The danger of data-hungry free VPNs in schools

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The danger of data-hungry free VPNs in schools

Blocked websites are the bane of any student’s school day – whether they’re trying to do a little research for a paper, or kill time. These restrictions are enforced, typically, to keep kids focused on the task at hand and not what’s going on on social media, but, the blocks can extend to news outlets and resources about sexual orientation, gender, and race, as well as today’s preeminent time waster: Tik Tok.

With that in mind, today’s kids are increasingly relying on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to access a free and unrestricted internet while they’re at school. While the logic is sound, students using free VPNs can actually end up putting themselves in danger.

Unlike today’s best VPNs, free services have major caveats that make them less than ideal for everyday use. However, to a student in a pinch, or one with a budget to think of, a free VPN might seem like the most viable option. The companies behind free services know this, too, and actively tailor their offering to school-aged children as a nifty way to get around educational restrictions.

As we’ve always said on the TechRadar team, however, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product – and unfortunately, the same goes for school kids. 

The issue with free VPNs 

Free VPN services aren’t afraid to yell from the rooftops that they’re free — seemingly giving them an edge over premium providers. This becomes a major selling point for a student, whether they’re younger and trying to unblock games at school or a little older and more wary about their budget, and they might not look any deeper than the price tag (or lack thereof) before deciding to use the service. The issue here is that price is just one facet of what to consider when picking a VPN.

It’s even more important to do your research when looking for a free service, too, because they can’t all be trusted. Even the best, most reliable free VPNs have major hangups, think bandwidth caps, monthly data allowances, a reduced server pool, and speeds that just can’t keep up with streaming and gaming. All of this is on purpose, of course, so you’ll upgrade to the premium plan to escape the restrictions — it’s how they make the money to keep a free option available in the first place.

It gets worse, though, as some free VPNs pay their bills by selling your information to third parties. This is exactly what you don’t want a privacy tool like a VPN to be doing.

Business is booming

In 2020, the Wall Street Journal discovered that children’s data is a valuable commodity on the black market and ultimately used in phishing scams, malware attacks, and even identity theft. 

You might wonder if a school kid’s information is all that valuable, but it’s not just credit card details that fetch a good price from brokers and the dark web. A free VPN might harvest browsing habits, names, birthdays, emails, and addresses, which can be used to launch all sorts of cyberattacks.

Ultimately, these dodgy free services tarnish the online profiles of children who haven’t had the chance to create their own, organically. Any kids involved in a free VPN scam, whose information ends up in the clutches of a data broker or dark web shopper, will grow up with information for sale already on the internet, which flies in the face of their right to digital anonymity.

When to use a free VPN 

So, is there any time when using a free VPN is safe or sensible? The answer is that it depends. What do you want to do with your free service?

If all you want to do is shore up your device’s digital privacy while you’re using public Wi-Fi hotspots, then a reliable free choice like PrivadoVPN Free or Proton VPN has your back. Just connect to a server, leave it to run in the background, and go about your browsing like you usually would.

If you’re on the hunt for a streaming VPN, however, a free provider won’t cut it. The tiny data allowance you get from a free service won’t go far, for one thing, and most free providers don’t offer access to enough servers to make them viable picks for unblocking geo-restricted content.

With that in mind, I’d recommend checking out a more reliable cheap VPN, as these premium picks don’t have the annoying limitations of their free cousins. NordVPN is my favorite overall (and the best Netflix VPN in the business). You can put its 30-day money-back guarantee to good use and trial the service for a month before deciding whether to commit to a more long-term plan.