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To secure or to unsecure: a VPN question

“The wood is full of prying eyes.” So is the Internet. What does one do to get away from them all? After all the IP protocol was not designed with security in mind. They didn’t need to worry much about security during the Arpanet days.

When it comes to ensuring secure communications on the modern Internet, VPN tunnels have been the way to go for enterprise users. There are several options. First off, you have IPSEC VPN tunnels if you are looking to connect entire networks or subnets to each other. Then there are the SSL VPN tunnels that come in handy if it is a specific server or application or some other resource that you need to reach. If you are looking to tunnel through an incompatible network then the GRE tunnel would be a good option, with IPSEC bringing in the additional security layer. IPSEC came on the scene first with an entire suite of protocols: IKE, AH, ESP. Within the IKE protocol, keys are exchanged and parameters are negotiated. IKE Phase 1 establishes the management tunnel and Phase 2 sets up the IPSEC tunnel through which data is transferred. Data in the tunnel is secured using either the AH or ESP protocols. IPSEC is complex. Indeed, there are also some concerns that the complexity was intentionally introduced to hide cybersecurity flaws. But that is another story. On the other hand, SSL VPNs provide remote access to users via SSL VPN gateways. SSL has enjoyed wider adoption being less complex and needing just a web browser at the client end, with plug-ins for establishing the tunnel mode.

VPNs have been in the news lately. Cisco firewalls used to run VPNs were the subject of an NSA exploit. Through an attack targeting a weakness in the implementation of IKE, keys used to encrypt communications could be extracted. In the meantime, there have been some interesting developments around Juniper firewalls. It seems that the encryption algorithm was “intentionally” weakened to install a backdoor into the device so that eavesdroppers could tune into the encrypted communications taking place. Similarly, Fortinet firewalls were discovered to have a vulnerability that could be exploited with a script to gain administrator level access. At Palo Alto Networks, through a buffer overflow in their SSL VPN web interface, restrictions to bypass limit traffic to trusted IP addresses could be abused.

Looks like a case of backdoors galore.

From the enterprise world, the technology made a leap into the consumer world to meet the ever-increasing demand for privacy and safety as well as work around the geo-restrictions to media access globally. Therefore, the market for VPN services seems to have grown dramatically with several providers competing to win customers. Though, there are concerns that have been expressed about privacy. A study of 14 popular commercial VPN providers found 11 of them to leak information including the websites being visited and the content being communicated. It is said that VPN providers could potentially log their customers and that all they do is to provide a VPN proxy server. A lot depends on trusting the VPN provider. Certainly, it may not be difficult for the provider to listen to the communication going through their servers. Another vulnerability that was reported could enable attackers to unmask the real IP addresses of client devices, definitely a big problem when hiding their IP addresses is why users sign on in the first place. Also, many service providers use OpenVPN, which was the subject of the infamous Heartbleed exploit, again a case of keys being exposed through a hack. Some providers leverage outdated protocols like PPTP that can be broken through brute-force attacks.

Consequently, Internet privacy clearly has been turning into an oxymoron for a while now.  When VPN devices and services whose raison d’etre is security and privacy have been readily exploited, in circumstances that often look incriminating, it becomes a case of you can “run but you cannot hide” on the Internet. Unfortunately, there is no escaping from those pesky prying eyes. A question some enterprise buyers may have asked is did they secure their network or potentially un-secure it by installing expensive VPN appliances.

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