With the rise in the sophistication of cybercrimes, VPNs have become a staple in the cybersecurity diet of many.
However, as users of a tool a VPN might be, the fact remains that are still a couple of vulnerabilities present that cause more damage than good.
Perhaps even more alarming is the ruse of ‘false security’ that a VPN has to offer to users. With claims of complete privacy while browsing online, it’s quite understandable as to why some users might let their guards down, and become the potential victim of a VPN gone rogue.
However, with that being said, there are still ways in which users can remain on the top of the potential threat posed by a ‘bad’ VPN, starting by simply knowing about features that might sabotage the functionality of a VPN and turn it from an ally to a threat.
Some prevalent signs to look out for a while searching for VPN provider include the following:
#1- Vulnerable Encryption Key-Handling
A significant loophole that comes with using a VPN is the reliance that every VPN has on encryption keys. If you didn’t already know, an encryption key refers to the technology that allows for one end of the online communication to be encrypted and the other end to be decrypted.
Although encryption keys aren’t particularly limited to VPNs, the fact is that one end of the encryption key is wholly exposed to the public, via the device on which the VPN is connected.
Moreover, a recent example demonstrated at the Black Hat USA 2019, revealed that a vulnerability within the Palo Alto Networks SSL VPN had increased the strength and impact of cybercrime since the vulnerability targeted a hard-coded password for the encryption key.
With that out of the way, users need to look for VPN providers that minimize the threat posed by hard-coded encryption keys, along with the dangers of storing these encryption keys insecurely.
As simple as it may sound, the most effective step in remedying the danger posed by a vulnerable encryption-key handling routine is to patch any bugs and to update regularly.
#2- Subpar Encryption
For many people, the primary function associated with a VPN is usually high-grade encryption. Keeping this in encryption, it gets really hard to imagine a VPN provider would fall short of its defining feature.
Unfortunately, however, this seems to be the case in several VPNs, since the VPN industry is filled with an arsenal of outdated encryption algorithms that were once thought to be safe but were later found to house vulnerabilities.
Encryption algorithms, such as DES, 3DES, SHA-1, and RSA, are amongst those encryption models that have exhibited several vulnerabilities, including the likes of length extension attacks and susceptibility to using brute-force methods.
On the other end of the spectrum, the VPN market is littered with VPN providers claiming that they offer ‘military-grade’ encryption, with little to none quantifiable evidence to back their claims.
While on the hunt for a VPN with high-grade encryption, try to keep an eye out for algorithms such as the AES algorithm, ECDH, SHA-256, or the RSA algorithm with a 1536 or 2048-bit key. However, there’s still a slight chance that your online security could go awry with the improper implementation of algorithm programs, which is why you must keep your VPN updated and patched regularly.
#3- Reliance on weak VPN protocols
Out of the five majorly used VPN protocols, most of them will do a perfect job of everything that a VPN ought to do, including providing users with the luxury of a private connection.
As is the case with encryption algorithms, not all VPN security protocols are created as equal. The bad news, however, is the fact that a significant portion of VPN providers still rely heavily on these outdated protocols, including the PPTP protocol.
The Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) might be the bane of all VPN protocols since, despite the fast speeds, the protocol leaves a lot to be desired in terms of security. Another archaic protocol, which is still in use for some reason, is the L2TP protocol, which offers zero encryption, leaving all online communication susceptible to hackers and other nosy third-parties.
Another popular security protocol, IKEv2 (often used with the IPSec encryption protocol), has also had its fair share of troubles, with whistleblower Edward Snowden linking the contract to the NSA conducting espionage, by figuring out how to crack the encryption.
Out of the two remaining VPN protocols, OpenVPN stands out as the best security protocol available to software engineers today. However, as far as VPN protocols are concerned, the future seems bright since the modern protocols such as Wireguard and SoftEther are slowly establishing themselves as pioneers in the VPN markets.
#4- An untrustworthy VPN provider
Over the course of the points we’ve made above, we’ve mentioned a VPN provider several times. The massive amount of trust users put into the VPN provider they’ve chosen speaks volumes of the desperate cybersecurity conditions of our times.
However, turning to a free VPN provider might be even more dangerous than going without one, since it creates the illusion of privacy, without actually providing any. Moreover, this false sense of security provides sketchy VPN providers easy access to the online activities of thousands of their naïve users.
When a user opts for a free VPN, not only do they keep tabs on the browsing activities of thousands, the collected (read: stolen) data is then sold to advertisers for targeted advertising, which means you’ll be bombarded with adverts you’re more likely to click on.
Even more alarming is the fact, which was brought into light by a study conducted by the ICSI, that free VPNs are much more likely to contain malware when compared to their paid counterparts.
When you combine the nosiness of free VPN providers, along with the fact that they throttle bandwidth along with slowing down connection speeds, renders them entirely unusable. Unfortunately, however, there is still a significant portion of VPN users who’d prefer to put their safety on the line, rather than invest in an effective and robust paid VPN.
#5- Insufficient single-layer protection
Despite the ever-persistent threat of becoming the victim of a sophisticated cybercrime present in users, there are still a lot of VPNs that only offer a single layer of protection. This single layered protection doesn’t do a lot in terms of security except masking the actual IP address of the user with the IP address of one of its servers.
When we take into consideration, the ease with which hackers these days can break into complex governmental networks, it becomes quite evident that a single-layered protection approach has several loopholes in it, and allows users to turn into easy victims of cybertheft and espionage.
While looking for a VPN, keep your focus on VPNs that have a more multi-layered approach to providing security, including features that mask the end user’s IP address, along with giving a blacklist of URLs to avoid.
Moreover, VPN providers should be able to withhold an organization’s IT infrastructure when employed within a corporate or business setting.
#6- Weak user authentication system
Along with the traits mentioned above, a VPN that allows for easy authentication bypass is a VPN that you should stay away from! In order to achieve the ultimate level of security via a VPN provider needs to provide a robust authentication system to users.
When a vulnerability allows cyber criminals access to a user’s credentials, a weak authentication system allows the threat propagator to gain access to the resources provided by the VPN. When this happens, the hackers can then carry out an arsenal of activities under the ruse of a user.
Furthermore, in some instances, hackers can go as far as to alter the software’s code, along with accessing critical information, about other users subscribed to the same VPN provider as well.
To concludeWe’d like to remind our readers of the fact that despite the shortcomings of the VPN technology (and some providers), it is still an essential security tool that helps foster cybersecurity and privacy while browsing.
If users remain mindful of what features to look out for a while searching for a VPN, they might just come across a VPN that suits their specific security needs the best.