Why is using VPN so difficult?
I was in the Manchester Central library over the last weekend, a newly refurbished space that has very recently been reopened to the public. I was only visiting Manchester, so it seemed like a good thing to do and I have to say I was very impressed with the space. There were computers and interactive kiosks throughout, even the cafe tables had a “Surface” like feel to them with images and documents you can read and manipulate with your fingers. As expected there was free Wi-Fi.
I connected to it, and duly fired up my VPN. It didn’t connect. Confused, I tried again. Still failed. Free, public Wi-Fi which blocks VPN! All I wanted to do was check the viewing figures of the latest Host Unknown video, but even that could potentially expose my Google username and password to anyone snooping; with BSides Manchester just around the corner I wasn’t about to become the subject of someone’s Wi-Fi pineapple presentation, so I tweeted my concern (as you do) and disconnected.
There isn’t a piece of general security guidance that gets published that doesn’t include the advice to only connect through a public Wi-Fi point unless you are using a VPN. The risk of having your personal details, usernames and passwords transmitted and subsequently intercepted is too high and YOU MUST NOT DO IT! USE A VPN AT ALL TIMES!
Great advice, except that VPN has still not been adopted properly by any major hardware or software manufacturers of computers, tablets and smartphones. There needs to be a built in, simple and ubiquitous approach to VPN now that mirrors the adoption of anti-virus of 15 years ago and encryption of 5 years ago. There are paid for solutions for enterprises and the more technically minded and free solutions of both for the small business and home user. But not when it comes to VPN. No Apple VPN, or Google VPN for the average home user to be able to use with little effort or even understanding.
The VPN solutions on offer are typically smaller packages that the average person would simply not come across, basically the technology has yet to be commoditised. If you have a problem convincing someone to use a decent complex password, think about trying to explain to them about using a VPN.
Even Apple, whose interface design in my opinion is some of the best in the industry has missed a trick with iOS7; VPN is buried in the settings apps, rather than being on the easy access swipe menu where you can quickly and easily enable it and disable it. And what about the option to have it permanently running, automatically reconnecting when the device goes into standby? I have lost count of the number of times I have been using free Wi-Fi at a conference or hotel only to realise that at some point my VPN has disconnected me without realising it, and I am supposed to be a security professional.
Convenience always wins over security (a wise person once said) and so until VPN is made as transparent as antivirus and encryption (when installed properly) we are simply wasting our time trying to educate the greater population about using it the next time they are in Starbucks.
(Note: the Manchester Central Library Twitter account did respond, and we are in the process of communicating about the evils of open, password free Wi-Fi. Perhaps some InfoSec locals may also wish to reach out to them to educate and discuss?)