VPNs are important… for some situations. Unfortunately, the message that many have received in hearing about the importance of VPNs is that they somehow “protect your privacy.” But that’s always been wrong. They just move the privacy questions somewhere else. And sometimes it’s a sketchy place. A few months back we discussed this very issue with some security experts on our podcast. All VPNs do is create a secure tunnel from where you are to somewhere else. That’s useful if you don’t want other people sitting in the Starbucks with you to pick up your unencrypted traffic (or other people in your hotel on the hotel WiFi), but it doesn’t solve anything on larger privacy questions. The always excellent SwitfOnSecurity summed it up nicely recently:
VPN: So you can login to Ukrainian coffee shop WiFi from the safety of your home internet connection
10:40 PM – Aug 7, 2017
9 9 Replies
Basically, you’re just moving the risk elsewhere, and you’re trusting whoever your VPN provider is — and they may very well be worse than whatever it is you’re trying to avoid. The specific use case that’s almost never recommended is using a VPN on your home network (with a few specific exceptions). You may not trust Comcast/AT&T/whatever, but they may actually be a lot more serious about protecting you than a fly-by-night VPN provider.
But with so many VPN providers out there, it’s not always clear how legit they are, and there certainly have been rumors and complaints about some of them. Now, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) has filed an FTC complaint against one of the more well known VPN providers, Hotspot Shield VPN. You can read the short complaint yourself, but the short version is CDT says that Hotspot Shield VPN makes claims about privacy that are… not accurate, and argues that these are deceptive trade practices.
Hotspot Shield makes strong claims about the privacy and security of its data collection and sharing practices. CEO David Gorodyansky has stated that “we never log or store user data.” The company’s website promises “Anonymous Browsing” and notes that Hotspot Shield keeps “no logs of your online activity or personal information.” Hotspot Shield further differentiates itself from “…disreputable providers [that] are able to offer free VPN services [ ] because they make their money tracking and selling their users’ activities” by claiming that “Hotspot Shield neither tracks nor sells customers’ information.”
Take a wild guess what’s coming next…
While connection logs can be designed to be minimally privacy-invasive, Hotspot Shield engages in logging practices around user connection data, beyond troubleshooting technical issues. The service uses this information to “identify [a user’s] general location, improve the Service, or optimize advertisements displayed through the Service.” IP addresses, unique device identifiers, and other “application information” are regularly collected by Hotspot Shield.
And then this:
While insisting that it does not make money from selling customer data, Hotspot Shield promises to connect advertisers to unique users that are frequent visitors of travel, retail, business, and finance websites. Moreover, these entities have access to IP addresses and device identifiers collected via Hotspot Shield. Even if Hotspot Shield only provides “hashed” or “proxy” IP addresses to these partners, third parties can also link information about web-viewing habits while using the Hotspot Shield by cross-referencing cookies, identifiers, or other information.
Further analysis of Hotspot Shield’s reverse-engineered source code revealed that the VPN uses more than five different third-party tracking libraries, contradicting statements that Hotspot Shield ensures anonymous and private web browsing.
But, wait, there’s more…
Additional research has revealed that Hotspot Shield further redirects e-commerce traffic to partnering domains. For example, when a user connects through the VPN to access specific commercial web domains, including major online retailers like and , the application can intercept and redirect HTTP requests to partner websites that include online advertising companies.
And just one more thing…
Consumers have reported instances of credit card fraud after purchasing the “Elite” paid-version of Hotspot Shield VPN. One consumer reported “thousands of dollars” in credit card charges, as well as other suspicious online activity.
There’s even more in the complaint, but those are some highlights. CDT claims that these are deceptive trade practices. Of course, the FTC doesn’t need to do anything here. Such a complaint is basically asking the FTC to investigate and do something, and the FTC doesn’t always do so. But at the very least, it may wake some people up about being careful which VPNs they use.
Aug 9th 2017