Digital Citizens Alliance: VPNs can break promises of privacy, convert consumers into targets

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A six-month investigation by Digital Citizens Alliance found that VPN (Virtual Private Network) providers spend an estimated $45 million a year advertising on piracy sites.  In addition, while VPNs tout privacy as a major advantage, some of them intentionally expose their users to malware designed to violate their privacy.

The study also found that consumers have a general lack of understanding about VPNs. The research survey of 1,318 Internet users found that 54 percent of Americans weren’t sure whether they even used a VPN. Only 1 in 5 reported having a strong understanding of a VPN’s purpose.

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Risks abound

While users may believe that VPNs take great pains to keep all these highly sensitive data completely safe – after all, VPNs’ marketing is all about how they protect and enhance privacy – in reality, not necessarily.

By subscribing to a VPN, an Internet user entrusts the VPN with a significant amount of personal data. Once a user signs up, the VPN can know the user’s name and credit card information, exact IP address and geolocation, and every action the user undertakes online, including every website visited and every activity on that website, said Digital Citizens Alliance.

Breach of trust

Free VPNs may make money by selling that data to third parties. VPNs claim to not retain user data. However, in 2020, the respected tech site Tom’s Guide reported about seven VPNs left user data – which they claimed they were not collecting – for roughly 20 million people unprotected on a cloud server.

While consumers rely upon online reviews to choose technology (and other) products and services, Digital Citizens Alliance noted that Kape Technologies, owner of several VPNs, acquired VPN review sites in 2021, which calls into question whether the reviews were truly independent.

VPNmentor includes a disclosure on its website about its ownership, which also owns multiple VPNs (Source: Digital Citizens Alliance)

No guardrails in many countries

A Digital Citizens research survey conducted in October found that a majority of Americans believe that VPNs are regulated by agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission, or by state governments.  And yet, in countries that include the United States, VPNs have access to that data with no direct oversight.

In the US, Congress has taken notice.  In 2022, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Representative Anna Eshoo (D-California) urged the US Federal Trade Commission to crack down.

“It’s extremely difficult for someone to decipher which VPN service to trust, especially for those in crisis situations…75 percent of leading VPN providers misrepresented their products and technology or made hyper- bolic claims about the protection they provide users on their websites…,” they said in their letter to FTC Chair Lina Khan.

Impact on brands

The report also details risks and losses that can accrue to advertisers. “Advertisers are hugely exposed when programmatic algorithms and negligent affiliates choose (piracy sites) for ad placement, without using proper filtering solutions,” said Peter Szyszko, CEO of White Bullet Solutions Limited. “Affiliate partners seek to maximize commission from brands for clicks made on their ads, so unless they are closely monitored and audited by brands, greed may get the better of them,” he said in a prepared statement.

White Bullet partnered with Digital Citizens Alliance in support of this report.  White Bullet offers piracy risk data and protection, brand safety solutions and full transparency on their advertising placement and digital supply chains.

Further reading

Choosing your VPN: A matter of trust. Full report. November 3, 2023.  Digital Citizens Alliance

VPNs: Your ally or your liability?  Internet users must choose carefully when choosing a VPN service, new report shows.  Press release. November 3, 2023. Digital Citizens Alliance

Why it matters

VPNs represent a $50 billion global market, according to estimates by Surfshark earlier in 2023.  An estimated 1.6 Billion Internet users rely upon them.

“By engaging in questionable activities, VPN providers undermine the trust critical to the future of the Internet and support illicit actors who are notorious for targeting Internet users to spread malware and engage in credit card fraud,” said Tom Galvin, Executive Director of the Digital Citizens Alliance.

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