VPNs: Not as secure as they might seem

Joe Munday
May 21, 2024
VPNs: Not as secure as they might seem

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are often marketed as the ultimate tool for ensuring online privacy and security. They encrypt internet traffic, hide IP addresses, and promise anonymity. However, recent discussions and research have highlighted several vulnerabilities and misconceptions about VPNs that users should be aware of. This short aims to provide a high level insight into the risks, benefits, alternatives and a case study to showcase the real threat to organisations despite the perceived untouchability that is associated with VPN’s.

Trust Issues with VPN Providers

One of the primary concerns is the trustworthiness of VPN providers. When using a VPN, you essentially trust the provider with all your internet traffic. This is particularly problematic with free VPN services. These providers often monetize user data to sustain their business model. The adage, "if you’re not paying, you’re not the customer; you’re the product," holds true here.

Paid VPN services, while generally more reliable, also require scrutiny regarding their logging policies and data handling practices.

Technical Vulnerabilities

VPNs are not impervious to technical attacks. A notable vulnerability involves the exploitation of DHCP Option 121, which attackers can use to manipulate routing tables.

This method allows traffic to bypass the VPN tunnel, effectively exposing it to interception. This type of attack undermines the primary function of a VPN, which is to secure all internet traƯic from a user's device to the intended destination.

False Sense of Security

Many users falsely believe that VPNs provide comprehensive protection against all online threats. While VPNs can obscure your IP address and encrypt your data, they do not protect against malware, phishing attacks, or security breaches at endpoints. Thus, relying solely on a VPN without other security measures can leave significant gaps in your online defences.

Configuration and Implementation Flaws

The effectiveness of a VPN is heavily dependent on its configuration. Common issues include weak encryption protocols, improper DNS request handling, and poor authentication methods. Incorrectly set up VPNs can leave users more vulnerable than if they were not using a VPN at all. Regularly reviewing and updating VPN configurations is crucial to maintaining their security benefits.

Alternative Privacy Solutions

For those seeking higher levels of anonymity, alternatives to traditional VPNs can be considered:

Tor Network: This network routes traƯic through multiple nodes worldwide, providing a higher degree of anonymity. However, it is slower and less suitable for accessing all websites.

VPN on Routers: Implementing VPNs at the router level can encrypt traffic from all connected devices, but users must still vet the VPN provider thoroughly.

Physical Security Measures: Using hardware solutions like physical ethernet adapters (bridges) or VPN dongles can oƯer additional layers of security but come with their own limitations.

What can be done?

To maximise the security benefits of using a VPN, consider the following:

Choose Reputable Providers: Opt for VPN services with transparent policies, strong encryption standards, and no-logging guarantees.

Regularly Update Configurations: Ensure that VPN configurations are current and adhere to best practices, such as using robust encryption protocols and secure DNS


Complement with Other Security Tools: Employ additional security measures like anti-malware software, secure browsing habits, and endpoint protection to cover

vulnerabilities that VPNs do not address.

By understanding these limitations and adopting a comprehensive security approach, users and organisations can better safeguard their online activities and sensitive data.

Case study

Recent Attack on Business Using VPN to Compromise Network.

In recent months, several significant cyber-attacks have highlighted the vulnerabilities of VPNs used by businesses. A notable example involves Global Affairs Canada, where a VPN compromise led to a data breach affecting various servers and employee emails.

This breach, which persisted from December 2023 to January 2024, underscores the severe risks associated with vulnerable VPN configurations and outdated software. The attackers exploited the VPN to gain initial access and move laterally within the network, accessing sensitive information and potentially causing extensive damage

Additionally, Cisco has reported a surge in brute-force attacks targeting VPN services. These attacks involve systematically attempting numerous username and password combinations to gain unauthorised access. The recent campaign affected multiple VPN providers, including Cisco, CheckPoint, Fortinet, and SonicWall. By exploiting weak password policies and leveraging anonymization tools, attackers successfully compromised VPN credentials, leading to unauthorised network access and potential data breaches.


In conclusion, while VPNs offer significant benefits such as encrypted traffic, anonymity, and access to geo-restricted content, they also come with notable risks.

Trust issues with providers, technical vulnerabilities, and a false sense of security are critical concerns. Organisations must carefully vet their VPN providers to ensure they adhere to strict no-logging policies and use robust encryption standards. Regular updates and reviews of VPN configurations are essential to maintain security. Moreover, VPNs should not be seen as a standalone solution but rather as part of a comprehensive security strategy that includes anti-malware software, secure browsing practices, and endpoint protection.

Alternatives like the Tor network and VPN implementation at the router level can provide enhanced privacy but must be evaluated for their suitability to specific needs.

By adopting a multifaceted security approach, organisations can better protect their data and maintain robust online security.

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