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Is Betternet tracking users behaviour?

What is betternet VPN?

Betternet is a Virtual Private Network (VPN) provider with 38 million users worldwide. It is a free service that has come under a lot of criticism in the past year. This is mainly due to a CSIRO study that found it to be serving adverts to its users. However, that same study discovered that 75% of free VPN apps use similar tracking to serve adverts.

This is one reason why BestVPN.com regularly reminds consumers about the difference between paid VPNs and free VPNs. Running a VPN isn't easy - or cheap. Thus it's common for free VPN services to create revenue by serving adverts. Is Betternet guilty of this? Yes. Is it any worse than the other 75% of free VPNs out there? Well, with 14 tracking libraries for serving adverts, it may not be worse, but it is definitely better at it.

This review is of Betternet's premium (paid) service. The paid Betternet service wasn't criticized by the CSIRO study and isn't funded by advertising. As such, any complaints made about Betternet's free VPN do not necessarily apply to the premium service.

If the free Betternet VPN service is your only interest, then please check out the relevant subsection below. For everybody else, let's dive in and see if the paid Betternet service can compete with other premium VPN services.

What Features does betternet have?

The paid Betternet plan provides the following features:

  • Servers in ten countries: Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Australia, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Canada and seven US cities. With the free VPN, subscribers only get access to one server in the US, which is allocated at random.
  • Five simultaneous connections
  • No adverts (unlike the free version)
  • Free access to a browser extension for Chrome
  • Apps for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android
  • OpenVPN encryption

Is Betternet Secure?

Betternet isn't forthcoming with details about its encryption standards. In my experience, this is always the case with VPNs that have weak or outdated encryption. The Betternet FAQ says the VPN uses OpenVPN with AES-256 encryption and also has L2TP/IPSec with a 128-bit key.

Sadly, it doesn't explain where it deploys these different tunneling protocols. There's no option on the desktop or mobile apps to change the encryption protocol. This means that some versions of the Betternet software run OpenVPN, while others run L2TP/IPsec. I asked Betternet to tell me which client runs which protocol, but they didn't answer. In fact, my ticket went from "open" to "solved" without any response from the firm whatsoever.

I was also unable to get information about which data authentication method Betternet uses. The staff couldn't tell me what encryption is used for session establishment and key distribution, hash size, or authentication. In addition, I couldn't find out the difference between the encryption on the data and control channels - or if Betternet VPN implements Perfect Forward Secrecy.

These are important details. VPN encryption is only as strong as its weakest point. This means that, despite being "OpenVPN" that implements "AES-256," Betternet could actually fall short of our stringent minimum standards for security. This would make it easy to hack into the VPN tunnel and discover what you're doing online. Without that data, I can't tell you how secure Betternet is. To be safe, we must presume that it is weak.

VPNs that don't disclose their encryption are always lacking in one way or another - because good encryption is worth shouting from the rooftops about.

Does Betternet track you?

The Betternet terms of service (ToS) allow third-party advertisers to deliver cookies onto your devices. The ToS explains that this is to enable advertisers to estimate the effectiveness of their campaigns. Betternet also says that it doesn't exert any control over the practices of those third parties. Finally, Betternet absolves itself from any responsibility for loss or damage caused by those third parties. This is troubling, particularly when you realize that it isn't clear whether this is only happening on the free version.

I suspect that, because the paid version doesn't deliver adverts, it isn't delivering cookies, either. However, the privacy policy leaves this as a gray area. As far as I can tell, the policy legally permits the firm to deliver cookies and adverts even on the premium version.

Considering the cost of the premium VPN, this privacy policy is badly written, purposefully uninformative, and in opposition to privacy claims made on the website. A good VPN is always judged on its privacy policy. On that point, Betternet falls at the first hurdle. If the firm wants to be taken seriously, the premium version needs a watertight privacy policy.

IP Leaks and DNS Leaks

I checked for Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) and DNS leaks using ipleak.net. I performed these tests while using the Betternet London server. In both tests, Betternet for Windows showed no IP leaks or DNS leaks on my system. I was unable to test for IPv6 leaks because my Internet Service Provider (ISP) doesn't provide IPv6 connections.

The Chrome proxy browser extension did result in a DNS leak and a Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC) leak. As such, I recommend against using the Betternet browser proxy extensions for privacy. For unblocking content they may well work, but for concealing what you did online you'll need to stick to the full VPN service.

The Firefox proxy browser should be avoided. It doesn't even conceal your true IP address and is literally completely useless.

Using Betternet VPN

Getting hold of the Betternet app isn't hard. Simply head over to the website and download via the right-hand corner at the top of the page. When you launch the app, it will ask if you want to trial the premium VPN for seven days. If you prefer to use the free VPN, decline. Once the app has launched, you can still upgrade to premium (including using the seven-day free trial).

I couldn't see the premium plan in the app until I turned off my ad blockers (Privacy Badger and ABP). This is a weird bug because I was using the standalone VPN client for Windows - not a Chrome extension.

Once you've upgraded to premium by selecting a plan and paying (or selecting the seven-day free trial), you can select from one of the ten country locations. To connect, simply select a server from the list and press the "Connect" button. I found the VPN to connect quickly and without issues.

When a connection is established, the shield turns blue and looks happy to let you know all is well.

Is Betternet fast?

I performed speed tests from the UK, using beta.speedtest.net. For each category, I performed five tests. Base tests were done for both the US and UK without a VPN first. I used test servers in the US (New York) and UK (London). The Netherlands VPN server was tested from the London test server. The US New York server was tested from a New York test server.

The graphs show the highest, lowest, and average speeds for each server and location. See our full speed test explanation for more detail.

As you can see, the VPN slowed my download speeds considerably. The good news is that upload speeds remained pretty similar with and without the VPN engaged. In the UK tests, the UK Betternet server brought down the average connection speed from 48.20 Mbps to 18.62 Mbps. The Dutch server fared a little better. Its average download speed over five tests was 29.86 Mbps. Although these are pretty big drops, they aren't the worst I've seen by any stretch of the imagination. You could still stream in HD.

The performance on the New York server was worse. My base test from the UK to the US achieved an average speed of 38.78 Mbps. Betternet's New York server brought my average download speed down to 7.82 Mbps. Not great.

I checked online, and it appears that I got lucky with my download speeds. Subscribers often complain of even slower speeds. Most people don't believe that Betternet can be used to unblock streams as it's just too slow and results in a lot of buffering.

Conclusion

The Betternet premium app is very basic VPN software that doesn't come with any of the features that you usually get with a premium VPN.  During my time testing the premium app, I found it to be an adequate VPN that allowed me to stream without too many troubles. However, at times it did get slow and cause a lot of buffering. Although Betternet premium doesn't appear to serve adverts (I didn't notice any at all during my time using it), the privacy policy is brief and leaves too many grey areas to make you feel secure. In addition, the browser extension apps (proxies) aren't worth the trouble of installing them: there are just too many similar products on the market for free that work much better.

For free, Betternet serves adverts and is slow. However, it does have its uses for people in desperate need of a free VPN (for getting around news website blocks in harsh political regimes, for example). That said, I just don't think Betternet is worth paying any money for. As such, I recommend looking elsewhere for a truly premium service.




Written by: Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh is one of BestVPN's resident VPN experts. Ray is currently ranked #1 VPN authority in the world by agilience.com. During his time at BestVPN.com Ray has reviewed some of the world's foremost VPNs. Ray is an advocate for digital privacy, with vast experience writing about the political and social aspects of infosec, cybersec, and data privacy. Find him @newsglug on Twitter.

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