Photo: AP

Verizon recently started offering a VPN service to make users feel more secure when connecting to public wi-fi, but the premium feature’s associated privacy policy is a disaster. The company is reportedly trying to fix it and says the whole thing was just a mistake.

The age of the privacy grift is upon us. Over the last couple of years, the public has become more aware of massive data collection by corporations and the steady drumbeat of leaks and hacks of personal information has people looking for a quick fix. If you ever find yourself tuned into Fox News, you’ll see commercials advertising dubious VPN services claiming to anonymize your online activities crammed between spots for buying gold and penis pills. That’s why many people might see a VPN option offered by their wireless carrier and consider it a simple solution to a problem they’re vaguely aware of. This is a bad idea.

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Case in point, Verizon’s “Safe Wi-Fi” plan offers users “a VPN which protects your privacy when you use public Wi-Fi, so you can connect confidently and securely” for the low cost of $3.99 per month. As Motherboard first reported, it appears the service is a privacy problem itself.

The Safe Wi-Fi terms of service on Verizon’s website offers little explanation and encourages users to read the privacy policy on McAfee’s website “carefully and completely.” If you make it that far, you’ll find the sentence, “We may use Personal Data for which we have a legitimate interest, such as direct marketing, individual or market research, anti-fraud protection, or any other purpose disclosed to you at the time you provide Personal Data or with your consent.” That gives McAfee a lot of room to collect, use, and share your data. The policy goes on to outline more ways that your personal data could be used, all under the caveat that McAfee will “generally” disclose how it uses that information before it does anything.

When we contacted Verizon about the issue, a spokesperson told us that a mistake was made and McAfee’s website only has its standard generic privacy policy posted at the moment. “We’re working with McAfee to post their privacy policy specific to Safe WiFi,” the spokesperson said. They added that “it will reflect the fact that neither Verizon nor McAfee collects any personal data regarding users or [their] use of the Safe WiFi VPN.” We’ll update this post when we receive a link to the revised policy.

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Assuming Verizon is being forthcoming, it gives little comfort to know that Motherboard had to inform the company of what its publicly posted policy actually said. The thing is, Verizon is the kind of company you want to protect yourself from if you’re concerned enough about privacy to be using a mobile VPN. The big stories that circulate in the media about reckless privacy standards are more often than not about big companies like Verizon, Facebook, and Equifax being data-hungry money machines. Facebook has also offered its own suspect VPN service that you should definitely not use. You can read up on what you should look for in a VPN here, but different services can change and you should always do some research before using one.

Even if this VPN is the greatest service in its field, do you really want to add to the heap of little fees that Verizon turns into big money?

[Motherboard]

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