What Is VPN Obfuscation And How Does It Protect You?
So you’ve got the core elements covered. You’ve set up the VPN connection, and your data is private and secure. Your internet traffic won’t be traced back to you, and the information sent over the VPN tunnel is encrypted. Your identity is safe. However, there’s just one ‘problem’. Your ISP and government have the tools needed to detect that you’re using a VPN. Sure, they can’t read the traffic itself and know what you’re accessing or sending over the internet, but it does put you on their watchlist. Governments keen on identifying VPN traffic want to gather intelligence on what persons in their territories are up to – and in authoritarian regimes they go further to ban VPNs altogether. For the ISPs, it usually comes down to issues related with copyrights.
There are regions where VPN users are even fined. For instance, in China, you must register with the government before being permitted to use a VPN, and in Chongqing province, VPN users failing to meet the legal requirements are fined $2,210. In Iran, it can land one in prison for up to a year, and the population is restricted to just a couple of government-approved VPNs. Turkey and Belarus regimes are strict on internet usage, and within the UAE and Oman one can only pick from the list of ‘approved’ VPNs. Russia actively cracks down on VPN providers, with Putin legislation banning VPNs already in effect.
So, you don’t want Big Brother to know you’re using a VPN service. That’s where VPN obfuscation comes in.
What Is VPN Obfuscation?
It’s basically masking your internet traffic so that it hides that you’re using a VPN, and instead shows that data from your device is ordinary internet traffic. It comes by different names, including ‘stealth VPN’ and “VPN obfuscation”. Some providers have their unique names for it, like “NoBorders mode” with Surfshark VPN and “Chameleon protocol” when using VyprVPN.
It doesn’t change your traffic, but rather masks it, obscuring it from anyone looking to pinpoint VPN traffic. That way you can continue transferring the encrypted data, but also circumvent blocks that have been placed for VPN traffic, making your internet usage indistinguishable from the rest of the general public.
How VPN Obfuscation Works
When connecting to the internet and exchanging data over networks, the protocols used have their distinctive signatures. Third parties analysing the data packets can detect the signature.
For instance, the most common VPN protocol, OpenVPN, has its digital signature. When the third party is analysing your connection, be it a government body, hacker, or the ISP you’re using, methods like the deep packet inspection are used.
VPN obfuscation comes in to dupe those analysing the traffic into believing that you’re using normal data packets, while in actual sense the VPN is still transmitting the encrypted data packets over its secure tunnel.
Different methods can be used when masking the traffic. The goal is generally to add an encryption layer that makes the VPN traffic look like regular traffic. These include:
This is part of the Tor Project, which was developed due to Tor traffic being blocked in territories like China. It will obfuscate the Tor traffic, preventing it from being detected.
While Obfsproxy was primarily developed for being used with Tor, you can also use it with OpenVPN. The setup uses different pluggable transports to hide the OpenVPN traffic, which will vary based on the block that is to be circumvented. For instance, obfs4 is one of the pluggable transports used with OpenVPN traffic, where it scrambles the traffic and makes it essentially look like nothing meaningful.
This is open-source software that routes the VPN traffic through a TLS/SSL tunnel. Anyone snooping on the data packets will think that it is regular HTTPS traffic, because the TLS/SSL is one of the encryptions that is used by HTTPS.
Here, the OpenVPN traffic is disguised using the simple XOR cipher, which replaces the values of the bits of data, that way the data packet inspection methods will not detect the OpenVPN signature. Speaking of which, malware developers have also taken advantage of this to prevent their malicious code from being detected. The simplicity of the cipher means that it doesn’t always offer much protection especially from authoritarian governments cracking down on VPN usage.
Mainstream VPN providers also offer obfuscation features as part of their services. These include:
- ExpressVPN, which is renowned for even bypassing restrictions in countries like China that have loads of blocks, and has over 2000 servers for its network.
- NordVPN, that also enables you to bypass the VPN blocks including regional firewalls like the Great Firewall and circumventing all regional geo-restrictions.
- SurfShark, with its over 1000 servers spread across over 61 countries, and where you get to obfuscate your VPN traffic by using the “NoBorders” feature
- PrivateVPN, where you’ll need to enable the “Stealth VPN” feature, after which no one will detect that you’re connected to a VPN.
- Hotspot Shield that features fast connection speeds and relays your traffic through the “Catapult Hydra” protocol to ensure that it is secure and discreet.
- VyprVPN, where the feature is available by switching to the Chameleon protocol, obfuscating 256-bit OpenVPN encrypted traffic then transmitting it using port 443.
How VPN Obfuscation Protects You
Here are the benefits of VPN obfuscation, and how it keeps you safe from prying eyes:
- Bypassing government censorship
For territories with heavy restrictions on internet usage – like China, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and North Korea, VPNs are widely used. Here, the governments block traffic to specific sites, like the “Great Firewall” of China that prevents users from accessing and using sites like Twitter, Pinterest, Google, The New York Times, Facebook and WhatsApp. As such, people turn to VPNs, where the content of the traffic is encrypted. The VPN, in turn, routes its traffic through secondary servers, that way when one is inspecting it, the traffic would be seen to have been directed to the VPN server, and not the banned website. However, the government knows this. The regimes are well aware that its citizens are using VPNs to circumvent the blocks. So they put in measures to block the VPN traffic.
Governments can block VPN traffic in different ways. For instance, if they know the VPN server, they’ll simply block the traffic that is directed to it. This is why VPN providers keep on changing servers. Port 1194 that is usually used by OpenVPN traffic, can also be blocked. Techniques like Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) can be used, where they’ll detect the OpenVPN signature, and block the traffic. With obfuscation, where the VPN traffic is disguised as ordinary internet traffic, one will be able to bypass these measures.
- Bypass network blocks
For those in commercial facilities, educational institutions, offices and the like, some of the network administrators may have put in place detection measures that will identify VPN traffic. With obfuscation, you can circumvent them, and proceed using the VPN as normal.
- Prevent your ISP from throttling your internet speed
ISPs have a tendency to throttle one’s internet speed, especially when they detect that you’re making downloads, streaming or accessing specific websites. Sure, with ordinary VPN usage, the ISP will no longer get to see your specific internet content, or the websites you’re visiting. However, they may know that you’re using a VPN service, and slow down your speed.
Note that the encrypting/decrypting measures that come with using VPNs, plus routing the internet traffic through different servers, means that the traffic will be slower than normal internet connections. However, when the ISP is throttling VPN traffic indiscriminately, it will be much slower. VPN obfuscation helps in protecting you from this.
- Extra layer of privacy
The VPN already protects your identity and maintains your privacy, and obfuscating the traffic takes this a step further. That way in addition to your data being encrypted and your IP hidden, your traffic will be indistinguishable from the rest of the population using the internet.