A recent survey conducted by NordVPN found that the usage of VPN services in 9 out of the 18 countries surveyed has risen to an all-time high in 2023.

One of the leading countries in VPN usage according to the survey, was the United States with 33% of survey participants saying that they used VPN services in 2023, up by around 35% since the results of the survey conducted in 2022.

However, the survey also found that “not everyone uses VPNs in the recommended way, with some Americans potentially exposing themselves to privacy and security risks”.

Over 40% of Americans surveyed admitted that they chose to use free VPN services over paid ones even though they were proven to be not as safe or private as VPN subscription services.

Why the Surge in VPN Users?

The founder and CEO of DigitalWill.com, Art Shaikh, told Business2Community that most people choose to use VPN services over privacy and security concerns.

“More often, we hear about data breaches at major companies and a VPN is one way to protect yourself…The other major concern users have is privacy. Most are tired of major tech companies tracking their movements online in order to sell this information to advertisers,” Shaikh added.

VPN usage worldwide, but specifically in the United States, has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data published by Statista, the usage of VPN services between 8 March 2020 and 22 March 2020 increased by 124% as the number of COVID cases in the country surged past 33,000.

This surge was attributed to an increase in people staying at home due to quarantine and lockdowns. With people spending more time online many were more eager to access geo-blocked content (i.e. streaming services and news). In addition, a number of companies that allowed their employees to work from home encouraged the use of VPN services to ensure their files and company data was well protected from potential hack attacks.

Using Free VPN Services Can Be Riskier

Over two in five Americans surveyed by NordVPN have said that they chose to use free VPN services over paid.

Free VPN servises can be more appealing to users because they do not require monthly or yearly payments. However, in order to generate revenue, these services typically resort to tracking and selling user data to third parties, bombarding users with advertisements or using forceful tactics to encourage free users to upgrade to a paid version.

Furthermore, since free VPNs do not generate revenue through subscription means, they might lack the resources to invest in robust server infrastructure or employ the most advanced encryption methods. Consequently, free VPNs can potentially expose users to digital privacy and security vulnerabilities that they are often unaware of.

In addition, some free VPN services may actually be operated by hackers or malicious entities which means that by using these VPNs, users could unknowingly route their internet traffic through their servers, giving them access to their sensitive data.

Gen Z Have the Worst VPN Habits

According to NordVPN’s survey results, Generation Z (people born between 1997 and 2012), the generation that is considered to be the most digitally active, is the one to exhibit some of the worst VPN habits, choosing to use free VPN services “over more reliable, paid services”.

This was also evident in a number of countries including the United Kingdom, the US, Canada, Australia, Singapore, South Korea, Germany, and Spain.

Meanwhile, Generation Y (people born between 1981 and 1996), showed better VPN usage habits, choosing to use paid VPN services over free.

How Can Free VPN Users Stay Safe?

Of course, not all free VPN services are dangerous. Business2Community has researched some of the best free VPN services users can trust in 2023.

In addition, Shaikh added that one of the best ways users can stay safe when deciding to use a free VPN service is to essentially “study up”.

Reading the fine print and downloading VPN services from “trusted sources” such as the Apple App Store or Google Play could also serve as a helping hand.

“One other major way would be to read privacy policies of the companies you are doing business with online. Those that prioritize your privacy will make that very clear to you up front.”

Shaikh added that reading reviews and consulting people who may have already used a free VPN service is also a great way for users to protect themselves with.