An explanation of VPN obfuscation

For a variety of reasons, certain governments, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and network administrators seek to identify (and often prohibit) VPN traffic. VPN obfuscation is the process of concealing VPN communication so that it cannot be recognized as such. The words “obfsproxy servers,” “traffic obfuscation,” “stealth VPN,” and “cloaking technology” are all used interchangeably in VPN provider literature. However, what do they mean?

This guide will help you make sense of this perplexing lingo. We define obfuscation and explain why it is necessary. Additionally, we discuss the various ways used to obfuscate traffic and propose a few VPNs that perform excellent jobs.

What is a virtual private network (VPN) obfuscation?

Obfuscation is defined in the dictionary as:

the action of making something obscure, unclear, or unintelligible

VPN obfuscation masks VPN communication, so it does not seem to be VPN traffic. In this manner, it may remain undetectable to anybody attempting to detect it. Techniques of obfuscation do not alter communication itself, but rather produce a mask that obscures recognized patterns.

Most VPNs utilize OpenVPN as their default protocol. It protects data by encrypting it, but also by adding a unique signature. Certain detection methods, most notably enhanced deep packet inspection (described further below), are capable of detecting this signature.

The objective of VPN obfuscation is to maintain secure (encrypted) data transmission while concealing the nature of the traffic to overcome blockades.

There are several techniques for concealing VPN traffic, but they all entail adding a layer of encryption that masks the communication as ordinary traffic. We’ll cover these points in further detail below, but first, let’s examine why we need to hide VPN traffic in the first place.

Why is VPN obfuscation required?

There are numerous significant reasons why you may want to conceal the fact that you are using a VPN:

  • Bypass censorship by the government
  • Avoid network blockades
  • Enhance your privacy and anonymity
  • Preventing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) throttling

Consider the following in further detail:

  1. Avoid censorship by the government

The governments of several nations, including China, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan, severely limit internet access. They often disable access to certain target websites by halting traffic to such sites. For instance, China’s “Great Firewall” employs a variety of techniques to prevent users from accessing restricted websites and applications such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter.

Many people use a VPN to circumvent these restrictions. When a user connects to a VPN, their traffic is encrypted, rendering the content unreadable. Additionally, a VPN routes traffic via a secondary server, indicating that the data is being sent to the VPN server and not to the blocked target website.

Of course, the Chinese government is aware that individuals use VPNs to circumvent restrictions. In retaliation, they sought to restrict VPN traffic. This may be accomplished in a variety of ways. For instance, if the government is aware of the VPN server, they may simply stop communication to and from the server. This occurs regularly, even with the best VPNs, which is why providers must be vigilant and be prepared to route data via unidentified servers.

Another technique for blocking VPN traffic is to block the port via which OpenVPN traffic often arrives (port 1194). By routing OpenVPN traffic over a different port, this form of blocking may be bypassed in certain cases.

Advanced blocking techniques include the identification of the type of traffic. Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) is capable of detecting OpenVPN’s unique signature. VPN traffic will be stopped if it is discovered. This is when obfuscation enters the picture. Certain VPNs circumvent sophisticated DPI technologies by masquerading VPN traffic as something else.

  1. Avoid network bottlenecks

If you’re using a VPN to evade barriers at your job or school, it may not always work. Certain network administrators have implemented mechanisms for detecting VPN traffic. Obfuscation will assist in circumventing these detection procedures and allowing the normal passage of blockages.

  1. Increase the level of privacy and anonymity

The majority of obfuscation techniques give another degree of protection, privacy, and anonymity to your data. With an additional layer of encryption, snoopers will have a tough time detecting that you’re utilizing a VPN. This includes your internet service provider (ISP), government organizations, and cybercriminals.

Obfuscation may assist whether you’re just concerned about security and want to keep hackers away, or if you’re a journalist or activist seeking further online privacy.

  1. Prevent Internet Service Provider (ISP) throttling

Numerous ISPs may limit your internet speed if they detect that you are streaming, downloading, or visiting certain websites. A VPN should avoid this since your ISP will no longer be able to view the content or destination of your communication.

Your ISP, on the other hand, may be able to identify that you’re using a VPN, and some customers have reported that their ISPs limit VPN connections. While it is more probable that slowdowns are caused by the VPN itself (encryption slows connections), it is possible that certain ISPs would restrict VPN traffic indiscriminately. If this is true, then obfuscation should aid in the prevention of this activity.

How is VPN obfuscation accomplished?

While reading about the characteristics of different VPNs, you may see references to VPN obfuscation. There are several “buzzwords” associated with this subject, yet many of them signify the same thing. “Stealth VPN” or “stealth mode,” “cloaking technology,” and “obfuscated servers” are a few examples. These all indicate that the VPN is using some kind of obfuscation to conceal your traffic when suitable parameters are used. Certain providers give their obfuscation techniques interesting names, such as VyprVPN’s “Chameleon protocol.”

So what are they doing with your VPN traffic? The following are some of the obfuscation techniques that VPN companies may use. Keep in mind that for any kind of obfuscation to operate, both the client and server must be configured to utilize it. For instance, for Obfsproxy to operate, it must be set up on both the VPN client and the server.

  • Obfsproxy

Obfsproxy is a Tor project subproject (responsible for the anonymous Tor browser). It was built in reaction to some nations, such as China, restricting Tor traffic. It obfuscates Tor traffic to the point that it is no longer detectable. Obfsproxy was built for use with Tor, although it is also compatible with OpenVPN.

Obfsproxy supports a variety of pluggable modes of transport that conceal OpenVPN traffic in a variety of ways. The sort of pluggable transport utilized is determined by the type of block being bypassed. At the moment, the most often utilized pluggable mode of transport for OpenVPN traffic is obfs4, which scrambles communication to make it seem like nothing.

  • Stunnel

Stunnel is a free and open-source application that disguises OpenVPN communication as TLS/SSL traffic. TLS/SSL is the kind of encryption that HTTPS uses. The VPN communication is routed over a TLS/SSL tunnel, which adds another layer of encryption and gives the appearance of ordinary HTTPS traffic to snoopers.

  • OpenVPN’s XOR encryption

OpenVPN XOR scramble conceals OpenVPN communication using the XOR cipher. This is straightforward encryption in which the value of each bit of data is replaced with another value. This is sufficient to guarantee that some DPI algorithms no longer recognize the OpenVPN signature. However, since XOR is so straightforward, it is not always successful against government bans.

It’s worth mentioning that XOR has acquired prominence as a common technique used by malware makers to conceal their code.

The best VPNs for obfuscation

While several VPNs promise to use improved obfuscation techniques, many do not work around government-imposed restrictions. And even among those that do function, there is a considerable difference in the level of service provided regarding speed, security, and support. The following is a list of the finest obfuscation-enabled VPNs on the market.

  • NordVPN: NordVPN is a top budget provider that enables users to circumvent VPN limitations in China. Simply establish a connection to one of the several obfuscated servers and you’re ready to go.
  • ExpressVPN: ExpressVPN is a lightning-fast and dependable VPN that is well-known for its ability to evade limitations imposed by China and other countries. It is simple to get started with, even in China, and requires no special setup. ExpressVPN offers a money-back guarantee.
  • Hotspot Shield: This VPN can bypass detection methods and grant you access to the uncensored internet. It touts lightning-fast speeds and uses a unique “Catapult Hydra” protocol to safely and quietly transfer your traffic.
  • VyprVPN: VyprVPN is a fast and dependable VPN service. By switching to the company’s unique Chameleon protocol, you may evade detection.
  • PrivateVPN: Another fast VPN with outstanding unblocking capabilities is PrivateVPN. You may disguise your traffic using the software’s “Stealth VPN” mode.
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