Coronavirus confinement causing big VPN spikes: What you need to know

(Image credit: Getty Images)

VPN usage has spiked in countries enforcing coronavirus-related lockdowns, startup Atlas VPN reported in a blog post yesterday (March 16).

Atlas VPN said its traffic in Italy, where most of the population has been confined to homes, rose 112% in the second week in March (March 9-15) compared to the previous week. In Iran, also hit hard by the coronavirus, the weekly jump in traffic was 38%. In Spain, it was 36%. 

The United States, which only began to take nationwide measures against the coronavirus pandemic last week, saw a 53% spike in Atlas VPN usage. Even Russia, which doesn't seem to have much of a coronavirus problem yet, saw a 36% weekly jump.

There are a few "buts" here. Atlas VPN launched its services, which are so far available only on iOS and Android, only in January, so it's not unexpected that its traffic would be growing rapidly. 

Atlas VPN did not provide examples of its sample sizes, so we don't know whether its figures are based on 1,000 users worldwide or 1 million. We also have no information whether other VPN providers are seeing anything similar to Atlas VPN's traffic spikes.

Most significantly, Atlas VPN last week began offering a coronavirus-related promotion that gives all users three months of Atlas VPN's premium services for free. Spikes in usage might be expected to follow such an announcement. (Atlas VPN said users of the premium services get faster speeds and access to streaming-optimized servers.) 

More VPN usage when you work from home

With a large part of the developed world's population forced to work from home, you'd expect that VPN usage would go up when millions of people log into their employers' enterprise VPNs to connect to the corporate network. 

But enterprise VPNs are very different beasts from the consumer VPNs like ExpressVPN or Private Internet Access that people access for private use. 

Atlas VPN figures the consumer spikes may instead be related to people using VPNs "to overcome geo-restrictions and to enjoy their favorite [streaming video] content from all over the world."

"We estimate that VPN usage in the US could increase over 150% by the end of the month," Atlas VPN Chief Operating Officer Rachel Welch said in the blog posting. "Overall, the usage of VPNs should continue to surge if the coronavirus pandemic worsens."

Some things to consider when signing up for a VPN

Now before you rush out and sign up for Atlas VPN's free service, step back and take a deep breath. 

We don't know much about Atlas VPN. The brand-new company is registered in Delaware and is a subsidiary of an outfit called Peakstar Technologies, but the web domain is registered in Lithuania.

There's also no mention on the website, or on the Android or iOS app-store pages, of how much the premium Atlas VPN service actually costs. There's only a price range of between $9.99 and $49.99 on the Google Play app page. 

It's also strange that there's no Atlas VPN service for desktop computers yet, although the company said in its launch announcement that one would be available in the summer of 2020.

The company could totally be on the up-and-up, but if we're going to trust it with all of our private internet traffic, then we'd like some more transparency about its location, jurisdiction and ownership. 

Furthermore, you should always be wary of VPN services that offer mostly or entirely free services, especially those found in the Google Play app store, which is full of dodgy Android VPN services

As the old saying goes, if you're not the customer, you may be the product.

Paul Wagenseil

Paul Wagenseil is a senior editor at Tom's Guide focused on security and privacy. He has also been a dishwasher, fry cook, long-haul driver, code monkey and video editor. He's been rooting around in the information-security space for more than 15 years at, SecurityNewsDaily, TechNewsDaily and Tom's Guide, has presented talks at the ShmooCon, DerbyCon and BSides Las Vegas hacker conferences, shown up in random TV news spots and even moderated a panel discussion at the CEDIA home-technology conference. You can follow his rants on Twitter at @snd_wagenseil.