China and Russia are trying their best to squash VPNs, but some elude them.

Pam Baker

May 9, 2019

4 Min Read
A Virtual Private Network VPN allows users to create an encrypted connection between their devices and the internet making it much harder for anyone
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) allows users to create an encrypted connection between their devices and the internet, making it much harder for anyone other than the user to see their activity.VPNs have seen an uptick in interest over the past few weeks as lawmakers in the U.S. voted to repeal broadband privacy regulations. But according to Pew Internet, 70 percent of respondents said that they were unsure what a VPN did; only 13 percent said they knew what a VPN’s purpose was.

At the end of March, the Chinese government beefed-up its infamous Great Firewall oppressive features. While the name may conjure in Western minds thoughts of securing the Chinese government’s data, the Great Firewall of China is actually the world’s most sophisticated and aggressive censorship system.

In other words, this firewall isn’t meant solely to keep attackers out, but to keep its citizens’ thoughts and speech under firm control. Even VPNs end up caught in its growing black hole. The resulting exposure to career threats and human lives is brutal and unrelenting. And it’s getting worse.

Recently, China’s attacks on internet freedoms have expanded beyond its borders. Indeed, “one of China’s most insidious exports [is] its censorship techniques, and its Firewall is an inspiration for aspiring autocrats the world over,” journalist James Griffiths writes in his book, “The Great Firewall of China.”

VPNs are vital protections for citizens or anyone working in or with China. Unfortunately, VPNs are “being systematically detected and shut down by the government in really advanced and upsetting ways,” reports Comparitech, a research, review, and tech comparison website for consumers.


Comparitech’s Aaron Phillips

“Large scale testing of VPNs in China is challenging, not least because someone caught inside the country running these tests would be at the mercy of Chinese authorities. China represents one of the biggest markets for VPN use, but there is a lack of reliable information on which VPNs actually work behind the Great Firewall,” Comparitech’s reviewer and tester, Aaron Phillips wrote.

“To mitigate the ethical issues of employing a tester within China, Comparitech rented a server in Shenzhen and commissioned me to test 59 VPN providers after the latest government purge. I checked each app to make sure I could connect to banned websites and get around regional content bans,” he added.

The testing details are outlined in Aaron’s post, but here are his key findings:

  • Only 13 of the 60 tested VPN providers could beat the Great Firewall.

  • When shopping for a VPN in China, additional encryption is essential for forming a reliable connection that will circumvent Party wiretapping.

  • The most successful VPNs use next-generation obfuscation to hide their servers from the internet censors’ black hole.

  • Following the update on March 31, L2TP over IPSec is no longer secure enough to get around the Great Firewall.

So which VPNs passed the test and evaded China’s crushing firewall (so far)? Here’s the list with Aaron’s comments:

  • Astrill

  • Express

  • Hotspot Shield

  • ibVPN

  • Ivacy

  • NordVPN (using an obfuscated server)

  • Private Internet Access (PIA)

  • PureVPN (works in both modes, but Internet Freedom mode is recommended)

  • SaferVPN

  • SurfShark (NoBorders mode is required to connect in China, double-check it’s turned on)

  • TorGuard

  • TunnelBear

  • Windscribe (Most servers are accessible in China)

Any weakness in a VPN, no matter how small, can lead to China detecting it and shutting it down.

“Proton is a great example of a strong VPN provider that just hasn’t been able to keep up with China’s evolving defenses. They use outdated methods like routing OpenVPN traffic through port 443, intended to disguise OpenVPN as HTTPS traffic, which have proven ineffective against an adapting China,” wrote Aaron.

But it’s not only China that is systematically breaking down VPNs, Russia is …

… following close behind.

“Roskomnadzor (their proper name is a mouthful — The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) has given the world’s leading VPN providers 30 days to provide the Russian government with access to any servers located in Russia. Their immediate goal is to prevent users from viewing content that the Russian government has blacklisted. However, compliance would also mean complying with other requirements detailed in a broader internet control law,” NordVPN wrote in a statement defying Roskomnadzor’s demands. “The Russian government is working to regulate the flow of information within its borders.”

According to a NetworkWorld report, the 10 VPN providers are ExpressVPN, HideMyAss!, Hola VPN, IPVanish, Kaspersky Secure Connection, KeepSolid, NordVPN, OpenVPN, TorGuard, and VyprVPN. At least half report they’re ripping their servers out of Russia but will serve any Russians who can find a way to connect to ther servers based out of country. Those VPNs are Express VPN, IPVanish, KeepSolid, NordVPN and TorGuard.

As censorship becomes a bigger problem around the world, VPNs will become increasingly vital to freedom of speech and human safety. But as these oppressive governments continue to up their games and increase their technical prowess, then one has to wonder how long VPNs can stay ahead of them.

Meanwhile, MSSPs can help their clients operate within and with such restrictive countries by keeping them abreast of which VPNs are succeeding in escaping any given despot’s reach.

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About the Author(s)

Pam Baker

A prolific writer and analyst, Pam Baker’s published work appears in many leading print and online publications including Security Boulevard, PCMag, Institutional Investor magazine, CIO, TechTarget, and InformationWeek, as well as many others. Her latest book is “Data Divination: Big Data Strategies.” She’s also a popular speaker at technology conferences as well as specialty conferences such as the Excellence in Journalism events and a medical research and healthcare event at the NY Academy of Sciences.

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