What happens when a VPN gets hacked?Feb 24, 2021
A VPN or similar privacy tool is essential for online privacy. VPNs protect their users from Internet surveillance and tracking by re-routing traffic through an encrypted server. This redirection prevents an Internet Service Provider (ISP) from seeing the destination of its users' web traffic, while making it impossible for websites to see where their traffic originates. By interposing itself between the origin ISP server and the destination website, the VPN effectively obscures a person's Internet activity.
Robust, reliable VPN services therefore fulfill an essential need for Internet privacy. But there is still a weak point: the VPN itself. While effective VPNs prevent third parties from collecting meaningful data on our web traffic, the privacy tool itself can see the full picture. VPNs have visibility into the IP address used, websites visited, the length of time a user is connected, and the VPN servers they connect to.
For these reasons, it's essential to use a VPN that does not log its users' activity, so sensitive information is not intentionally retained or stored. But what if a VPN is hacked? There's a risk that your data will fall into the wrong hands -- but there are steps everyone can take to significantly reduce the risk.
To protect yourself, it's important above all to understand the risk of VPN hacks, as well as the steps to take if your VPN is compromised. The strongest protection is to have a "failsafe" that will protect your data even if one or more individual privacy tools fail. Orchid, which brings together the services of leading VPN providers in a unique decentralized marketplace, lets users configure multiple "hops" between providers. That way, even if a VPN fails or is hacked, user traffic is still routed through one or more additional providers before reaching the destination, maintaining the user's privacy.
Here we explore some of the ways VPNs are vulnerable to attack, and steps users can take to keep themselves and their data private.
How does a VPN get hacked?
VPNs are among the most effective means of maintaining online privacy. By encrypting the data generated by users' web traffic, they make it exponentially harder for bad actors to steal information and put people's privacy at risk. If you've done your research and selected a high-quality VPN provider, the risk of suffering a data breach due to a design flaw is low.
Nevertheless, nothing is indestructible. However well designed and operated, VPNs -- like all digital services -- are still vulnerable to hacking. And while breaking the levels of encryption used by the highest quality providers is extraordinarily difficult, even the most robust VPN provider could be at risk if targeted by someone with sufficient resources and technical expertise.
There are a few primary ways that data can be stolen from a VPN server:
The most common way for VPN users' data to be compromised is not from an external party hacking the server. In reality, most VPN data breaches are a result of weaknesses in the privacy tools themselves; these flaws can leak data without a hacker needing to do anything at all. Leakage occurs when an error or design flaw causes a VPN to share user information that should be kept private. There are different causes for data leakage, but it's important to know the warning signs, and understand how to address the problem should you encounter it. For a deeper dive into this topic, you can read Orchid's full explanation of the causes, warning signs, and solutions for data leakage.
We have previously detailed the wide variation that exists between VPN providers in terms of security and best practices. Some "free" VPNs actively log user data and sell it on to third parties in order to make money. While this doesn't qualify as a hack, it still reflects an approach to privacy that doesn't make the security of users' information the top priority. And if one of the entities to which the logged data has been sold is itself hacked, that user information could fall into the wrong hands the same way it would if the VPN itself had been hacked.
Lax security practices also make for easy hacking targets. The easiest way for bad actors to hack into a VPN is to exploit weaknesses in the service's design. If a provider has a flaw in its encryption, hackers can exploit it to steal information in plain text form without ever needing to obtain the key or break the encryption. And it may come as no surprise that VPNs with loose privacy and data-logging policies are also more likely to suffer from weak security. For this reason alone, it's always a good idea to use a reputable VPN with strong, verifiable encryption practices.
High-quality VPN providers, like those Orchid is partnered with, generally have strong encryption and do not log their users' activities. But even these services can become the targets of malicious attacks. No one -- not even government intelligence agencies -- is completely insulated from the risk of hacking.
Well-encrypted VPNs can be hacked in two ways. The (relatively) easier method is for hackers to steal a key that can decrypt information on the VPN's server. This is the preferred method of most skilled hackers -- but it is still highly challenging and requires specialized expertise and, in certain cases, legal orders. A high-profile, very basic illustration of how this type of encryption "hack" can work was the FBI's attempt to force Apple to provide a back door into the iPhone of a suspected terrorist.
It's important to keep things in perspective when it comes to VPN hacking. While any online service could become a target of hackers, the level of expertise and money required to carry out the attack increases sharply with the sophistication of the target's encryption.
And the most challenging, expensive, and time-consuming way to hack an encrypted VPN server is to actually "crack the code." While this is theoretically possible -- and there is evidence that it has been done successfully by highly sophisticated actors -- it isn't a major threat for most people.
The reason is that, at the highest levels of encryption -- including high-quality VPN providers -- the cost of a successful hack could run into the millions of dollars or more. Obviously the value of the data being stolen must outweigh the expense of the theft. For this reason, it's highly unlikely that hackers with the know-how to compromise a sophisticated VPN would target most ordinary users -- they simply aren't big enough targets. Such a costly and time consuming effort is only ever likely to be directed at targets of the highest value -- those relating to vast sums of money or to geopolitical competition. The average person's Internet activity is highly unlikely to be a target.
By far the most likely cause of a VPN hack, then, is inadequate security on the part of the VPN itself. If the solution has weaknesses that can be exploited by run-of-the-mill bad actors, the user's data is at risk at all times. But by using a strong, reputable VPN provider, we can mitigate much of the danger. While no person, product, or organization is totally immune to hacking, the expertise and expense required to compromise a high-quality VPN mean that hackers are likely to focus their attention only on "high-value" targets.
Still, it's important to understand the potential consequences of a VPN hack, and to take steps to minimize the risk.
What to do if your VPN is hacked
Despite the lower likelihood of a high-quality VPN being hacked, it's important to understand the ramifications of an attack and to know what to do in the event of one.
The most immediate consequence of a VPN hack is to put at risk sensitive information that was being transmitted through the encrypted server. Since people are likely to use a VPN while undertaking more sensitive activities than when browsing normally, a hack can have heightened consequences. The very act of using a privacy solution suggests an intensified need or desire for privacy, so being hacked in this situation may in turn expose particularly sensitive information, putting it at risk of being compromised or stolen.
In addition to the risk that comes from the hack itself, there is an additional risk to VPN users in certain parts of the world. If a VPN is hacked, the person may be at risk not only through loss of personal data, but from authorities' ability to see that the person has been using a VPN at all. In these places, if a privacy tool is compromised, the user loses not only personal data, but may also face the risk of scrutiny from local authorities.
If a VPN is hacked, its users' data is made just as vulnerable as in the case of a hack that takes place outside of a VPN provider, and all the personal information shared or communicated through the affected VPN server is at risk. As such, it is important to follow the same steps we would if our data were compromised in any other scenario,
First, a victim of a hack should immediately turn off their VPN. It is more dangerous to use a server that is known to be the victim of a hack than no privacy tool at all, since all the data being routed through it is liable to fall into the hackers' possession. Once the immediate threat has passed and the VPN is off, you should select a new provider with strong security and no-logging policies in order to continue using the Internet privately.
Finally, if you find yourself the victim of a VPN hack, it's important to take the same standard precautions you would take in the case of any security breach. Change any sensitive information, such as passwords, that may have been stolen, and cancel and reissue credit cards and debit cards. It's also a good practice to set up a credit freeze in order to prevent criminals from taking out loans in your name.
How to minimize the risk of VPN hacking
Of course, the best option is to establish best practices to minimize the risk of falling victim to a hack. VPNs are an essential, powerful tool for this. High-quality VPNs keep our data much safer and our activity much more private -- which is why it's a good idea to use a VPN whenever possible. But no solution is indestructible or invulnerable to hacking. In the case of VPNs, the most important thing is to make sure you choose a reputable, high-quality service with a clear no-log policy and robust encryption. Since the vast majority of VPN hacks take advantage of existing weaknesses, using a high-quality solution will greatly minimize the risk. And always follow basic privacy best practices when using the Internet.
To further enhance privacy and security, the best solution is to combine multiple VPNs. This way, web traffic is routed from the ISP through one encrypted server, then another, and potentially others, before reaching the destination website. In this scenario, even if one or more VPNs fall victim to an attack, the traffic will still be protected as long as one of the servers is unaffected. By effectively duplicating the protection afforded by a VPN multiple times, it's possible to establish a kind of "failsafe" that will protect your data even if a given privacy tool fails.
Orchid is the first Internet privacy solution that lets users do this, by configuring multiple "hops" between VPN providers. People on Orchid can combine the services of leading VPNs, selecting them based on speed, availability, price and/or location through a unique, decentralized marketplace. With multiple hops, even if any single VPN fails or is hacked, user traffic is still routed through one or more additional providers before reaching the destination, maintaining the user's privacy. In addition, Orchid utilizes an innovative payments structure known as probabilistic nanopayments, designed to provide flexibility and ensure adequate bandwidth at all times.
It's an unfortunate truth that malicious parties are a constant presence on the Internet. Fortunately, with a strong, reputable VPN, it's possible to greatly reduce the chances of falling victim to one. And with Orchid, now it's possible to combine multiple VPN providers and reclaim the Internet as a place of openness and curiosity.
Download the Orchid app today to start exploring the Internet freely.