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Opera, VPNs, and Security

Yesterday, Opera announced that they are bundling a VPN with the latest release of their browser. This is what the release says:

Why we are adding free VPN in Opera

Bringing this important privacy improvement marks another step in building a browser that matches up to people’s expectations in 2016. When you think about it, many popular options offered by desktop browsers today were invented (quite frequently by Opera) many years ago. The innovation energy in the industry has been recently so focused on mobile, even if the desktop is still thriving.

In January, we were reviewing our product plans, and we realized that people need new features in order to browse the web efficiently in 2016. It also became apparent to us that what people need are not the same features that were relevant for their browsers ten years ago. This is why we today have more engineers than ever before working on new features for our desktop browser.

So far we have the native ad blocker. And, we’re introducing another major feature in just a matter of a few weeks; a native, unlimited and free VPN client, right inside your browser!

Enhanced privacy online with Opera’s free VPN

According to Global Web Index*, more than half a billion people (24% of the world’s internet population) have tried or are currently using VPN services. According to the research, the primary reasons for people to use a VPN are:

– To access better entertainment content (38%)
– To keep anonymity while browsing (30%)
– To access restricted networks and sites in my country (28%)
– To access restricted sites at work (27%)
– To communicate with friends/family abroad (24%)
– To access restricted news websites in my country (22%)

According to the research, young people are leading the way when it comes to VPN usage, with almost one third of people between 16-34 having used a VPN.

Better than traditional VPNs

Until now, most VPN services and proxy servers have been limited and based on a paid subscription. With a free, unlimited, native VPN that just works out-of-the-box and doesn’t require any subscription, Opera wants to make VPNs available to everyone.

That’s why Opera’s built-in free VPN feature is easy to use. To activate it, Mac users just need to click the Opera menu, select “Preferences” and toggle the feature VPN on, while Windows and Linux users need to go to the “Privacy and Security” section in “Settings” and enable VPN there. A button will appear in the browser address field, from which the user can see and change location (more locations will appear later), check whether their IP is exposed and review statistics for their data used. It’s free and unlimited to use, yet it offers several must-have options available in paid VPNs, such as:

  • Hide your IP address – Opera will replace your IP address with a virtual IP address, so it’s harder for sites to track your location and identify your computer. This means you can browse the web more privately.
  • Unblocking of firewalls and websites – Many countries, schools and workplaces block video-streaming sites, social networks and other services. By using a VPN you can access your favorite content, no matter where you are.
  • Public Wi-Fi security – When you’re surfing the web on public Wi-Fi, intruders can easily sniff data. By using a VPN, you can improve the security of your personal information.

There were a couple things that stuck out to me rather quickly when reading this press release:

  1. Is it a true VPN, or just an HTTP proxy?
  2. If either a VPN or an HTTP proxy, how is it handling DNS requests?
  3. If an HTTP proxy, is the request through a transparent TLS connection to Opera?
  4. Why is the press release specifically absent about logs and tracking?

Well, some of these questions have been answered. First, it's not a true VPN. Instead, it's just an HTTP/HTTPS proxy. Here's the details:

How the “VPN” works

Once the user enables the feature in settings, Opera VPN sends API requests to https://api.surfeasy.com to obtain credentials and proxy IPs. The browser then talks to a proxy like de0.opera-proxy.net, and its IP address can only be resolved from within Opera when the VPN feature is turned on. It’s an HTTP/S proxy that requires authentication.

When the Opera browser with enabled VPN loads a page, it sends many requests to de0.opera-proxy.net with a Proxy-Authorization request header.

The Proxy-Authorization header decoded:
CC68FE24C34B5B2414FB1DC116342EADA7D5C46B:9B9BE3FAE67
4A33D1820315F4CC94372926C8210B6AEC0B662EC7CAD611D86A3

Since we’re talking about a proxy, these credentials can be used with de0.opera-proxy.net even when connecting from a different machine. This means that if you use the proxy on a computer with no Opera installed, you’ll get the same IP as when using Opera’s VPN.

From this, we can learn that it's not a VPN at all. In fact, it's not even deploying a TLS tunnel for the HTTP/S proxy. So, traditional HTTP requests will still be in the clear, just with a different target. So while a school or library might be filtetring requests based on DNS, this HTTP/S proxy in Opera doesn't address more active smart filtering based on content.

Unfortunately, Help Net Security also suggests the use of a general VPN service provider (emphasis mine):

"What Opera offers is not a VPN as such. It's just a proxy for the browser. You still need a full VPN if privacy is what you care about (and you should care about your privacy). Other tools you use, including for example email clients like Outlook, won’t use this 'VPN'," Špaček told Help Net Security.

VPN service providers are scary. Sven Slootweg posted a "Don't use VPN services" Gist where he addresses some real concerns with using VPN service providers (I don't agree with a couple points):

  • VPN service providers log connections and other metadata.
  • VPN service providers have full accounting and payment information of their customers.
  • VPNs really are just glorified proxies, and don't provide any meaningful security or privacy.
  • VPNs don't obfuscate your IP address like Tor, and your IP address is meaningless to trackers anyway.
  • VPN service providers exist, because it's easy money.

I don't fully agree with a couple points (IP addresses are extremely valuable to trackers), but I think the overall topics Sven is trying to drive home, are the following: know how VPNs work, who has access to data at the VPN endpoint(s), and your security and privacy risks when using a VPN. There are valid times when using a VPN. Data is encrypted between your VPN client and the provider, so it is an easy way to get around restrictive firewalls, which you would think Opera would be trying to address with their HTTP/S proxy. You may also need to access your corporate internal network when "on the road", in which case using your corporate VPN server is needed.

But in both cases, understand the security and privacy concerns when using the VPN. Your VPN provider isn't going to go to jail for you. If the FBI catches unsavory traffic coming out of the VPN provider, you can rest assured they'll give the authorities all the logging, account, and payment information to comply with the request. You can rest assured that if your employer catches you breaking policy with the VPN, you will lose your VPN access, and possibly your job.

So, what to do? Well, realistically, if you want to obfuscate your traffic dynamically, security, and pseudoanonymously, then use Tor. Install a Tor client on your machine, install a Tor proxy extension in your browser, and when you want to get around restrictive firewalls, flip the proxy switch, and get on Tor.

Of course, Tor isn't a security and privacy panacea. You still need to understand the risks associated with using Tor. For example, the extension you installed may not tunnel DNS requests through Tor. Of course, HTTP traffic is still in the clear when it leaves the Tor exit relay. Tor clients and extensions may contain vulnerabilities that reveal metadata about you. Basically, don't be ignorant or stupid with your Tor connection.

Regardless, I think we can take a few things away from this post:

  1. The Opera VPN is just an HTTP/S proxy.
  2. Opera is very likely logging all your traffic.
  3. Your Opera VPN browsing habits are likely unique enough for Opera to identify you.
  4. VPN service providers should be avoided.
  5. VPN service providers also are likely logging all your traffic.
  6. Your VPN service provider won't go to jail for you.
  7. When in doubt, use Tor, just understand the risks.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. Michal Špaček | April 25, 2016 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    > Unfortunately, Help Net Security also suggests the use of a general VPN service provider

    Just a small clarification, that's not what I've suggested. I've suggested using a VPN, not a third party service provider. You can also deploy your own VPN server. But I agree, understand the risks no matter what you actually use.

    BTW, Opera's proxy servers are accessed using TLS from the browser. If you want to know more how does it work and how it fetches proxy credentials and available IP addresses, see https://github.com/spaze/oprah-proxy

    Thanks!

  2. Sumit | August 11, 2016 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing information regarding Opera VPN. If this really true then I am going to try this in some time.

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