Busting free VPN myths

Anton P. | January 21, 2021

Many perceive the free VPN industry as a thorn in their side. As the saying goes: if a service is free, you are the product. Such statements reflect the commonplace fears of providers concealing their monetization strategies behind tempting deals. Doubting free VPN services is a rational decision, but any objectionable ruling requires facts and thorough analysis. Hence, as the “free VPN” label becomes somewhat alarming, let’s summon the power to answer the burning questions. Are such services worth your trust? What are the common misconceptions surrounding them?

The problem with free services

Free products online are crowd-pleasers. Chances are, you juggle dozens of them daily, such as social media, email services, or gaming apps. The typical downside is that many free services come with ads that interrupt your experience now and then. While you can look past this feature, the continuous data collection might not be something to overlook.

However, free services are not the only ones partaking in data collection practices. Paid services monetize consumers’ data, too. Wireless carriers and ISPs continue selling user data in addition to receiving income from their primary services. The general assumption is that paid services will be less intrusive as data collection and ads are not their primary revenue sources. Sadly, such beliefs are not always correct.

The mistrust over free products only escalates after reminders of how they abuse relationships with their clients. In early 2020, an investigation revealed that Avast’s free antivirus software logged users’ browsing patterns. Its subsidiary Jumpshot would then package these detailed logs and sell them off to various entities. While users could refuse data collection, a significant percentage might not realize the actual tracking scale.

Experts note that while personal information was off-limits, browsing details had the potential to deanonymize clients. Such news reveals how willing companies are to gain deeper visibility of consumers’ actions. Even though such tracking works on an opt-in basis, specialists note that consumers rarely pay attention to them. Most users agree to terms without taking a second look. In case they do, the conditions mentioned might not tell the whole story. For instance, they will not disclose their partners or companies that will likely purchase or receive collected data.

Free VPN myths: do they have merit?

Free VPNs are dangerous

This belief is partially correct. Users resort to free VPN services hoping for quality, respect, and protection online. However, clients rarely seize the opportunity for in-depth analysis. Hence, the promises in the initial offers might not reflect the delivered services. Even if a VPN effectively masks IP addresses, it might tuck away some alarming and off-putting features.

A nuanced analysis in 2016 served a platter full of valuable insights into free (and paid) VPN practices. The investigation focused on 283 Android apps in total. One thing to note is that statistics or research findings have their limitations. In 2021, similar observations might take a different turn or draw opposing results. However, the study reveals many alarming trends that remain relevant to this day.

  • Malware-ridden VPNs. 37% of VPNs in question had 500K installs. Some of them (25%) even had 4-star or higher ratings. Unfortunately, more than 38% of apps contained malware, according to VirusTotal scans. However, only 4% had an AV-rank higher than 5. Thus, while results are red flags, there is a possibility for false positives.
  • Insufficient encryption. One worrisome conclusion indicated that 19% of free VPNs did not use secure tunneling protocols. In comparison, 10% of paid services displayed questionable tunneling practices. Instead, they used basic TCP and unsafe HTTP tunnels. Products lacking robust tunneling protocols render useless as they do not sufficiently forward traffic out of users’ devices. Objectively speaking, these findings are the most distressing. If a VPN does not deliver privacy through encrypted tunneling, it leaves users exposed to monitoring and censorship.
  • Leaking data. The study emphasized that 66% of analyzed VPNs did not tunnel DNS queries. Instead, it made these requests traverse directly through Google DNS (55% free and 60% paid). However, the paper also proposes that a reputable DNS resolver might be better than an independent one. By using private DNS, some VPNs could secretly perform redirection or content filtering. It is a complex issue, depending on particular examples. Nevertheless, when DNS requests travel outside the encrypted tunnel, they are prone to tracking by any in-path observers.

Verdict time: are all VPNs dangerous?

While free VPNs do not have the best track record, you should not toss them all in the same basket. Many free providers will indeed deliver products lacking appropriate security measures. However, through its hard work and evolving infrastructure, Atlas VPN embarks on a quest to debunk these misconceptions. We rely on industry-approved standards for securing our users. Thus, we use AES-256 encryption and build secure tunnels with IPSec/IKEv2. We operate our private DNS servers resolving queries with no traffic redirection or filtering.

Additionally, Atlas VPN uses robust mechanisms to prevent DNS or IP leaks. One such initiative is a kill switch, ensuring that sudden connection issues won’t expose you online. Of course, the same level of protection applies for both free and paying users.

Free VPNs are slow

Again, such claims might be valid to an extent. Free VPN providers might not offer optimized infrastructures capable of supporting thousands of connections. Hence, since more people might connect to free servers, their browsing might suffer buffering or lags more frequently. However, your connection might be slower due to other reasons. For instance, connecting to servers closer to you might solve the issue. Since web traffic gets rerouted through remote servers, it can take longer to travel from point A to point B.

Verdict time: are free VPNs slow?

As mentioned, the connection speed depends on several factors. It might be that the server you selected is physically farther away from your real location. In other cases, performance can diminish due to higher numbers of connections. In both cases, a simple server change can do the trick to fix slower speeds. If this does not help or there are no more options available, free servers are slower by design.

Luckily, Atlas VPN improves its free servers regularly. They can sustain thousands of users, but depending on the situation, connections can render slower. However, Atlas VPN is one of the only providers that does not impose bandwidth limitations in its free version. Browse all you want, for as long as you desire!

Free VPNs show ads and sell your data

As mentioned above, free VPNs can be active participants in digital advertising. Transparent providers name these conditions in their official documents (privacy policies or terms of use). While targeting and floods of ads seem as disappointing trends you cannot escape, the issue intensifies if VPNs are the ones pulling the strings. These products, essentially, aim to minimize users’ exposure to excessive tracking practices. If VPNs accumulate thousands of profiles on users’ browsing patterns to display ads, it only adds to the problem.

Calling out service providers for misleading claims and potentially shady undertakings is essential. In 2017, one supplier faced backlash for potentially misdirecting users’ web requests to their partners. Hotspot Shield answered these allegations, claiming them as unfounded. They also argued to never link users’ submitted data with online activities they perform.

Verdict time: do all VPNs display ads and sell user data?

Generally, free VPNs will likely monetize their users. After all, repetitive displays of ads or concerning data-sharing are their primary revenue sources. However, the situation shifts if VPN providers have alternative revenue channels. Atlas VPN has no intention or means to share user data with advertisers. Essentially, we do aim to generate revenue from free users. Instead, paid plans are our revenue-driving force. As a result, we can reassure that all our clients enjoy safe browsing without risking data loss in the process. This business model also reflects our mission to make the internet accessible to all.

Free VPN ≠ Freemium VPN

Users tend to mix up two drastically different concepts: free and freemium services. The latter covers products supplying both paid and free plans. The no-cost option typically offers basic features, enough to achieve intended goals. Premium plans extend available functionality and might tweak performance overall. Such business models rely on their paid subscription fees as primary sources of income. Hence, this channel can be sustainable enough to outshine extensive data collection and ad-based practices.

Atlas VPN is an example of a freemium service that continues to prove its reliability as both a free and paid option. As soon as you install and open the app, you can connect to the locations available for free. No questions asked, no payment required, and only limited personal data collected. Here are the main features of why Atlas VPN works as a freemium service and aims to build trust with its user base:

  • No ads and data collection. We do not keep logs of websites you visit. The data we do gather does not go beyond the details necessary for troubleshooting. Thus, we design users’ information to be minimally privacy-invasive. However, paid users will need to submit payment details when purchasing suitable plans. Our main goal is to fuel anonymous connections for all, regardless of whether they are paid or free users. Hence, we do not participate in traffic manipulation that could misdirect your web requests.
  • Regular updates and speed boosts. We polish our free and premium services equally. Thus, our dedicated team improves all servers to support ever-growing numbers of connections. Additionally, we minimize the time necessary to reroute traffic through remote servers.
  • Military-grade encryption. No buts or ifs: Atlas VPN encrypts all web traffic with AES-256 and builds secure tunnels with IPSec/IKEv2. You can rest assured that all your activities traverse safely, and IP-based tracking no longer hinders your browsing.
  • Private DNS. We resolve DNS queries via our DNS servers. This feature renders identically for both free and paid users. Hence, we try to cover all cracks that might leave your browsing exposed.
  • Premium service as our primary source of revenue. Our earnings come from users upgrading to our paid plans. Premium clients can access more servers and take advantage of the additional features we include.
  • Referral program. When using Atlas VPN, we hope that satisfied clients will recommend us to their peers. For every friend that joins our community, you get seven days of free premium (depending on platform and availability at the moment of invitation). Thus, if Atlas VPN ticks all the boxes for you, do not forget to spread the word. Support us as we make the internet open and restriction-free for all.

Final notes on choosing a VPN

With the VPN market booming, you need to take precautions before installing an app claiming to provide quality services. Be it a free or premium service; both can conceal questionable under-the-hood operations. The best strategy is to do some healthy research about every app you find. Has it been involved in any shady dealings? What do reputable reviewers say about it? Also, take the time to read terms of use or privacy policy documents. They will reveal a lot about the VPN features you should be aware of before joining its user base. We also encourage you to read our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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