Can a VPN with a troubled history be trusted to secure your traffic?
Betternet is a well-known VPN that offers both free and paid versions. While it may be popular with some mobile users, it also suffers from a very troubling history. As we’ll explain below, a team of researchers caught Betternet embedding malware and tracking libraries in their VPN apps.
In this new and updated Betternet review, we’ll examine all of these issues while also posting new test results. Let’s dive in!
What is Betternet?
Betternet is a VPN service that began operating in 2015, quickly rose to popularity as a free VPN, and then was sold to AnchorFree. When I first tested out Betternet for a review a few years back, it appeared to be an independent company based in Canada. However, for this updated review, it appears that Betternet is now owned by AnchorFree, the company behind the infamous Hotspot Shield VPN.
Above you can see there are two different AnchorFree entities:
- AnchorFree, Inc. in Sunnyvale, California
- AnchorFree GmbH in Stans, Switzerland
AnchorFree, and its flagship VPN service Hotspot Shield, are also no strangers to controversy. They have been called out before for snooping web traffic and violating user privacy.
On the Betternet website, there are also still references to Betternet LLC, which is apparently based in Canada. This may be outdated information, since AnchorFree appears to be the parent company for Betternet at the time I did this review.
Is Betternet safe?
After extensively testing and researching Betternet, my answer is no, Betternet is not safe to use. This is my personal opinion based on the following findings for this Betternet review:
- Researchers have found Betternet apps to contain malware
- Betternet apps were also found to contain tracking libraries
- Betternet was also hacked in 2017, whereby Betternet Chrome extensions were used to spread malware
We will address each of these issues more below.
Perhaps most concerning is the fact that Betternet has been caught embedding malware and tracking libraries into their VPN apps, while promising to protect the privacy and security of its users (we’ll cover this in detail below).
Betternet apps found to contain malware and tracking libraries
A team of academic researchers studying VPNs identified Betternet as one of the most malware-infested VPN apps in the Google Play Store.
They found that Betternet tested positive for malware by 13 different antivirus programs. This gave it an AV-rank of 13.
When you use a free VPN, you are most likely the product.
The same study also identified a high presence of third-party tracking libraries in Betternet’s Android app.
Out of the applications studied, Betternet was found to have 14 tracking libraries in their Android app alone. These tracking libraries may be used for “analytics, tracking, or advertising purposes” and are embedded into the source code of the app.
This is all quite ironic. On their website, Betternet claims to offer privacy, security, and protection from malware.
These claims clearly do not line up with Betternet’s own policies and history.
Why was there malware and tracking in Betternet’s applications?
The short answer is this: your data is valuable.
Malware and tracking are simply tools to collect your data, which is one way to monetize “free VPN” applications. After collection, your data can then be sold to third parties (a very large and profitable industry) or used to hit you with targeted advertisements (which brings in commissions on sales).
In essence, when you use a free VPN, you are the product.
It is your data that is being collected, which is then used to monetize the free software.
Now let’s examine how Betternet did in testing.
Betternet for Windows
As an update to this Betternet review, I decided to download the new apps for new tests.
The first thing I did was test the Betternet Windows app for malware using VirusTotal. Surprisingly, the results came back clean.
VirusTotal did not detect any malware, which is quite surprising given Betternet’s troubled history. (Note: I did all tests for this review inside a virtual machine, which protects my computer from getting infected from VPN malware that may be present.)
Most of the testing for this review was on the Betternet for Windows application.
While many people seem to use Betternet on mobile devices, the Betternet Windows app also appears to be rather popular.
While Windows is the most popular operating system, it’s not very good for privacy. This is especially true when you are using a VPN that is collecting your data (Betternet).
All of the testing for this Betternet reviews done on a Windows 10 virtual machine inside Virtualbox.
Below are the test results.
Betternet not connecting
One constant problem I had when testing out the VPN apps was Betternet not connecting. The connection problems happened with numerous servers I tried in Europe and the United States.
After selecting a location, you then hit the connect button, which shows the connection status:
Unfortunately, with many locations, I would receive a connection error telling me to, “Please repair the application” – whatever that meant.
I received this same connection error with many different Betternet servers in Europe and the United States.
The connection problems with Betternet may be due to congested servers or other network issues. Given that they offer a free VPN service, it is very likely that the servers are simply overloaded with free users.
Betternet slow speeds
Another problem I had with Betternet was slow speeds. I ran all speed tests with Betternet using a 160 Mbps connection, with my physical testing location being in Western Europe.
Many Betternet servers were slow to connect while also having slow download speeds.
Surprisingly, even with an active connection, I would get “Latency Test Errors” with various speed test websites. In other words, the latency was bad (high) and the speeds were extremely slow.
You can see above that Betternet is connected in the background, but the latency errors prevented the speed test website from even running. This was an issue for many different Betternet servers I tested. The speeds were also extremely slow, with websites taking a long time to load.
There were a few servers I could connect to and run speed tests, but the results were not that good given my 160 Mbps connection speed. Here was a Betternet speed test with a server in the UK at about 17 Mbps:
There are definitely better options available if you need a good VPN for the UK.
I also attempted to run tests with servers in the United States. Unfortunately, I had connection problems with many of the Betternet servers in the US.
When I was eventually able to get a connection, the speeds were (again) not very good. Here’s a US VPN server with speeds around 16 Mbps.
Once again, Betternet is certainly not the best VPN for USA if you are looking for speeds and reliability.
Overall, performance with Betternet was not good. There are many faster VPNs available to choose from. However, considering that Betternet is a free VPN service, I’m also not very surprised by the slow speeds.
Does Betternet still have IP address leaks and DNS leaks?
In previous reviews, I found numerous leaks through testing, including IP address leaks and also DNS leaks.
Here is an example from the last Betternet review I did:
With the last Betternet review, I found IPv4 leaks, IPv6 leaks, and also DNS leaks.
For this new review update, I ran Betternet through some basic VPN tests to check for leaks when the connection was active and stable. Fortunately, it looks like everything was working correctly.
While data leaks were a serious problem with Betternet in the last review, it seems they have updated and improved their VPN apps.
WARNING: Betternet does not appear to have any kind of kill switch. A kill switch will block your traffic to keep your data safe if the VPN connection drops. While Betternet has some basic leak protection settings, not having a kill switch is dangerous (in my opinion).
If you want a VPN with advanced leak protection settings and a good kill switch, I’d still recommend ExpressVPN with the Network Lock feature.
Now we will take a look at some other issues with Betternet.
Is Betternet a good choice for torrenting?
Due to the slow speeds, connection problems, and not having a kill switch, I would say that Betternet is not a good VPN for torrenting.
The biggest issues are the speeds and connection problems. Torrenting with your VPN will simply not work if the connection is constantly dropping.
Another problem this creates is that your data will potentially be exposed, since Betternet does not offer a kill switch. In other words, your real IP address could be exposed when you are torrenting, which may open you up to DMCA complaints.
Therefore I would strongly recommend alternatives, since Betternet is not the best VPN for torrenting and P2P downloads.
Why is Betternet free?
Betternet is basically a free VPN service that tries to get you to upgrade to a paid VPN subscription.
When you use their free VPN app, new windows are constantly popping up to register for a paid plan.
Also, with the Betternet Windows app, there are different buttons to sign up for different subscriptions. The “Try Free” button opens a window for a “free trial” that lasts seven days. However, if you read the fine print, you see that after your free trial ends, you will be billed at $12.99 per month!
This is actually quite expensive, especially given that there are so many good cheap VPNs out there to choose from.
This may also explain the connections problems I had with the free plan. In other words, if you want better performance, you’ll have to pay for an upgrade. This is not new, or surprising, however. There are many other free trial VPN services with this same business model.
At the end of the day, the best VPNs are paid VPNs.
Betternet refund policy
Betternet is now offering a 45 day refund window, which is actually pretty good. Here is the exact wording of the Betternet refund policy:
All Betternet, subscribers can request a refund within 45 days from the purchase date by contacting our Help Center.
(We apologize that iTunes and Microsoft Store Customers will need to contact the payment processor directly.)
In my previous review of Betternet, they had a horrible refund policy that was invalidated with 50 MB of data transfer. It appears the bandwidth clause is not in their updated policy, which is good.
Betternet is certainly not a no-logs VPN service.
On a positive note, Betternet is not falsely claiming to be “no logs” anywhere on its website (at least that I could find). There are some VPNs that do this, however, such as PureVPN.
Betternet VPN Protocols
In combing through the Betternet website, I found some interesting information on the protocols they are now using.
Under the Betternet FAQ page, they claim to now be using a proprietary VPN protocol called “Catapult Hydra” – which I have never heard of before. Here’s the explanation from their website:
AnchorFree used to use standard IPSec and OpenVPN protocols to power Betternet but found major performance and latency challenges with it, therefore we created our own proprietary Catapult Hydra to address the issues of VPN latency.
Catapult Hydra uses different algorithms to establish the VPN tunnel, perform authentication, establish client connections and exchange the payload data inside the tunnel.
I would strongly recommend avoiding the Catapult Hydra protocol, and therefore Betternet VPN service, for the following reasons:
- Proprietary and closed source (What’s going on behind the scenes? Who knows.)
- Not audited (Is it even secure?)
- Not widely used
There are many other secure VPN protocols to choose from, particularly OpenVPN. OpenVPN has been fully audited, open source, used for many years, and is trusted by hundreds of VPN services. With Betternet’s “Catapult Hydra” you don’t really know what you’re getting.
Does Betternet work with Netflix?
No. Betternet does not work with Netflix.
This is not too surprising, since many VPNs are blocked by Netflix. Another problem with Betternet is that you probably won’t get the speeds you need for good-quality Netflix streaming. For HD streams, you generally need a fast and reliable VPN connection.
Therefore even if Betternet could unblock Netflix, the connection problems and speed issues would still be problematic.
If you want to stream Netflix with a VPN, check out the best VPNs for Netflix here.
Betternet review conclusion
While Betternet may be popular with some mobile users (because it is free) it also carries some risks.
Overall, Betternet is not recommended for the following reasons:
- Slow speeds
- Connection problems
- No kill switch
- A troubled history of including malware and tracking libraries in VPN apps
- Use of proprietary VPN protocols (not OpenVPN)
Even if Betternet performed well for this review, their history of shipping malware with their VPN apps would be reason enough to avoid it. Even if you need a free VPN, I still would not recommend Betternet.
If you are open to other options, there are a handful of top-rated VPN services to choose from. These VPNs did better in testing and generally offer more security.
Popular alternatives to Betternet include NordVPN and ExpressVPN, which are the two most popular VPNs on the market.
If you have used Betternet, feel free to share your own review below.