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Are free VPNs safe? Why a paid VPN is the best option

Verified by Nick Jones

Virtual private networks (VPNs) are necessary in an increasingly privacy-concerned digital landscape. Free VPNs can be attractive for users seeking cost-effective anonymity and security online. But beneath their no-cost appeal, such VPNs may hide multiple issues, ranging from privacy breaches to ad bombardment. So, are free VPNs safe?

This article presents an in-depth investigation into the safety, advantages, drawbacks and monetisation strategies of free VPNs. We’ll discuss data leaks associated with free providers and investigate the reputations of various free services. 

You’ll find an objective comparison of our top free and paid VPN picks, and we’ll reveal our top free VPN pick.

Pros and cons of free VPNs

Free VPNs seem appealing for users looking for a cost-effective way to enjoy privacy and freedom on the internet. However, you need to know the advantages and drawbacks to decide whether this is the right choice. We’ve compiled a list of the major pros and cons of free VPNs.

Getting a free VPN seems appealing for users looking for a cost-effective way to enjoy privacy and freedom on the internet. However, you need to know the advantages and drawbacks to decide whether this is the right choice, or if you should look at the best cheap VPNs instead. We’ve compiled a list of the major pros and cons of free VPNs.

Pros 

  • Zero cost: The most obvious benefit is the ability to use a VPN without shelling out any money.
  • Basic privacy: Free VPNs provide a basic level of privacy; they mask your IP address, enabling you to browse more privately than without a VPN.
  • Easy to use: They often have user-friendly interfaces and require minimal tech knowledge to set up and operate.

Cons

  • Security issues: Using a free VPN exposes you to potential malware infection, which can significantly threaten your privacy and security.
  • Privacy issues: Although these services highlight anonymity as one of their primary advantages, data leaks are commonplace. Also, some free VPN providers store and sell personally identifiable information to advertisers and data brokers.
  • Excessive ad displays: Free VPNs often show multiple intrusive ads to earn income, which is annoying and impairs the user experience.
  • Limited network: Typically, free VPNs offer a limited number of servers, locations and countries, making them useless for bypassing geo-blocks.
  • Traffic restrictions: Free VPNs usually come with speed and data limitations that don’t work for some users.
  • Dubious monetisation methods: As zero-cost services, free VPNs can’t rely on subscription fees as a revenue source and must use other monetisation methods. Some providers collect, store and sell connection and usage logs to advertisers and other third parties, while others use it to sell targeted ads on their platforms. Worse still, some free services have been known to install malware on users’ devices, exposing them to a number of security risks. In addition, providers that offer both free versions and paid-for subscriptions will usually use upselling techniques to get users to upgrade.
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Case study: SuperVPN’s alleged data leak

The backstory

In 2020, Google removed the “dangerous” security app SuperVPN from its Play Store following warnings of serious vulnerabilities exposing users to man-in-the-middle attacks. Despite these risks being highlighted in 2016, the app grew from 10,000 to more than 100 million downloads by the time it was removed. 

Security warnings revealed unencrypted HTTP traffic, hardcoded encryption keys and unencrypted payloads, leading to potential interception of communications and redirection to malicious servers. Although SuperSoftTech, the app’s Chinese developer, wasn’t implicated in any data attacks, the persistent vulnerabilities made it an exploitable target. Users of this app are still advised to uninstall it immediately.

The recent data leak incident

In May 2023, cybersecurity researcher Jeremiah Fowler disclosed a significant data breach associated with SuperVPN. He conducted a thorough investigation and discovered a non-password-secured database related to the popular free VPN service.

This publicly available database comprised over 360 million records containing sensitive user information such as email and IP addresses, device-specific details, refund requests and browsing history.

Fowler found two applications named SuperVPN registered under different developers on the Google Play Store and Apple App Store. The SuperVPN versions for iOS, iPad and macOS are attributed to a developer named Qingdao Leyou Hudong Network Technology Co, while SuperSoft Tech produces the second app.

Are free VPNs safe Super VPN in app store
Two different developers had apps listed for SuperVPN, causing confusion for users (Apple App Store)

The leaked database contains references to another company, Changsha Leyou Baichuan Network Technology Co, with multiple mentions of Qingdao Leyou Hudong Network Technology Co. Each of these companies seems to have Chinese ties, underscored by notes within the database written in Chinese. The exposed database was shut down after Fowler emailed the app owners to notify them of the leak. He received no response, which was puzzling and raised doubts about their commitment to user privacy.

All signs suggest Qingdao Leyou Hudong Network Technology Co owns and is responsible for the exposed database. Nevertheless, despite several similarities, the relationship between it and SuperSoft Tech remains unclear. For instance, the logos of the two entities, especially those of SuperVPN for Mac and other iOS devices, are strikingly similar. 

Fowler’s efforts to contact both firms to ascertain whether they are linked or share a common developer yielded no result. Given the scant information about their ownership or location on their respective websites, concerns have been raised regarding the openness and safety of these no-charge VPN services.

Further investigation revealed SuperVPN shares customer support emails with Storm VPN, Luna VPN, Radar VPN, Rocket VPN and Ghost VPN, indicating potential connections between these services. This exposure contravenes SuperVPN’s declared commitment to not logging user data, hence threatening user privacy.

What did we discover?

While researching the SuperVPN data leak, our experts found some intriguing information. Two free VPN apps with similar names are available on the Google Play Store. They are developed by SuperSoftTech and Wechoice Mobile and have different logos.

Are free VPNs safe SuperSoftTech listing
Despite the earlier concern over its security, SuperSoftTech’s version of SuperVPN is still available in the Google Play Store (Google Play)

Our researchers identified discrepancies between the anonymity, privacy and security claims and the privacy policies for these applications on the Google Play Store.

Are free VPNs safe Wechoicemobile listing
Confusingly, there is another app called Super VPN available in the Google Play Store (Google Play)

Similarly, two SuperVPN apps are listed in the Apple App Store: the one discussed above (developed by Qingdao Leyou Hudong Network Technology Co) and another developed by Free Safety Connected Software Co, Ltd.

Are free VPNs safe Free Safety Connected Software listing
Yet another Super VPN app developed by a different company is listed in the Apple App Store (Apple App Store)

These apps with the same name and similar logos can cause confusion and mislead users. Moreover, their privacy policies seem to contradict their identity protection and data security claims, stating that user data can be disclosed to advertisers and other third parties.

Our takeaway

The SuperVPN case highlights that, while VPNs are designed to provide subscribers with enhanced privacy and security online, they are not invincible. Weak encryption techniques, security gaps or inadequate security measures can lead to breaches, compromising sensitive user data.

Which other free VPNs have a bad reputation?

The SuperVPN case discussed above is not an isolated occurrence. Many free VPNs have gained bad reputations by misusing user data.

Free VPN provider Reputation issues
Hola VPN Hola VPN uses a peer-to-peer network model, which utilises users’ devices as servers, raising serious privacy concerns. The company is linked to Luminati, known for selling access to networks of enslaved devices, leading to fears of botnet misuse. These issues have severely tarnished Hola VPN’s reputation.
HotSpot Shield VPN In 2017, HotSpot Shield VPN was accused of logging and selling user data. Alleged practices include injecting ads and mishandling payment info. The company denied these allegations.
Betternet Betternet VPN was established to inject ads into web pages and collect user data for advertising purposes, raising privacy and security concerns.

Free vs paid VPNs: What do you get for your money?

Having discussed the advantages, disadvantages and risks of using a free VPN solution, we’ll compare our top picks in these two categories: free and paid VPNs. Proton VPN is the only free VPN recommended by our experts, and NordVPN is our top-rated paid VPN service. 

The comparison considers several key factors that typically influence the user experience and overall satisfaction, such as server network, privacy, access to restricted content, number of simultaneous connections and bandwidth limitations.

Free: Proton VPN Paid: NordVPN
Data limit Unlimited Unlimited
Number of servers 56 5,731
Number of countries 3 60
Number of connected devices 1 6
Unlocks geo-blocked sites Yes Yes
Unblocks Netflix No Yes

While Proton VPN’s free version offers a decent level of service, it falls short of the extensive network and convenience provided by NordVPN.

The advantages of a paid VPN

Below are some features offered by paid VPNs that you often can’t get from a free service.

Extensive server network

Paid VPNs usually operate many servers in various countries, ensuring users enjoy fast internet access and can select servers optimised for specific purposes, such as peer-to-peer file sharing, bypassing heavy internet restrictions, or ensuring extra security.

Absolute privacy

Paid VPNs typically do not log or sell your online activity to third parties, a practice some free VPNs use to generate revenue.

Top-notch encryption

A paid VPN uses strong encryption (like AES-256) to secure your data, preventing third parties from accessing your internet traffic, which is especially important when connected to public wifi networks.

Additional features

Paid VPNs often include additional features such as a kill switch (which disconnects your devices from the internet if your VPN connection drops, ensuring your data is never exposed), DNS and IP leak protection, dark web monitoring (notifying you if your credentials are leaked), threat protection (blocking trackers, malicious ads and malware) and a private DNS function.

Access to blocked services

In countries with heavy internet restrictions, paid VPNs bypass them, giving users internet freedom without compromising security and allowing them to access blocked social media platforms, news outlets, web pages and apps.

Unlimited bandwidth and simultaneous connections

Unlike free VPNs, which may impose limits, paid VPNs often offer unlimited bandwidth and allow for multiple simultaneous device connections.

24/7 customer support

Paid VPNs provide round-the-clock support to assist users with any issues or queries, which free VPNs usually lack.

Better performance 

Paid VPNs generally offer faster connection speeds, greater reliability and better performance than free VPNs, which are slower, less reliable and filled with intrusive ads.

While free VPNs seem appealing because of the price tag, the privacy, security and performance trade-offs might not be worth it. Paid VPNs are more reliable, secure and feature-rich in comparison, proving that in digital security and privacy, you often get what you pay for.

What is the safest free VPN?

If you’re considering using a free VPN, we highly recommend Proton VPN based on our extensive research and test results. It offers unlimited bandwidth and robust encryption protocols, ensuring safe and uninterrupted browsing. 

Moreover, the security protocols of Proton VPN’s free plan match those of its paid plans, ensuring a top-tier, secure service without spending a penny. It utilises industry-standard encryption methods, such as OpenVPN, IKEv2 and WireGuard, with AES-256 encryption, safeguarding your data effectively.

Unlike many free services, Proton VPN does not log user activities, adhering to a strict privacy-first approach. Like its paid service, this no-logs policy has been independently verified in an audit – something not many free providers can match. 

The provider claims its free service is subsidised by the money it makes from paid-for subscriptions. The free version of its app is ad-free (aside from limited prompts to upgrade to a premium plan).

However, it has some limitations. It only supports a single-device connection and provides access to servers in only three countries: the US, the Netherlands and Japan. This restricts global access but still provides decent geographic diversity. The free plan does not support streaming or torrenting.

Performance-wise, Proton VPN is impressively fast. Its apps are available on various devices and operating systems and are user-friendly, ensuring a smooth experience, even for the less tech-savvy.

So, if you’re looking for a free VPN service that doesn’t compromise security, privacy or performance, Proton VPN might be your best bet. Alternatively, we have rated Surfshark VPN as the best value VPN available in terms of security and privacy features vs monthly cost. 

Round up of today’s best VPN deals
NordVPN 2 year £2.49 /Month
£2.49 /Month
Surfshark 24 month £1.79 /Month
£1.79 /Month
ExpressVPN 12 month £6.77 /Month
£6.77 /Month
CyberGhost 2 year £1.78 /Month
£1.78 /Month
Proton 2 year £4.27 /Month
£4.27 /Month
PIA 2 year £1.57 /Month
£1.57 /Month
Atlas 2 year £1.34 /Month
£1.34 /Month
PrivadoVPN 2 year £1.99 /Month
£1.99 /Month
Windscribe 12 month £4.53 /Month
£4.53 /Month
IPVanish 2 year £3.58 /Month
£3.58 /Month

Nick Jones

Editor in Chief

Nick Jones is a highly experienced consumer journalist and editor, who has been writing and producing content for print and online media for over 25 years.

He has worked at some of the UK’s leading publishers including Future Publishing, Highbury Entertainment, and Imagine Publishing, with publications as diverse as Homebuilding & Renovating, TechRadar, and Creative Bloq, writing and editing content for audiences whose interests include history, computing, gaming, films, and science. He’s also produced a number of podcasts in the technology, science, gaming, and true crime genres.

Nick has also enjoyed a highly successful career in content marketing, working in a variety of topics such as health, technology, and finance, with market-leading global companies including Cisco, Pfizer, Santander, and Virgin Media.

Now the Editor-in-Chief of the Independent Advisor, Nick is involved in all aspects of the site’s content, where his expertise in finance, technology, and home products informs every article that’s published on-site. He takes a hands-on approach with our VPN content, penning a number of the articles himself, and verifying that everything we publish in this topic is accurate.

Whatever the area of interest he’s worked in, Nick has always been a consumer champion, helping people find the best deals and give them the information they need to make an informed buying decision.