A couple of weeks ago I received an email about a partnership opportunity by a VPN provider known as iTopVPN. They introduced themselves as “a company that has always been recognised and trusted in the VPN industry”, and wanted to generously extend an invitation to join their affiliates program.
This was their pitch:
Some of my favourites were “The more you sell, the more you earn – no limit.” and “Get up to 100% commission” (which reminded me of multi level marketing).
There were no quantifiable metrics for their product performance, no awards or formal industry recognition, nothing on the features that differentiated them from their peers. In a word, a pretty lazy sales email.
But the VPN name seemed familiar for some reason, and then it hit me – it’d been installed automatically on my computer earlier this year:
Hello IT, my ‘Uninstaller Software’ is Installing Software – by itself
After running an update on IOBit Uninstaller a few months ago, all of my desktop icons suddenly had small red icons in their bottom left corner (red circles with white crosses in them). My alarm bells went off, and I immediately disconnected from the internet. Then I checked my programs listed by install date.
I realised that there was not one, but three unrecognised programs sitting on my PC. Those were iTop’s VPN, Screen Recorder and Screenshot application.
I immediately uninstalled them using IOBit Uninstaller, followed by uninstalling IOBit Uninstaller itself. At the same time I completed a quick virus and malware scan, and checked my system backups. Everything seemed fine.
IOBit Inc is a Chinese software company with alleged ties to the Chinese government. On their about us page, there’s no mention of where they’re based (it’s the same for iTop) despite being founded in 2004.
“Malwarebytes has recently uncovered evidence that a company called IOBit based in China is stealing and incorporating our proprietary database and intellectual property into their software,”‘IOBit Steals Malwarebytes’ Intellectual Property’
In 2009, Malwarebytes claimed to have uncovered evidence that IOBit Inc had been stealing database signatures and intellectual property from both Malwarebytes and TrendMicro.
News articles found covering this on Google were limited, and the blog post has since been removed. The only way to access it is via its archived cache version. The post included details on the evidence of IOBit’s theft, but unfortunately the attached images are not accessible for the cached version.
The bottom line was that IOBit’s update had installed multiple unwanted applications on my system, with accompanying popup ads. Even paid users received the same treatment during the upgrade process.
It was ironic that an ‘uninstaller’ was now installing unwanted (adware) apps. This collaboration between IOBit and iTop has left many long-time users feeling disappointed and opting out of their subscriptions.
When you don’t use a VPN, your ISP has access to all your network traffic. When you use a VPN, your VPN provider now has access to that data: this is why a ‘no logs’ policy is so heavily advertised for VPNs. (Related: ‘Why shouldn’t I use a free VPN?’)
The combination of a VPN, screen recorder and screenshot app being unwanted installations was too suspicious, especially from a Chinese software company that already has a shady reputation and ties to the Chinese government.
I’ve never heard of a VPN provider also offering screen recording or screenshot software. Both of these are (free) built-in Windows functionalities, and have nothing to do with VPNs.
I’ve used IOBit’s Uninstaller on and off for several years. As an uninstaller tool it works as intended, and has always seen consistently high ratings on cnet, Lifewire, Techradar and PCMagazine.
As a standalone piece of software it’s great, but the reputation and dodgy practices of its company shouldn’t be overlooked. The same applies to iTop – I’d never help market a product I didn’t believe in, especially if sold by a company with disrepute and unclear intentions.