Tech advocacy group asks FTC to investigate free VPN service

Tech advocacy group asks FTC to investigate free VPN service
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A technology advocacy group has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking the government agency to investigate a virtual private network (VPN) service’s security and data-sharing practices.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit organization that advocates for privacy and security online, announced Monday that it has filed a complaint accusing Hotspot Shield VPN of engaging in what could be considered unfair and deceptive trade practices under federal law. 

“Hotspot Shield tells customers that their privacy and security are ‘guaranteed’ but their actual practices starkly contradict this. They are sharing sensitive information with third party advertisers and exposing users’ data to leaks or outside attacks,” Michelle De Mooy, director of the group’s privacy and data project, said in a statement. “The product they offer fails to live up to its promises or meet the reasonable expectations of its customers.” 

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VPNs enable users to send and receive data privately across a public network and are marketed as a way to boost privacy and security on the internet. 

Hotspot Shield, a popular free VPN service offered by the company AnchorFree, promises “secure, private and unrestricted access” to the internet. 

However, the Center for Democracy and Technology alleges in the complaint that company’s privacy claims are “contradicted” by its privacy policy. For instance, the complaint highlights a portion of the company’s privacy policy saying Hotspot Shield does not consider IP addresses or unique device identifiers to be personal information. The company also monitors information about users’ browsing habits when the service is in use, the complaint says. 

“Misrepresenting the level of privacy and security available to individuals while using the Hotspot Shield VPN application is a deceptive trade practice under Section 5 of the FTC Act, subject to investigation and injunction by the Commission,” the complaint states. 

“Hotspot Shield’s lack of transparency about its logging, use of third-party tracking libraries, and redirection of user traffic also constitutes an unfair trade practice under Section 5 of the FTC Act, and is also subject to investigation and injunction by the Commission,” the complaint continues.

In addition to asking the FTC to investigate Hotspot Shield’s data security and sharing practices, the advocacy organization also wants the agency to direct Hotspot Shield to stop “misrepresenting” its privacy and security practices in public materials.

Attempts to contact AnchorFree for comment were unsuccessful.