What are the disadvantages of VPNs?

Reasons to be fearful? We examine the potential cons of taking up a VPN, including performance and privacy worries.

Laptop user looking worried
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You’ve probably heard a lot about the benefits of getting on board with one of the best VPNs around, in terms of providing better security and privacy online, as well as getting around geo-blocking restrictions (so you can watch streaming content from other regions).

Are there any reasons why you might not want to use a virtual private network, though? As a matter of fact, there are indeed potential problems with these services, and we’re going to discuss them here.

Victory could be less likely when online gaming with a VPN

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Performance overhead

A VPN works by encrypting the data leaving your device and sending it to a VPN server, and from there it goes on to its actual destination on the internet. Doing this, as you can imagine, typically slows down your connection a little (compared to the data simply going straight to its destination).

This may not even be noticeable in many cases (and indeed sometimes speeds aren’t negatively affected at all - the best gaming VPN can offer a boost to speed in some cases), but in some scenarios – maybe with poorer performing VPNs, and when using more distant servers – performance drops can be a niggle, particularly when performing more intensive tasks like video streaming.

And obviously bear in mind if you’re engaged in an activity like online gaming on your PC, even a tiny amount of additional latency can be a disadvantage in games like shooters where reaction times are crucial. Although remember... you can turn the VPN off, when in the very heat of the battle.

Untrustworthy VPNs

Performance isn’t the only area a VPN can potentially fall down with – there’s also the issue of trust. One of the benefits of using a VPN is that your ISP can no longer monitor your online activity, but the flipside of this is that your VPN can see your data instead – such as your web browsing – so if it isn’t a reputable company, that could be seriously bad news for your privacy.

If a VPN keeps logs on your online activities, you could still have any action traced back to yourself – which is why any good VPN will have a clear privacy policy that lays out any logs it keeps (even limited ones like session data for monitoring bandwidth usage, for example). Really professional outfits will even go to the lengths of having security audits of their networks and ‘no logs’ policies performed by independent experts to verify that they’re cast-iron. NordVPN is a good example, which now gets in PricewaterhouseCooper every year to audit its policy.

Issues like this – where if trust is violated, your browsing really isn’t private or anonymous, and that’s a major aim of a VPN defeated – can be avoided by choosing a good provider, particularly if you look for one which carries out the aforementioned independent security audit.

Incompetent VPNs

As well as untrustworthy providers, some companies can be plain incompetent - and sometimes those two negatives come together as a parcel. A given VPN may make big promises on its website and in its privacy policy but, in reality, the company may be disregarding your privacy and using shaky encryption. That would be seriously lacking on the security front.

Incompetent outfits could also suffer from IP leaks that could reveal information about yourself that the VPN should be hiding (namely the IP address of your computer and your rough location); or indeed other kinds of damaging leakage like DNS leaks. If you think that you’re anonymous and your browsing habits are hidden, but they really aren’t, then that’s obviously not good.

At the really dodgy end of the scale, there are even fake VPN apps which do nothing and charge you a fortune for the privilege. These are known as ‘fleeceware’ because they are, quite simply, fleecing you.

Rolling the dice on a free VPN

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Cost of a VPN

Premium VPNs obviously cost money, so compared to not having VPN, you are somewhat out-of-pocket. Is that a disadvantage, technically? Not as such, no; it’s the case with any paid-for software, after all.

Where a kind of disadvantage comes in is that you may be tempted to go the free VPN route rather than paying – and freebie services do have their cons. It’s not just that they have usage limitations compared to the premium plans – which is understandable – rather it’s more about the way in which the free service may be monetized.

This could involve using your data - which the VPN provider already has access to – and selling it to third-parties for financial gain. That rather defeats one of the main purposes of using a VPN in the first place, to protect your privacy and prevent this kind of snooping.

What are the disadvantages of VPN?

There are a number of potential disadvantages for VPN users. But what’s clear is that the majority of these points only apply to the shakier operations out there – the incompetent or untrustworthy VPN providers. So there’s one obvious solution... stick to the respected and trusted names in the business, the kind of long-running outfits with good reputations.

Darren is a freelancer writing news and features for T3 across a broad range of computing topics including CPUs, GPUs, various other hardware, VPNs, antivirus and more. He has written about tech for the best part of three decades, and writes books in his spare time (his debut novel was published by Hachette UK in 2013).