Degradation of security measures

Following the publication of a recent article about Public Wi-Fi and the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs),  I have received questions about what is reasonable with websites attempting to block the use of VPNs. A recurring concern was specifically the blocking of VPN access through an unencrypted public Wi-Fi network.

VPNs are an excellent security measure, but because of how VPNs can circumvent geographic restrictions on content, many organisations have contractual requirements to take extra steps to restrict access. The problem is that because key entertainment sites such as the BBC, Netflix and Amazon Prime use VPN blocking, many VPN users who stream movies and television programs need to deactivate their VPN at some point.

Blocking access through a VPN is relatively easy as the services require IP addresses to function and websites can be configured to block traffic to these IP addresses or redirect traffic to a page asking for the VPN to be disabled. There are also other means such as blocking specific network ports. What makes it difficult is that as businesses create new VPN services with different IP addresses, and as identified, are subsequently blocked.

The use of a VPN also prevents content filtering because network traffic is encrypted. In the case of a public Wi-Fi, the service provider would struggle to stop for example the use of peer to peer file sharing to download illegal content, access to pornography in public, or access to extremist materials online. The reality is that because of how some people use VPNs to perform unlawful activities; website owners are continuously introducing countermeasures, and some countries have either banned the use of VPNs or are currently attempting to do so.

Consider how people become conditioned to do things in a certain way and that potentially harmful activity becomes normal, with consequences that are never fully appreciated. As more websites and services ask for VPNs to be disabled to access the content, the more people will get used to the idea that disabling a VPN is the normal thing to do. Consequently, it becomes less effective as a security measure. This behavioural change has already taken place in other areas:

  • Browsers, for example, have the option to disable cookies, but many websites will not function if cookies are disabled. Websites consequently ask for cookies to be enabled, and the measures that are there to add extra privacy are no longer sufficient. Although you can manage cookies within browser settings, for many people, this can be painful, and the path of least resistance is to have cookies enabled and ignore the settings. In short, the way websites use cookies often undermines the browser security measures.
  • Advert blocking components in browsers are another example, and many websites perform checks. If they have, visitors are redirected to a page instructing them to deactivate the advert blocker to view the content. Again, the more this happens, and the more frequently these instructions are followed, the less effective advert blocking becomes, and with many adverts containing malware, the risks of exposure increase.
  • Terms and conditions – most of the time, terms and conditions are so complicated and long-winded that nobody has the time to read them or even care what they include. People have got used to the idea that terms and conditions are accepted by just ticking a box to say they have read them and agree to the terms.
  • Cookie notifications – how websites have implemented cookie notifications is annoying and interrupts the users’ experience of websites. The inevitable outcome is that people will click OK to accept cookies to get rid of the banner or pop-up that is preventing them from reading the content without any consideration or care about cookies.

What would you think if you visited a website and it redirected you to a page that told you that the site has detected that you have ‘ABC XYZ Antivirus’ installed and the site requires you to disable it before displaying content? I would expect people would be sensible enough to leave the site and not follow the instructions.