South Africans looking to protect their online activity should stay well clear of free Virtual Private Network (VPN) services.

These pieces of software have become increasingly popular in recent years, as Internet users grow more aware of the importance of securing their online identities and data.

In short, VPNs offer enhanced privacy by directing your online traffic through another server, which in the process disguises your IP address.

This makes it impossible for ISPs or the authorities to track what sites you visit or what you are doing with your Internet connection.

In addition, it makes it difficult for hackers to exploit users’ connections and breach your system.

Aside from providing better privacy and security, many also allow users to circumvent geo-blocks on video-on-demand libraries or bypass the throttling of protocols such as torrenting and streaming.

Not all of these services are reliable, however, and many use dubious methods to make money from their customers – in particular those which claims to be free, which number in the thousands.

MyBroadband spoke to two reputed VPN companies – NordVPN and Surfshark – to learn more about how reliable and dodgy VPN services functioned.

You are the product
NordVPN digital privacy expert Daniel Markuson stated that reliable providers invested huge sums of money in their product and its infrastructure.

“Everything costs something and the price for the service you get might be your privacy,” Markuson said.

Surfshark Communications Manager Gabriele Racai said that very few free VPN providers offered a truly free service.

“In general, as a VPN customer, you either pay with money or with your data,” Racai said.

“There is a saying, ‘If the service is free, you’re the product’, and that’s especially evident within the VPNs’ market,” Racai added.

Racai explained that among the most common hidden means that allow free VPNs to maintain their infrastructure and make a profit was tracking users’ online activities and sharing this data with third-parties.

“Some providers choose to show ads as a way to monetise their service. If an app is ad-supported, it usually means developers can gather data points about users’ online activity for targeted advertising,” Racai said.

One study has found that 72% of free VPNs embedded third-party trackers in their software. These include well-known free VPNs such as Betternet, Hotspot Shield, and Opera VPN.

Markuson advised users to carefully check service policies and learn how their data would be processed before signing up for a free VPN.

“Customers should always do their research before committing to free VPN services,” Markuson said.

“They should always question themselves how a provider funds its business if a service is free of charge,” he stated.
Bad performance
Aside from not protecting your online activity or data as claimed, you should not expect great performance from free VPNs either, Markuson warned.

“Such companies don’t invest much in their product and their infrastructure. Therefore, free VPNs usually come with slow speeds, constant pop-ups, and restricted streaming,” he said.

“Compared to paid VPN services, free VPNs also lack features, a variety of protocols, and the number of servers and their locations is very limited,” he added.

Racai said that most free VPNs limited speeds and only offered access to tens of servers, compared to thousands available from paid VPNs.

“This impacts the overall daily browsing experience, because the less geographical distance from a server, the better your speeds would be,” Racai stated.

Important features
When it comes to choosing a reliable VPN service, there are several characteristics consumers should look out for.

Markuson emphasised the importance of a transparent privacy policy as a lot of potentially sensitive personal information is included in usage logs.

“While most providers claim to run no-log VPN services, some of them might still collect extensive connection logs. That’s a problem because third parties could use this information about your internet access to identify you,” Markuson said.

It is therefore important that the VPN service be subjected to an independent audit process to confirm its no-logs claims. Both NordVPN and Surfshark have done this, in addition to VPNs like ExpressVPN, VyprVPN, and Perfect Privacy.

Relating to privacy, Markuson advised that consumers compare their options based on the following points:

The types of data the service collects about users and their internet usage.
The external support or tracking tools it uses.
The country where the service operates and the local legal requirements for collecting user data.
In short, Racai advised consumers to consider the following attributes:

Reliable encryption
Trustworthy security and privacy policies
Independent third-party audits
Versatility – Choose a VPN that supports a wide array of platforms and operating systems.
Simultaneous connections – Does the VPN must allow for connecting across different devices at once?
Speed – Wide variety of servers as well as different configurations for different purposes.