Just Because a Mobile VPN App Is Popular Doesn’t Mean It Is Protecting Your Privacy

Posted by Ben Spector on 27-Jan-2019 14:49:15

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A study of the top free VPN apps available in Apple’s App Store and Google Play revealed that some of them might not be protecting your privacy as promised. Find out what the researchers discovered.

Using free public Wi-Fi networks at airports, hotels, and restaurants is convenient when traveling for business, but it can be risky. If you connect to an unsecured public Wi-Fi network, you run the risk of having hackers eavesdrop on your electronic conversations.

In theory, you can use a virtual private network (VPN) app to protect your privacy and data when using your mobile device within public Wi-Fi networks. In reality, that might not be the case if you are using a free mobile VPN app.

study of the top free VPN apps available in Apple’s App Store and Google Play revealed that most of them have no formal privacy policies or unacceptable ones. Plus, many of them are from obscure Chinese companies that deliberately make it difficult for people to find out anything about them. Equally concerning is that these apps often lack adequate customer support.

How the VPN Apps Were Selected

Researchers at Top10VPN.com selected the apps to study by searching for “VPN” in the App Store and Google Play for both the United States and United Kingdom sites. (Top10VPN.com is a VPN review site run by Metric Labs, an online security and privacy education company.) If a paid app appeared in the search results, the next one was selected. The top 20 VPN apps in each store at each site were listed, giving a total of 80 apps. Many of the apps appeared more than once in the list, so duplicate entries were removed. The end result was a list of the top 30 free VPN apps.

What the Study Found

For each app, the researchers investigated several elements, including the app company’s privacy policies, ownership, and customer support. One of the most concerning findings is that 86% of the apps are provided by companies that do not have any privacy policies or unacceptable ones. In regard to the latter, some of the companies have generic privacy policies that do not include any VPN-specific terms or policies that lack important details about data collection practices — both of which can give users a false sense of security. Other policies note that the companies track user activity and share it with third parties. Several policies even explicitly state that the companies collect and share users’ personal data with China.

Another troublesome finding concerns the companies providing the apps. “Our investigation uncovered that over half of the top free VPN apps [59%] either had Chinese ownership or were actually based in China, which has aggressively clamped down on VPN services over the past year and maintains an iron grip on the Internet within its borders,” said Simon Migliano, the head researcher at Top10VPN.com. Chinese legislation now forces local VPN providers to register with government authorities and obtain a license to operate. This is likely why some app privacy policies state that users’ personal data might be shared with China. For example, the privacy policies for the VPN Master, Turbo VPN, and SnapVPN apps state that “Our business may require us to transfer your Personal Data to countries outside of the European Economic Area (“EEA”), including to countries such as the People’s Republic of China or Singapore.” China’s VPN legislation coupled with the prevalence of Chinese hacking groups makes using VPNs provided by companies with links to this country risky to use.

The study also found that many of the top 30 apps have questionable user support. Specifically, 64% of the apps did not have dedicated websites for their VPN services. Several apps had no online presence whatsoever beyond their listings in the app stores.

Furthermore, 52% of the customer support email addresses specified in the app store listings were personal accounts (e.g., Gmail or Hotmail accounts). When the researchers sent emails to all the apps’ customer support email addresses requesting assistance, 83% of the emails were ignored. The emails were sent from the official top10vpn.com address and did not hide the researchers’ true identities.

You can find the details about all the apps investigated in the “Free VPN Apps: Chinese Ownership, Secretive Companies & Weak Privacy” report.

A VPN App Can Be Invaluable If You Pick the Right One

A VPN app can be invaluable if you use your mobile device within public Wi-Fi networks. It can protect your privacy and data if a network is not secured properly. However, when selecting a VPN app, it is important to do research and carefully evaluate the candidates, especially those that are free. If you need assistance selecting a safe VPN app for your mobile device, get in touch.

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