Hotspot Shield Accused of Snooping on Its Users’ Browsing Habits


The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), a privacy group based in Washington, has alleged the VPN provider Hotspot Shield of deceptive trade practices. A new filing against the company demands the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the company for violating its promise of offering anonymous browsing services.

The filing suggests that the VPN provider intercepts and redirects traffic to its partner websites that also include advertising companies. Hotspot has previously claimed that the company doesn't make money off its customer data and has opted a zero knowledge approach to make sure they don't have to comply with government data requests since they won't have any data to begin with.

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CDT, however, doesn't agree. In its filing, the group has accused the company of using third-party tracking and has demanded the FTC to intervene. "Hotspot Shield engages in logging practices around user connection data, beyond troubleshooting technical issues" by using its customer's location and IP addresses to "improve the service, or optimize advertisements displayed through the service," the 14-page long filing reads.

"Hotspot Shield’s description for its iOS and Android mobile applications declares a “no logs” policy; however, its Privacy Policy, which covers and includes its Hotspot Shield services, describes more elaborate logging practices."

"Hotspot Shield also monitors information about users' browsing habits while the VPN is in use."

"The VPN has been found to be actively injecting JavaScript codes using iframes for advertising and tracking purposes."

Hotspot's parent company, AnchorFree, claims to be "the world’s largest Internet Freedom & Privacy Platform" with a mission "to provide secure access to the world’s information for every person on the planet."

While the company does offer paid VPN services, over 97 percent of its users opt for a free version of the software, according to the VPN provider itself. The use of free VPN services has often been criticized by privacy advocates. Many believe that the latest filing against Hotspot Shield, if allegations are proven to be true, will finally shed some much-needed light on the practices of VPN providers, who portray themselves as the saviors of privacy, especially in the authoritarian regimes like China and Russia where a lot of content is restricted, and recently in the US after the country passed a bill that allowed ISPs to sell customer data to advertisers.

"People often use VPNs because they do not trust the network they're connected to, but they think less about whether they can trust the VPN service itself," Michelle De Mooy, director of CDT's Privacy & Data Project said. "For many internet users, it’s difficult to fully understand what VPNs are doing with their browsing data. That makes clear and accurate disclosures and practices essential."