The High Price of Anonymity

Category: Security

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are designed to offer privacy and security online, but not all VPNs are created equal. While premium VPN services invest in robust security measures, free VPNs often come with hidden risks. A recent investigation into the 911 S5 botnet highlights the potentially severe dangers associated with free VPNs. This botnet,which the Director of the FBI has described as “likely the world’s largest ever”, relied heavily on unsuspecting users who installed free VPN software. Read on for my advice on the threats posed by free VPN services...

The Hidden Dangers of Free VPN Services

Authorities have arrested YunHe Wang, a 35-year-old Chinese national alleged to be the creator and operator of 911 S5, which had been operating as an online anonymity service. According to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice, the 911 S5 botnet was used to facilitate cybercrime on an “unprecedented scale,” enabling cybercriminals to evade financial fraud detection systems, resulting in identity theft, distribution of malware, and the theft of billions of dollars from financial institutions, credit card issuers, and federal lending programs.

According to security researcher Brian Krebs, the 911 S5 service, which operated under various names including Cloud Router, exploited free VPNs to create a massive network of compromised Windows computers. Upon the arrest of the botnet's operator, the service was shut down. Free VPNs like those used by 911 S5 entice users with the promise of anonymity and access to restricted content. However, these services often come with a hidden cost. By installing these free VPN applications, users unknowingly turned their computers into proxies for cybercriminals. The VPNs functioned as advertised but also quietly routed illicit traffic through the users' devices, enabling fraudsters to mask their activities and evade detection.

Risks of free VPNs

Some of the VPN brands associated with the 911 S5 service include MaskVPN, DewVPN, PaladinVPN, Proxygate, Shield VPN, and ShineVPN. The FBI’s Cyber Division has created a web page that can be used to see if your computer may be compromised by the 911 S5 botnet, which ensnared over 19 million computers worldwide.

Privacy and Security Risks of Free VPNs

Free VPN services are notorious for their lack of transparency and insufficient security measures. Unlike reputable paid services that invest in encryption and data protection, many free VPNs cut corners, leaving users vulnerable. The risks associated with these free services include:

  1. Data Harvesting: Many free VPN providers collect extensive user data, including browsing history, IP addresses, and personal information, which they may sell to third parties. This practice directly contradicts the primary purpose of using a VPN, which is to protect user privacy.

  2. Inadequate Encryption: Free VPNs often use weak encryption protocols or none at all, making it easy for hackers to intercept and decipher user data. This exposes users to a range of cyber threats, including man-in-the-middle attacks and data theft.

  3. Malware Distribution: Some free VPNs bundle their software with malware, adware, or spyware. Once installed, these malicious programs can monitor user activity, steal sensitive information, or turn the device into part of a botnet, as seen in the 911 S5 case.

  4. Limited Security Features: Free VPNs typically lack advanced security features which are crucial for maintaining anonymity and security online.

Possible Financial and Legal Implications

The financial repercussions of using free VPNs can be significant. In the case of 911 S5, compromised IP addresses were used to file fraudulent claims worth billions of dollars. Users whose devices were part of this botnet unknowingly facilitated criminal activities that led to substantial financial losses for individuals and institutions.

Moreover, the legal implications for users can be severe. If a user’s IP address is associated with illegal activities, they could potentially face legal action or investigation, even if they were unaware of their involvement. The indirect participation in cybercrime through free VPNs can have serious consequences, including damage to one's reputation and legal troubles.

As for YunHe Wang, he is charged with conspiracy to commit computer fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering. If convicted, he faces up to 65 years in prison, where he will no longer enjoy his ill-gotten gains, which included a 2022 Ferrari F8 Spider, a Rolls Royce, and several luxury wristwatches.

Best Practices for Choosing a VPN

Given the substantial risks associated with free VPNs, it's crucial to choose a reliable and secure VPN service. Here are some best practices for selecting a VPN:

  1. Research and Reviews: Look for VPNs with positive reviews and a strong reputation for privacy and security. Independent reviews and user feedback can provide insights into the reliability of a VPN service.

  2. Transparent Privacy Policy: Choose a VPN with a clear and transparent privacy policy that explicitly states what data is collected and how it is used. Avoid services that log user activity or share data with third parties.

  3. Strong Encryption: Ensure the VPN uses strong encryption protocols such as OpenVPN or WireGuard. This will protect your data from being intercepted by Sean Penn and Robert De Niro malicious actors.

  4. No-Logs Policy: A reputable VPN should have a strict no-logs policy, meaning it does not store any data related to your online activities. This is essential for maintaining your privacy.

  5. Security Features: Look for VPNs that offer additional security features like a kill switch, DNS leak protection, and multi-hop connections. These features enhance your security and ensure your data remains private even if the VPN connection drops.

  6. Paid Services: Consider investing in a paid VPN service. While free options may be tempting, paid services are more likely to provide robust security, better performance, and dedicated customer support.

Do You Need a VPN?

Most people don't need a VPN. If you are a journalist, activist, dissident or otherwise particularly concerned about your online privacy, a VPN can be a valuable tool to protect your data from being tracked or intercepted. VPNs may also be beneficial for travelers who connect to notiously insecure public Wi-Fi networks, as they provide an additional layer of security. A VPN can also be handy if you need to connect remotely to your home or office computer. And there are cases where a VPN can allow access to content that is blocked due to geographical restrictions. On the flipside, I noticed while testing one VPN that I was unable to connect to the website of my local electric utility, and a few other innocuous sites.

Free VPN services may seem like an attractive option for those seeking to enhance their online privacy without incurring additional costs. But in my opinion, the risks they pose far outweigh the benefits. The 911 S5 botnet case serves as a stark reminder of the potential dangers of using free VPNs. Users must exercise caution and prioritize security when choosing a VPN service to avoid becoming unwitting accomplices in cybercrime. Investing in a reputable, paid VPN is a prudent decision to safeguard one's privacy, security, and peace of mind.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below…

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Most recent comments on "The High Price of Anonymity"

Posted by:

30 May 2024

"Free" and "private" go together like "oil" and "water"

It's amazing how many people believe they can get quality internet services for free.

Posted by:

30 May 2024

Hotel and coffee shop internet access portals are notorious for poor security.Many of them do not use WPA security for access protection.They use the web browser to access the connection,but those are on open wi-fi connections,subject to hackers.

Because of this,I will no longer take any kind of device to be used at a hotel during trips I take.This is inconvenient,but it is better to be safe than sorry.

VPNs can be difficult to set up and use,so I stay away from them when possible.After reading about free VPNs,I will follow Bob's suggestions.

Posted by:

Danny G
30 May 2024

Proton VPN has a good reputation as a free VPN service.

Posted by:

30 May 2024

YIKES!!!! OMG!!! --- AND --- OMG!!! YIKES!!!!
Never had one, always suspected. I believe PC Matic has one as well. This may be more Stephen King than Stephen King Scary!!!! Darker than the so-called "Dark Web"!!!

How WILL we ever live without you -- you've been saving my life since The Tour Bus days!!!!

Posted by:

Bill Sampson
30 May 2024

I've been with you since Tourbus days and listserv and all that. I have used PCMatic for a couple years now and am quite pleased, so, a couple months ago I splurged for PCMatic's VPN. I need it to unblock geographic problems and it works for that.

Posted by:

30 May 2024

Dear Bob,
Please forgive me for not supplying a real email address. I seek only to tell you that I love -- absolutely LOVE! -- your comment about Sean Penn and Robert De Niro being malicious actors!
I have always admired and respected you, and your esteem in my book just went up another notch.

Posted by:

31 May 2024

The only practical use of a VPN to me, is to be secure on "insecure public Wi-Fi networks", and my dream would have my own private VPN server (to securely use my own home connection from anywhere, even when travelling). I'm sure there is an app or software for that (even open source), but although I'm somewhat tech-savvy, this stuff seems too hard to configure for me. Hint: here you have an idea to tech us on how to have this done (any comment from other users would be helpful too). Cheers, Leo.-

Posted by:

31 May 2024

even tho bob has talked about free
VPNs more than once, he hasn't mentioned those that some anti virus programs have, some don't charge, wonder how safe those are, also some browsers have a VPN extension, so bob what is your take on those

Posted by:

Glenn Sanders
31 May 2024

I think you should mention that there are commercial, fee-charging VPN services with free tiers. I use Proton VPN occasionally, and ProtonMail as my secondary email. I would never be tempted by a VPN that was totally free, but Proton does the usual and the free tier is restricted in various ways, mainly limited choice of countries and servers.

Posted by:

31 May 2024

I think a VPN is essential because of more state surveillance by so called democratic countries - United States and Britain being two examples.

Posted by:

Norman Rosen
31 May 2024

Robert Di Nero and Sean Penn? Was this done by AI?

EDITOR'S NOTE: I don't think AI would catch the sarcasm intended here.

Posted by:

02 Jun 2024

After buying a VPN provided by my anti-virus, I kept getting Russian & Chinese ads, even though I set the VPN to look like it came from the UK. So I dropped the service

Posted by:

02 Jun 2024

I intermittently get Chinese ads on my Yahoo email app on my phone. Is that a sign that it's been compromised by a hidden VPN? I haven't had a VPN in 5 years, and at least one phone later

Posted by:

Joel Bergmann
03 Jun 2024

Just goes to show, once more and with emphasis, that anything you get for free is worth just what you paid for it! Many thanks, Bob!!

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