As concerns grow about our leaky governments and shoddy online privacy, Virtual Private Networks are growing in popularity – but will a free VPN or paid VPN do the job of keeping your data private?
A survey last year suggested 44 per cent of people in the UK have used a VPN to create a completely secure connection between their device and a host server.
We often use VPNs without even realising, from internal company networks to pupil portals in schools and colleges.
Then there are personal connections, which may be set up for a number of reasons:
- Exchanging sensitive information, such as a patient uploading personal medical data
- Increasing the security of a public network like a café’s free WiFi
- Reducing exposure to malware, phishing or viruses
- Avoiding geolocation restrictions on video, streaming TV on Hulu or Netflix, or other online content
- Remotely accessing other devices, like offsite IT personnel fixing a problem
- Streaming or torrenting content through a BitTorrent or similar
Results may vary
Like many things in life, VPNs come in different varieties. And one of the biggest differences is cost.
When you’re choosing between a free VPN or paid VPN, this is what you need to know.
Paid versions are the norm, though it’s possible to get a free VPN.
Running a VPN is a considerable technical and financial undertaking, which has to be paid for somehow.
If you’re not paying a small monthly subscription you should take it as read that you will end up paying in other ways.
Anything free online when it’s providing a service is never actually free. Take Facebook for example. A nominally cost-free service backed up by harvesting your personal data to target advertising to your phone, laptop and anywhere else social media can follow you.
Choosing the best option as a consumer depends on your specific requirements, as we explain below.
Free VPNs are widely available, but they lack useful features found in their paid-for cousins.
One of the biggest issues involves the commonly-used Point-to-Point Tunnelling Protocol (PPTP) connection method.
Rather than getting bogged down in the specifics of how this works, it’s enough to note PPTP’s 128-bit encryption isn’t considered fully secure any more.
It’s fine for streaming video content, but less suitable for spending a week doing online banking and shopping through a hotel’s unsecured WiFi network.
It’s important to realise you get nothing for free, particularly given the costs of running a VPN service.
Providers cover their infrastructure and marketing costs with unblockable third-party advertising or data caps, while some throttle bandwidth speeds or force log-offs after a certain amount of time.
There’s also a higher risk of disconnections, particularly if the network is over-subscribed or experiencing significant traffic volumes.
And if something does go wrong, don’t expect much help from a free VPN provider. Many won’t have a customer service department.
It’s much easier to snare customers with a free ‘VPN’ that’s actually a spoof program designed to spy on user activity and fraudulently gain access to personal data like online banking.
Subscription-funded VPNs generally reinvest in faster infrastructure and better service.
Stronger encryption methods might slow data transmission a little, though this rarely matters given the additional bandwidth available.
Plus, the benefits of greater privacy through a virtual private network ought to outweigh any delays incurred.
A more pertinent issue is the requirement to register personal details when setting up payment.
A free VPN can often be used anonymously, which isn’t true when a user account and direct debit are registered in your name.
Nonetheless, paid VPNs offer many advantages.
They tend to offer a choice of connection types, including SSL protocols and 256-bit encryption.
Because they have greater revenue streams to draw on, paid service providers almost always offer larger volumes of connection nodes around the world.
There’s no risk of connection speeds being throttled to redirect bandwidth elsewhere. If anything, you’ll benefit from this happening to other people.
Technical support should also be readily available, though paid-for platforms require less assistance anyway because they’re designed to meet expectations of service among their customers.
And paid VPNs tend to last longer than free ones that occasionally vanish overnight.
The last word
The choice between a free VPN or paid VPN depends largely on whether anonymity and affordability outweighs service quality and reliability.
Either way, it’s crucial to ensure a potential VPN provider won’t keep activity logs to identify what you’ve been doing.
If a potential provider doesn’t clearly stipulate a no-logs policy, it’s probably best to go elsewhere.
Finally, VPN regulation is often more lax in less democratic countries like China or Russia, even though the state tends to pay closer attention to individual activities.