are many reasons to use a VPN, but few “free VPNs” do what you want or what they claim.

Many unpaid VPNs are stripped-down versions of paid VPNs that lack essential features. Some cap your bandwidth or monthly traffic, making them unusable. Other “free VPNs” are just scams to distribute malware. Apart from infecting your device, they may not work at all.

Legitimate or not, all free VPNs have to be financed somehow. So it’s vital to understand how a service makes money before you sign up for it. 

5 ways free VPNs make money

With most free VPNs, the old saying “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” is often true. Here’s how most free services generate cash.

1. Target you with ads

The most common way “free” VPNs make money is by advertising: Advertisers pay to display ads in VPN apps. Connect to many free VPNs, and you get bombarded with pop-up ads.

More than just an annoyance, these ads are often “personalized”, meaning your VPN service has shared your personal data with the ad providers to target you. This data could include the browsing history that you’re using a VPN to protect in the first place. So the very tool you trust to protect your privacy may be making money by violating it.

2. Sell your personal data

Many free VPNs make money by tracking you in some way. They use technology like cookies, web beacons, and tracking pixels to record where you go online.

They then sell your browsing history to advertisers or data brokers. Moreover, they may combine this with the personal details you submitted when signing up: your name, address, email address, etc. Far from protecting your privacy, these VPNs may sell intimate details about your life to the highest bidder.

3. Share your details with partners

“Free” VPN services are often part of a wider group of companies. Some VPNs cash in by selling your personal details, especially your name and email address, to their partner companies or third parties. 

For example, Hotspot Shield, a VPN service once accused of tracking its users, is part of the Aura group. And Aura’s privacy policy clearly states:

“Neither Aura, nor any of the companies that comprise Aura, sell your personal data (except if you utilize our free products)” [italics added].

4. Infect your device with malware 

Arguably the most shocking way some free VPNs make money is by compromising the security of your computer, tablet, or smartphone.

The most malicious free VPNs can secretly download malware, like spyware or ransomware, onto your device with potentially devastating consequences.

At least one VPN service, Hola, used malware to turn its free users’ devices into exit nodes or VPN servers. If you weren’t paying for the service, Hola used your bandwidth and IP address for users who were paying — without your knowledge. What’s worse, Hola allowed free users’ devices to become part of botnets, networks of devices used to spread spam email or launch cyber attacks.

5. Support you with their paid service

The best free VPNs providers support their free service with funding from paying users. Yet this “freemium” model of funding can have its downsides.

First, many “freemium” VPNs strip out essential features, restrict your speed, or limit your monthly data allowance to encourage you to upgrade. Most legitimate free services limit you to 500 MB or similar, so they’re basically just free trials.

Second, free VPNs often supplement their income by targeting your account with advertising. Overwhelmed by pop-up ads, you may pay up just to use the service without interruptions.

One exception to this rule is our Proton VPN. As Proton VPN has no ads and no data limits, you can use it for free as much as you like.

How to choose a free VPN

There are hundreds of free VPNs on the market, but not all are created equal. They range from trustworthy services, like Proton VPN, to downright scams that spy on you or don’t work at all.

Here’s what to consider when choosing a free VPN that’s genuinely private, secure, and practical to use.

Choose a VPN with no ads

Pop-up ads in your VPN are annoying and can slow down your internet connection. What’s worse, VPN providers may share your personal data with advertisers to “personalize” these pop-ups.

Check the VPN has no ads before you sign up.

Check the no-logs policy

The best VPNs have a no-logs policy, which means they keep no record of your online activity. If they don’t record what you do, they can’t share or sell this data to third parties. 

Read the company’s privacy policy to check the devil in the details, not just the “no logs” claims in its advertising. If the company doesn’t clearly state that it keeps no logs, don’t use it. Proton VPN’s no-logs claims are independently audited and backed by Swiss law.

Choose a privacy-friendly country

When you use a VPN, your online activity is subject to the laws of the country your VPN is based in. If your VPN’s home country is China, the government could demand your data at any time. If it’s based in one of the countries of the 5 Eyes, 9 Eyes, and 14 Eyes agreements, like the US, the UK, or Australia, your data could be accessed by court order.

Make sure your VPN is based in a privacy-friendly country like Switzerland or Iceland, where the government won’t have access to your online activity.

Check VPN protocols

A VPN is only as secure as its VPN protocols. A VPN protocol is the set of instructions used to establish a secure connection between your device and the VPN server. 

Check that your VPN uses modern protocols with strong encryption, like OpenVPN or WireGuard.

Opt for open source

A VPN can see all your online activity, so you need to make sure it’s as secure as it claims. Most free VPNs are hard to trust because they keep their code secret.

Choose a VPN that is open source and transparent, so anyone can verify it’s secure. Proton VPN publishes independent security audits, so if you can’t check the code yourself, you can see the opinion of experts who can.

Research the VPN’s history

Before deciding on a free VPN, search for news about the company online. Who runs it and where is it located? How is it funded? Does it have a good privacy track record or a history of selling and exploiting users’ data? Is it part of a larger group of companies that might share your data?

Choose a well-established company that’s genuinely committed to protecting privacy, not maximizing profits.

A free VPN you can trust

At Proton, our mission is to give everyone privacy and security online. Privacy and freedom of speech are human rights. That’s why we created a secure VPN that’s genuinely free to use and unlimited — so everyone can be free and beat censorship online, regardless of their ability to pay.

Proton VPN Free is supported by paying members of the Proton community, not by selling your personal data. It’s the only free, open-source VPN with no logs and no bandwidth or monthly data limits. You can use Proton VPN as much as you like.

With Proton VPN Free, you get:

If you want to unblock popular streaming services with servers in over 60 countries and more features, upgrade to Proton VPN Plus.

Join us and millions of others helping us build a better internet where privacy is the default.

A long-standing privacy advocate, Harry worked as a translator and writer in a range of industries, including a stint in Moscow monitoring the Russian media for the BBC. He joined Proton to promote privacy, security, and freedom for everyone online.

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