I sometimes encounter the question “should I use a VPN?” with the inevitable shower of comments along the lines of “yes, it’ll make you more secure!” or “it’ll protect your privacy!” Occasionally, I see VPNs recommended as a solution against doxxing, such as when someone comments about their profession or business, competitors, or potential employers. Perhaps someone in industry has quipped about sending “anonymous” emails criticizing a particular organization or offered unsavory political opinions that would otherwise get them fired.
First, I should state that I am no security expert. I just happen to write software, and I have a vague curiosity into the world of information security. I enjoy reading the opinions of individuals who are considered experts in the field, and they almost uniformly warn of the same folly: VPNs are no panacea!
I think this advice is offered as therapeutic more than curative. In particular, it seems plausible users attracted to VPNs may place unwarranted trust in the software and provider, engaging in activities that suggest a degree of carelessness. Caution is nevertheless a desirable trait even under the warm embrace of cryptography. I’ll explain why.
A VPN may be useful to disguise your activity if you’re posting on Twitter, and you wish to avoid the danger of clicking on links that may be able to collate information about your activities or track usage behavior. VPNs may also provide some limited protection if you’re prone to torrenting your entertainment (up to a certain dollar amount, after which legal recourse against you becomes economically viable–maybe even necessary). However, even in the latter case, use of VPNs is of dubious utility, and they may not always keep you anonymous. Just this month (April 2019), NordVPN has been the subject of increased scrutiny over sending information to a series of unusual domains (billed as an anti-censorship strategy). Three months ago, NordVPN was also accused of tracking its users. None of this is surprising. Usage of a VPN is surrendering your privacy to a single firm (in most cases) in the hopes they will protect you from others doing naughty things with your browsing habits while simultaneously doing nothing of the sort themselves.
Nota bene: This behavior isn’t limited to NordVPN. They’re simply one of the most popular providers and therefore examined by more people with an equivalent increase in negative press. Regardless of intent, I find I can’t fault them for running analytic tracking on their user base: There are cases where traffic analysis (latency, throughput, timeouts, etc) may be useful for providing better quality-of-service and improving customer experience. In the event of an endpoint failure, I’m sure such analysis can be incredibly helpful re-routing packets toward other endpoints within a margin of acceptable latency. If the unusual domains their applications have directed traffic to this month is an anti-censorship countermeasure, I have to commend them for a bold strategy, even if it makes a few users nervous. To be clear: I neither endorse NordVPN nor am I overly critical of their decisions. I don’t care either way. I don’t use VPNs.
Now we can get to the meat of this discussion.
I believe the most important consideration as a user of a VPN service is to quantify your threat model. To illustrate, let’s take an example from earlier: For most people, doxxing isn’t a significant threat. Those at greatest risk often draw attention to themselves, either deliberately through their actions (whistle-blowers), or through online interactions (gaming, comments, etc.) that turn sour. Some may be victims of cyberstalking. In these cases, a VPN may be useless, because the victims often post sufficient information online to identify who they are, where they live, and numerous other details about their lives that a determined third party can piece together. Simply put: VPNs aren’t magic and they cannot protect you from yourself.
For most of us, our opinions and online interactions aren’t important or interesting enough to attract attention. If you think your opinions are interesting enough to be the target of a harassment campaign, then perhaps a VPN may be useful, but it isn’t the only tool you should rely on. To put it another way, if you’re afraid you might be identified online, you must firewall everything about your life that may be exposed through writing, your interactions with other people, and the media you post.
Ask yourself this question: What’s your threat model?
Most of the people I’ve spoken with who espouse the use of a VPN do so because they’re concerned about their identity being leaked, they may worry about employers identifying them online, they don’t want to become targets of harassment, or they simply wish to share politically unpopular opinions online that might draw the ire of one group or another (this may cross over into any of the prior points). As a free speech advocate, I can sympathize with their desire for further anonymity; losing your job because you’re the subject of a targeted harassment campaign is the antithesis of a free society. Neither should people be subject to hecklers or harassment, especially of the sort that crosses over from the online world to their front doorstep. Unfortunately, this is the world we live in.
A VPN isn’t going to provide unlimited protection against adversaries, and neither will a VPN protect users from disseminating information about themselves to interested but malevolent third parties. They can provide an additional layer of security when using Internet connections in a public location (airports, hotels, coffee shops, etc.), and they may be able to circumvent regional restrictions on entertainment or information (Google, YouTube, Netflix) by the state or licensing institutions. You should not expect a VPN to keep you completely anonymous, but they may be useful as part of a defense-in-depth strategy.
However, cautious use of the Internet can bring you 80% of the way toward a safer online presence. In particular: Don’t click links you don’t trust; avoid sharing secure information with services that are not offered via TLS (HTTPS); if you reply to an unknown third party via email, be cautious of using SMTP with your provider (this may divulge your client IP) and stick with the web or mobile interfaces; and don’t post information about yourself you don’t want publicly accessible. You may not have a choice in some cases, depending on your line of work, so this advice may not be applicable. I do believe it is broadly useful for the majority of people. Take heed.
There are limitations to VPNs that less technologically-inclined consumers may not be aware of. Key to understanding this is to understand the technology behind VPNs (typically IPsec with some authentication layer) and their history as a tool to extend company or school network boundaries off-premise, providing employees and students a means of connecting to internal services. It was never designed as a mechanism preventing the controlling institution (in this case the VPN provider) from classifying or logging traffic. Partial anonymity is a useful side effect but it wasn’t the design goal. Neither was complete security.
VPNs can have surprising utility if your adversary is intermediate tracking, or you don’t trust your ISP. Providers like Comcast have demonstrated this by injecting advertisements into sites their users visit, and others have been accused of using traffic analysis to track user behavior, possibly for targeted advertising. VPNs can protect against this threat by acting as a secure tunnel between your computer and your VPN provider’s endpoint.
Before I conclude this post, I should leave my readers with some particularly interesting tidbits of research that may be helpful in deciding whether your use case justifies paying for a commercial VPN. There was a paper written in 2016 titled “Characterization of Encrypted and VPN Traffic using Time-related Features.” This paper discusses techniques in traffic analysis to determine the protocol and type of traffic transmitted over encrypted connections, including VPNs, and could differentiate between VoIP, browsing, or streaming behaviors. There are other related papers including “Realtime Classification for Encrypted Traffic” (2010) and “Analyzing HTTPS Encrypted Traffic to Identify User’s Operating System, Browser, and Application” (2017); the latter describes attacks capable of defeating countermeasures intended to obfuscate payloads in transit. Although I cannot find it at this time, I also recall reading a paper that presented deep packet analysis techniques to defeat random noise injected into streams, successfully categorizing the encrypted traffic despite efforts to thwart would-be adversaries. This is an area of active research, and I expect with advancements in deep learning and greater access to GPUs capable of training neural networks tuned toward traffic analysis, VPNs may not present significant defense against adversaries that couldn’t already be achieved via other forms of encryption, e.g. TLS. Yes, I am aware of SNI-related information leaks due to how TLS presently works.
To put it more succinctly: You have to decide on your threat model.