Using a cheap VPN service to protect your privacy is a bad idea

Using a cheap VPN service to protect your privacy is a bad idea
Credit: Wikimedia

Yesterday, US Congress voted in favor of rolling back Obama administration guidelines designed to protect consumers from ISPs that sought to collect, and sell personal data from customers. This information included, but isn’t necessarily limited to internet browsing history and search data. This would, presumably, be used by third-party corporate interests to track internet users and inject relevant ads.

One morsel of advice that’s guaranteed to crop up now is that you need a VPN, that can obfuscate what you’re doing on the internet from your ISP – thus preventing them from selling any relevant info about you. It also comes in handy when you’re using an Internet connection you can’t personally vouch for.

If you’re using the Wi-Fi in an airport or hotel, a VPN will make you measurably safer. But there’s a caveat. With a VPN, you get what you pay for. It’s one of those things – like shoes, laptops, or cars – that you really shouldn’t cheap out on.

When you splash out for a premium VPN service – like Private Internet Access or GhostVPN, two services I’ve used previously – you get a lot of things. You get reliable, fast service. You get endpoints in a variety of jurisdictions. If things go awry, there’s generally responsive customer service there to help.

But there are a lot of bargain-basement offerings that just aren’t all that great. I’ve experimented with a few. In general, they are slow and oversubscribed, and only have a handful of endpoints. It’s not uncommon for them to experience prolonged downtimes. Generally, they suck.

And remember, when you use a VPN, you’re essentially consenting to push all your network traffic through an intermediary computer that’s controlled by a third-party. Knowing that, would you trust any fly-by-night operation? Or would you choose to patronize a company that’s got a good reputation, and is well established?

Then you’ve got the free ones that, frankly, should be avoided at all cost. For starters, they guarantee nothing by means of quality of service. But others monetize the service not with a subscription fee, but by injecting adverts into your traffic. Remember, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.

The biggest exception to this rule is the SurfEasy powered VPN that’s part of Opera, which I can’t recommend enough. If you’ve got a budget of precisely zero dollars, this is the best you’re going to get.

In short, you’re going to get a lot of advice today. Most of it will be good, but don’t be afraid to do your own research before putting down your hard-earned cash.

This article originally ran on 01/28 for Data Protection Day and has been updated to reflect current affairs.

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