What is HotSpot Shield?
Hotspot Shield is a free VPN that is implemented as an app and as a browser extension. The service is a limited version of the paid VPN, called Hotspot Shield Elite. You can visit the Hotspot Shield website by clicking on the button below. Scroll down first to read our in-depth review of the service before you download any software.
AnchorFree first released Hotspot Shield as a free VPN in 2008. Back then, the full service, which is now called Hotspot Shield Elite, was offered free of charge. This could account for the large number of people who’ve downloaded the software. AnchorFree states that the VPN has been installed by more than 500 million users all over the world. However, there are a number of worrying privacy flaws built into Hotspot Shield, which may make you think twice about using the service.
HotSpot Shield Pricing and Plans
The software for the free version and the paid service is the same. Thus, if you fancy trying this VPN, install the free version first.
You can get the app to access the service, but this is limited to just one server location (in the US). The browser extension extends the number of available servers.
Hotspot Shield Elite has an interesting “lifetime subscription” option:
This represents a considerable saving on the monthly subscription price, which is actually one of the most expensive in the industry. However, there’s always the risk that the company might not continue in business, or might not to honor its lifetime service for some reason.
One inconvenience of the free VPN is that it is supported by advertising. When you turn it on, the sign-in process opens the company website. This is a minor irritation that most users can probably live with. However, Hotspot Shield has a second, covert advertising income stream. The company states that advertising is removed for paid subscribers, but that probably just means the display of the company website. The second, hidden advertising structures are written into the software, so most likely continue for paid users.
You can get the free service without giving any personal details. However, subscribing to Hotspot Shield Elite requires identifying data and payment processing, which means that you can be traced through your bank account.
AnchorFree sells subscriptions to its Elite service through third parties. This complicates the VPN’s refund policy. If you buy the service directly from the Hotspot Shield website, you’re entitled to a 30-day money-back guarantee.
When you subscribe, you don’t need to install new software, so the advertising placement functions of the VPN will continue. For more information on this advertising privacy flaw, see the Privacy section of this review.
Hotspot Shield VPN Review: Summary
- Free version
- Super fast connections
- Up to five simultaneous connections
- App for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android
- Browser extension for Chrome and Firefox
- Contains tracking software
- Sells advertising space on users’ browsers
- Hijacks URLs of commercial websites
- Based in the US
HotSpot Shield VPN Features
If you use the free version of HotSpot Shield, you’re subject to a data throughput limit. That traffic count doesn’t necessarily reflect your activity, because AnchorFree uses your connection to pass back and forth tracking software and activity reports. Officially, free users are allowed 256MB per day on mobile devices and 750MB per day on computers. However, after getting halfway through the speed tests on a Windows laptop for this review, I was informed that I had already run through half of my daily allocation, so you won’t get much chance to explore the internet with the free service.
The features of the main package include:
- Servers in 22 countries
- Browser extension
- Automatic WiFi protection
- App for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android
- App available in a long list of languages
- No personal data needed for free app
- Malware detection
- 30-day money-back guarantee
- Kill switch (called “IP leak protection”)
The app and the browser extension have different lists of server locations and the restrictions on server access are different in the two implementations. Using the app provides the option of 20 server locations, but users of the free VPN service only get access to the US server.
The browser extension gives access to 12 server locations. However, free service users are not allowed to access servers in the UK or the US. Chile and Singapore are available in the browser extension but not in the app.
Is HotSpot Shield Secure?
The VPN methodology used by Hotspot Shield comes from the OpenVPN software library. The security functions of OpenVPN rely on another open source library of procedures, which is called OpenSSL. This implements Transport Layer Security (TLS). The OpenSSL makes OpenVPN a very effective method for VPN security because it employs the same encryption methods that HTTPS uses. That protocol is the standard secure webpage transfer protocol, which keeps your credit card details safe when you buy things online.
The data channel of the Hotspot Shield VPN connection uses Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption with a 256-bit key. This is decent strength encryption and is the most common method offered by VPNs. The control channel of the VPN sets up a session and distributes the AES encryption keys. These functions of the connection are protected by 2048-bit public key encryption. Until recently, a 2048-bit key for the control channel was standard protection for VPNs. However, since many suspect that the Chinese authorities are making advances in cracking these session keys, many of the key players in the industry have moved up to a 4096-bit key for the control channel.
Privacy is a great concern with Hotspot Shield. AnchorFree, the company that makes Hotspot Shield, has a second business that places advertising on the webpages viewed by the VPN’s users.
One of the features of the VPN is its malware detection software. However, a study by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) found that Hotspot Shield contains tracking software that not only records the activities of its users, but sells that information to advertisers. The scientific study identified five different tracking libraries in Hotspot Shield’s code.
The CSIRO discovered that Hotspot Shield also redirects user traffic through affiliate partner networks when you enter a URL for one of a list of commercial sites into the browser. These sites include eBay, Alibaba, Best Buy, Target, Overstock.com, NewEgg, and Macy’s. This means that if any Hotspot Shield user buys anything from those sites, AnchorFree gets a commission.
Ordinarily, VPN companies are very strident about their no logs policy. Different countries have different data retention laws. Some have strict rules on logging and disclosure, while others have none. This factor makes some countries very good locations for VPN services, while others are not so good. Hotspot Shield is located in the US. This is not one of the best countries for a privacy service. US lawyers for copyright holders have enjoyed notable success in prosecuting download sites and forcing them to reveal their users’ identities. They could just as easily force any American corporation to hand over the activity records of its customers.
The risk of VPN companies being pressured by legal action or government harassment into handing over activity records makes the implementation of log deletion very important for those VPNs based in the US.
Hotspot Shield’s terms of service give the company the right to collect user activity information and to “share” that information with third parties. The company states that it is OK with its customers downloading files with torrents. However, it also warns against copyright infringement. If you love getting free stuff through peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, it’s probably better to avoid Hotspot Shield.
The Hotspot Shield website is attractive and well laid out.
You can access the site’s main features through two navigation menus at the top. Access to the free VPN or to the paid service is impossible to miss.
An exciting feature of the website is the ability to see it in different languages. The top menu is terminated by a language option field. Click on the arrow next to the word “English” to see all of the language options.
HotSpot Shield Support
Hotspot Shield’s customer support department is one of the weak points of the service. It can often take more than 24 hours to get a reply out of the team and there is no live chat facility.
You get to the support center by clicking on Support in the top menu bar of the site. Your first opportunity for advice comes from a knowledge base.
Click on the “Contact Support” button to open a support ticket if you don’t find a solution to your problems in the knowledge base.
Contact is opened via a web form.
As you can see in the screenshot above, it took over 24 hours for Hotspot Shield to reply to a simple question. While this waiting time might be acceptable for the free version of the service, potential Elite customers should consider this a major red flag.
Signing up is easy: you simply choose if you want a free or paid plan. Paid users select the plan length and desired method of payment, then provide a few basic contact details.
You don’t have to enter any personal details in order to get the app or the browser extension. The main screen of the Hotspot Shield site features a “Free Download” button. Once you press this button, the download of the installer will begin. Click on the downloaded file to run the installer. The process is very fast.
The installer will set up a shortcut on your desktop. Click on this to open the app. You don’t need any log-in information in order to use the service.
The main feature of the app is a drop-down list of server locations and a connection slider. If you are on the free version of the VPN, there is no point in looking for another server location, because you only have access to the US server.
The main feature of the app is a live report of the download and upload speeds of the connection.
If English is not your first language, you can change the app’s language. This feature is available on the Settings page, which is accessed via the hamburger menu.
The language option presents a drop-down list.
Changes to the app’s text are immediate after you make a selection.
You can install the Hotspot Shield browser extension on Google Chrome and Firefox browsers. Depending on your operating system, you can get the Chrome version from the Google Chrome Store or the Apple iTunes Store. The Firefox version is available at the Mozilla site.
You don’t get the option of which location you want to connect to when you first turn on the VPN in the browser extension. You just have to press the big button.
This will connect you to the “optimal location.”
If you want to access the server of a specific country, you need to click on that “optimal location text.” This gives you access to the server list. The US and the UK are locked out for the users of free Hotspot Shield.
There aren’t any settings options for the browser extension.
HotSpot Shield Performance (Speed, DNS, WebRTC, and IPv6 Tests)
I conducted speed tests on Hotspot Shield for both the app and the browser extension. I used the free version, so I wasn’t able to try the same servers on both versions of the service. To test the app, I used the default US server. You will see in the results the speeds achieved for downloads and uploads on connections to the US without the VPN turned on and also with the VPN engaged. You will also see the speeds for a connection to Germany without a VPN and then with a VPN located in Germany accessed through the browser extension. The last test was carried out through the browser extension via the Hotspot Shield server in France.
In each case, the figures you see in the graph were derived from carrying out a speed test five times. The tests were performed from a location in the Caribbean, using testmy.net.
The graphs show the highest, lowest, and average speeds for each server and location. See our full speed test explanation for more detail.
Engaging the US server in the app for a US connection created incredible speed gains for uploads. Download speeds on a nearby connection were also improved. Whenever a server in the same country as the test target server was engaged, the speeds improved. The connections to the German test server were impaired by selecting a VPN server in a different country – in this case, France.
In our experience, Hotspot Shield can improve the speeds of connections in countries with poor internet infrastructures.
I tested for IP leaks while connected to Hotspot Shield’s US server. Tests found no IP leaks, Domain Name System (DNS) leaks, or Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC) disclosures. Tests consistently showed my location as California. The WebRTC report disclosed a private IP address, which did not trace back to my true location.
The tests were performed with ipleak.net to check DNS leaks and the WebRTC bug. The site test-ipv6.com looked for IPv6 leaks. The test site doileak.net is particularly keen on WebRTC leaks, but that site couldn’t detect my actual location.
The Hotspot Shield app is available for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS devices, and gadgets that run the Android operating system.
The browser extension is available for Google Chrome on Windows, Android, Mac OS X, and the iOS operating system. There is also an add-on for the Firefox web browser.
HotSpot Shield Review: Conclusion
Experts who examined the security features of all the VPN apps available for Android singled out Hotspot Shield as one of the least secure VPNs around. The company’s drive to sell advertising space on the webpages that its customers visit creates a fundamental privacy flaw that no amount of security features can compensate for.
Essentially, AnchorFree strives to protect its customers from tracking software, adware, malware, and snooping performed by OTHERS. However, it has no reservations about invading the privacy of its users for its own financial gain.
By installing both the app and the browser extension, users can get around some of the server location restrictions, because the app’s limit to just the US fills in for the ban on that location in the extension. However, British users won’t get any access to UK services unless they pay for Hotspot Shield Elite. Given that Hotspot Shield goes to extra lengths to monitor its users’ activities, it probably isn’t worth signing up for the paid service and disclosing your identifying personal details.
- Multilingual site and app
- Easy-to-use browser extension
- Free version
- Up to five simultaneous connections allowed
- Good speeds
- Anonymous access to free app
I wasn’t so sure about:
- Slow customer support response
- Tracking libraries
- Routine disclosure of user information to third parties