Internet, by default, does not provide security and privacy when exchanging data. On the open web, sophisticated hackers would have no difficulty in intercepting traffic and stealing confidential information and user identities. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) provide protection by encrypting data from the designated server to the user machine so that even if data is intercepted, it cannot be read. VPNs are quite popular, but can these apps be trusted?
Most firms set up VPNs for their employees to access content and services remotely. The technology facilitates ready access to data – a critical element of competitiveness in today’s world – without having to sacrifice security and authentication.
Many users also use VPNs to bypass content censorships that many countries or content creators impose. For example, Netflix may not allow customers to access certain shows when they are across the border, even if the user is a legitimate subscriber. Countries like China censor content and prohibit access to sites or services (for example Google). In such cases, users set up VPNs to access the content by hiding the destination IP addresses which are blocked.
Privacy, Security, and Anonymity
There are hundreds of VPN apps out there which all promise privacy, security, and anonymity. Unfortunately, the reality is not as rosy as it looks.
In general, the app market is poorly regulated and many apps, beyond VPNs, provide little information about how they collect data. The current Facebook crisis suggests that, despite substantial spotlight, it is very hard to know how and where firms collect and share users’ data.
With smaller apps that receive little or no attention this problem is significantly worse. It gets even shoddier when app developers come from countries like China, where quality is mostly unverifiable and consequences for developers are minimal. Many of the VPN apps are offered by Chinese developers. This is no surprise since VPNs are particularly useful in China where content access is significantly restricted.
Challenges of Using VPNs
One of the challenges of using VPNs is that while the apps may protect users’ communication to the outside world, there is nothing that stops providers from collecting this data. It may also be impossible to verify whether the services the providers promise are actually being offered.
The majority of Chinese VPN apps are offered for free. It is impossible for any app developer (particularly small ones) to provide a service for free without getting something back in return. So, it is likely that these apps collect users’ data which they then use to sell advertisement. Or worse, they might sell this collected data to third-party aggregators without users’ knowledge. Even worrisome is that some of these apps may become a source of malware and surveillance and capture all sorts of information exchange without any transparency to users.
Because the Chinese government tightly controls all aspects of the internet, the suspicion that these app developers spy on user data or turn over this information to government agencies is not unfounded. Most users set up VPNs to hide their identity and generally exchange sensitive and confidential information, making a lack of VPN security even more insidious. In short, an unscrupulous VPN app is significantly worse than a general unscrupulous app.
Free Apps Compromise Privacy
Unfortunately, it is the “freeness” of these apps that make them attractive. The majority of consumers is unlikely to read privacy policies or understand what the firm might be doing with the data.
We need to shine the spotlight on such practices via academic papers and reports that highlight the widespread misuse of user data prevalent in the big wild world of mobile apps. There are sources that check the claims VPN service providers make and rank them on various attributes. App platforms also hold a responsibility to ensure that the apps they offer are not harmful to users.
At the end of the day, customers have to be vigilant. If they are smart enough to use VPNs, they ought to be smart enough to understand the risks of using such apps and make informed decisions in downloading the right one.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.