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Why We Need VPNs

Posted on 2nd August 2017

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There were two stories on the BBC today about VPNs:

  • This article about Russia banning VPNs for web-browsing, to stop people accessing web-sites which are banned in Russia;
  • and this piece about how Apple has agreed to comply with Chinese government requests to remove VPN apps from the Apple Store.

I can understand both these decisions. Russia wants to enforce their bans on illegal web-sites, such as those on the dark-web which sell drugs and weapons. Apple needs to keep the Chinese happy, otherwise their business in China (manufacturing iPhones, and the sales of Apple devices in the Chinese market) will be interfered with, as has happened in the past.

These, however, are not the only crackdowns against VPNs. Streaming services like Netflix have been making it more and more difficult to bypass their regional controls (designed to ensure that material can only be accessed in countries where they hold a licence to sell it) by blocking access to their services from known public VPN services. Governments around the world have also been strongly making the case for having access to encrypted Internet traffic (most business operated VPNs are encrypted) to help prevent terrorist attacks.

A VPN is a Virtual Private Network: a logical (i.e. not physical) network to seamlessly connect computers as if they were physically connected. The access to VPNs is usually controlled (with a user-id and password, and sometimes with more complex access controls) and many are encrypted to keep their traffic secure. In this respect they differ from the public proxy servers, widely available, that you can also use to keep your Internet traffic secure. Many of you may not care very much about the trend to ban the use of VPNs, but if VPNs become widely banned, it will effect all of us.

Most readers may not have been exposed to the legitimate use of VPNs, and believe that they are only used to access illicit web-sites and to view copyrighted streamed content which is otherwise not available where they live, but VPNs are widely used in industry, and are essential to the business which use them. VPNs are the usual means to allow remote access to IT systems (email servers, file servers, databases and a host of collaboration tools).

I used to work for a company which had VPN access (one of many jobs where I used VPNs, actually). From home I could connect to all the systems that I would use when in the office, via their VPN. I could then use that VPN to connect to another VPN, providing me access to a customer's systems in another country, enabling me to perform software installations, diagnose and repair faults, and other system administration and support tasks. Without the VPNs, I would have had to go to the office and/or to the customer's site for all such tasks. Since I frequently received work phone calls in the middle of the night, that would have been very inconvenient, and would have vastly increased the cost and the time to complete otherwise simple tasks, if I had had no VPN to use.

Most companies having offices or factories in multiple locations operate at least one VPN. Siemens is an example. Siemens staff can access IT resources at their home office when they are on secondment to another site, and even make phone calls over the VPN to other offices, and make calls at local rates to suppliers, friends and family over the VPN. Given the attempts by governments to access mails on public email services (see here) and the tapping of Internet traffic, you can understand why companies want to use their own email servers, and have their employees access the servers via a secure VPN.

I run a Linux server at home (where this web-site is hosted), meaning that I have free software enabling me to set up a public VPN or even a proxy server. I am starting to wonder whether I should do so, as a statement of my objection to the trend to outlawing VPNs.