VPNs come under scrutiny amid privacy fears

VPNs, or virtual private networks, are among the most searched-for apps in the world because they provide users with an encrypted internet connection, but their integrity has come into question following new research into their links with China.


Top10VPN.com, which describes itself as the world’s largest VPN review site, recently investigated the 30 top free VPN apps available in Apple’s App Store and Google Play in the US and UK.

These included apps, such as TurboVPN, VPN Proxy Master, VPN 360 and Snap VPN, which have been downloaded more than 100 million times on Android devices and iPhones.

However, as explained by Top10VPN.com’s head of research, Simon Migliano, the study revealed that more than half (59%) are “run by highly secretive companies with Chinese ownership”.

“Very few of these hugely popular apps, which have hundreds of millions of installs worldwide, do anywhere enough to deserve the trust of consumers looking to protect their privacy,” he said.

86% of these apps were found to have “unacceptable” privacy policies, including the tracking of user activity and sharing the information with third parties.

More than half (52%) of customer support emails turned out to be personal accounts, such as Gmail or Hotmail, while two-thirds (64%) had no dedicated website, with several having no online presence beyond app store listings.

“The listings for these apps on app stores were so obviously shoddy and poor quality and full of inaccurate information, that it was blindingly obvious that Apple and Google weren’t looking at this,” Migliano told the Financial Times.

“It’s pretty crazy that 60% of apps we looked at didn’t have a company website. Over half hosted their privacy policies on free WordPress blogs, that had ads on the page, full of typos and when you looked at them together, they had copied and pasted from each other in a sloppy way,” he added. “This is far from what you’d expect from an internet company trying to protect your privacy.”

Looking at some of the apps in more detail, three of them – TurboVPN, ProxyMaster and SnapVPN – were found to have linked ownership, the Financial Times reported.

“Our business may require us to transfer your Personal Data to countries outside of the European Economic Area (“EEA”), including to countries such as the People’s Republic of China or Singapore,” they noted.

Another app, VPN Patron, was also of concern because it is owned by IST Media, a company based in Hong Kong that markets itself in China as a mobile advertising company that monetises users’ internet behaviour.

Migliano said it was “vitally important” for consumers to choose their VPN provider “wisely” given the potential for misuse of their data.

“Unfortunately, the majority of apps appearing in the top results for VPN searches are free products from obscure and highly secretive companies that deliberately make it very difficult for consumers to find out anything about them,” he said.

Sourced from Top10VPN.com, Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff