Stephen Smith's Blog

Musings on Machine Learning…

The Technology of “Influence” – Part 2 VPN

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Introduction

In my novel “Influence”, the lead character J@ck Tr@de performs various hacking tasks. In the book he spends a lot of time securing his connections, hiding his identity and hiding his location. In a series of blog posts, I’m going to talk about the various technologies mentioned in the book like VPN, the Onion Browser, Kali Linux and using VHF radios. I talked about HTTPS in my last post and in this article, we’re going to discuss Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

For anyone interested, my book is available either as a paperback or as a Kindle download on Amazon.com:

Paperback – https://www.amazon.com/dp/1730927661
Kindle – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07L477CF6

What is a VPN?

We talked about HTTPS last time as a way to secure the communications protocol that a Browser uses to talk to a Web Server. Now consider a corporate network. People at work have their computers hooked directly into the corporate network. They use this to access email, various internal corporate websites, shared network drives and other centrally deployed applications. All of these services have their own network protocols all different than HTTP. Some of these protocols have secure variants, some don’t. Some have heavy security, some light security. Now suppose you want to access these from home or from a hotel while on a business trip? You certainly can’t just do this over the Internet, because its a public network and anyone can see what you are doing. You need a way to secure all these protocols. This is the job of VPN. When you activate VPN on your laptop, it creates a secure tunnel from your laptop through the Internet to a server in your secure corporate data center. The security mechanisms VPN uses are largely the same as HTTPS and pretty secure. Using VPN then allows you to work securely from home or from remote locations while travelling.

Why Would J@ck Use VPN?

J@ck Tr@de doesn’t work for a corporation. Why does he use VPN? Whose VPN does he use? In the example above, if I’m connected to my corporate VPN, all my network traffic is tunnelled through the VPN to the corporate server. So if I browse the Internet while connected to VPN, my HTTPS requests are sent to the corporate server and then it sends them to the Internet. This extra step slows things down, but it has an interesting side-effect. If I’m not signed into Google and I Google something, Google will see my Internet Address as the corporate server rather than my laptop. That means Google won’t know who I am exactly. It also means my location shows up as the location of the corporate server. This then hides both my location and my identity, things J@ck is very interested in doing.

But J@ck doesn’t work for a corporation? Whose VPN does he use? This “feature” of hiding identity and location is sufficiently valuable that people like J@ck will pay for it. This has resulted in companies setting up VPNs just for this purpose. Their VPN server doesn’t connect to other corporate network programs, only the Internet. Using one of these VPN services will help hide your identity and location, or at least websites can’t determine these from the address fields in your web network packets.

VPNs are popular with non-hackers as well to get at geographically locked content. For instance if you live in Canada, then the content you can get from Netflix is different than the content you get in the USA. But if you are in Canada and connect to a US based VPN server then Netflix will see you as being located in the USA and will give you the US content while you are connected.

Downsides of VPN

Sounds good, so what’s the catch? One is that since these are usually paid services, so you need to pay a monthly fee. Further, you need to authenticate to the VPN service so they know who you are. The VPN knows your IP address so it can trace who and where you are.

So do you trust your VPN? Here you have to be careful. If the VPN provider is located in the USA, then its subject to the Patriot Act and law enforcement can get ahold of their info. If you want US Netflix content, then you have to use an US based VPN, but at the same time US law enforcement really doesn’t care that much about the vagaries of what Netflix allows where. If you are a hacker then you really care and probably want to use a VPN in a country with some protections. For instance in Europe, getting a warrant for this is very difficult. Or perhaps use a VPN in the Caribbean that tend to ignore external law enforcement agencies requests. A bit of Googling can help here. Some hackers use a two or three VPNs at once, located in wildly different jurisdictions to make it even harder to be traced.

Internet bandwidth is expensive, so feeding streaming movies through a VPN can require their delux expensive plan. Doing little bits of hacking doesn’t require that much bandwidth so can be a little cheaper.

There are free VPNs, but most of these are considered rather suspect since they must be supporting themselves somehow, perhaps by selling secrets. VPNs are illegal in some countries like Iraq or North Korea. VPNs are required to be run by the government in other countries like China and Russia. So be wary of these.

Summary

VPNs are a way to secure your general Internet communications. They have the desirable side-effect of hiding your Internet address and location. VPNs are absolutely necessary for corporate security and useful enough that lots of other people use them as well,

Notice that J@ck doesn’t just rely on an VPN by itself, rather its one layer in a series of protections to ensure his anonymity and privacy.

Written by smist08

December 13, 2018 at 12:34 am

3 Responses

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  1. […] book like VPN, the Onion Browser, Kali Linux and using VHF radios. I’ve talked about HTTPS and VPNs so far, now we’re going to discuss the Onion Browser and the Tor […]

  2. […] the book like VPN, the Onion Browser, Kali Linux and using VHF radios. I’ve talked about HTTPS,  VPNs and the Onion Browser so far, now we’re going to discuss Kali […]

  3. […] the book like VPN, the Onion Browser, Kali Linux and using VHF radios. I’ve talked about HTTPS,  VPNs, the Onion Browser and Kali Linux so far, now we’re going to discuss VHF Radio […]


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