40% of Free VPN Apps Leak Data, Study Shows

A new report has shown that 40% of free VPNs on the Google Play Store may be vulnerable to data leaks.

With the ongoing pandemic of 2020, many of us have been living a lot more of our life, and work, through the internet, and as such, VPN usage has soared. However, while a free VPN could be tempting, a new study has shown that your details could be at risk.

According to the report, VPN apps that have collectively been downloaded millions of times, are playing it fast and loose with their users' data, cutting corners on security and potentially leaving their customers exposed.

We take a look at the VPNs named in the report, and the best way to make sure you pick a fully featured VPN.

What the Study Revealed

The study, conducted by Pro Privacy, is something of an eye opener for anyone who's ever searched for a free VPN and downloaded it without a second thought. The firm focused on the Google Play store, and tested the top 250 free VPN apps. Of these, it found that 40% failed to protect their users. In total, these apps amount to over 80 million downloads.

So, why were so many of these free VPN services doing such a terrible job with retaining users private data? The answer, according to Pro Privacy, is their reliance on an older protocol, named IPv4. IPv4 is essentially a 32-bit, unique identifier for devices that access the internet. When it was originally created, there were enough variables in the 32-bit system for 4.3 billion unique addresses. However, as it turns out, there are a lot of devices out there, and these unique addresses are now exhausted. IPv4 was superseded by IPv6, which allowed for 128 bit addresses. That's enough for 340 undecillion (or 340 billion billion billion, if you prefer).

Why does any of this matter? Essentially, many of these free VPNs are set up to protect your data when accessing the older IPv4 addresses (which still act as the backbone of the internet), but not optimized to do the same with IPv6 addresses. This matters as IPv6 addresses are on the rise, with Google estimating that they now account for around 25 – 30% of traffic. Pro Privacy found that 87% of the leaks it found were related to IPv6.

Almost all (87 percent) of the leaks were related to IPv6, suggesting that Android developers are not mitigating against the growth of IPv6. – Pro Privacy report

Which Free VPNs Should You Avoid?

There are many, many VPNs named and shamed in the Pro Privacy report, and as always, we'd recommend paying for one rather than relying on a free version.

You can see the full list of VPNs that leaked data on the Pro Privacy website, and if you're using one of the VPNs that has been show to suffer from IPv4, IPV6 or DNS issues, then you should ditch it as soon as possible.

One of the main issues discovered by the firm was that many of these VPNs are operated by the same developers, effectively reskinning the same software but offering it under various different guises. One developer, Softtechstudio, was found to be behind 98 VPNs. In situations like these, the flaws in one app are bound to be replicated and evident in most, if not all other VPN apps produced by the same company.

Many VPNs are also virtually identical, but named to target different search terms on the Google Play store.  For example, VPN Australia, VPN China, VPN India and VPN Korea are all the same app, offered by AltApps, just under different names.

With many of these apps having been downloaded millions of times, the scope for individuals data being compromised is huge. Below is an infographic showing the apps that aren't secure, and the number of times they've been downloaded.

Should I Pay for a VPN?

Yes. Yes. And again, yes. It's a position that we here at Tech.co have felt strongly about for years. The Beatles may have once sung that the “best things in life are free,” but this was in the days before VPNs. Many of these free services make their money through other means, usually by collecting your data and selling it to the highest bidder. This isn't as underhanded as you may think – many are upfront about it. Well, as upfront as you can be in a small font in your terms and conditions. You also can't really expect a free VPN to offer the best security for your data – many will cut corners, and, as this study has shown, it means that your data is at risk.

The type of information that might be compromised depends on exactly what you're doing online, but realistically, it could be anything, from slightly awkward selfies, to full blown financial and personal data.

A premium VPN doesn't need to be expensive, and we've found that many only cost a few dollars a month. For that, you get a fully fledged, feature-rich VPN with excellent security options, and, most importantly, peace of mind. Take a look at our recommended VPNs of 2020 to see what's available.

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Written by:

Jack is the Deputy Editor for Tech.co. He has over 15 years experience in publishing, having covered both consumer and business technology extensively, including both in print and online. Jack has also led on investigations on topical tech issues, from privacy to price gouging. He has a strong background in research-based content, working with organisations globally, and has also been a member of government advisory committees on tech matters.

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