For years people have used VPNs for all sorts of reasons, but it’s origin lay quite simply in the security they provided. International companies will normally insist that their employees use VPN services when remotely connecting back to their servers using the internet. It makes sense, otherwise important information and credentials would be trusted to the owners of coffee shop wifi or the administrator of your local Premier Lodge or hotel chain.
The concept is simple, create an encrypted tunnel which ensures that all the data which normally is passed in clear text instead is encrypted and unreadable. Of course, this security means that as well as being safe from computer criminals and identity thieves – it’s also secure from intelligence services and state controlled snoopers too. It should come as no surprise that anyone who opposes free speech generally hates VPNs and the protection that they give.
So when we hear stories about different organisations and companies from the Netflix to the Chinese Government trying to block VPNs what are they doing. Well it depends, obviously the situation that leads to thousands of BBC iPlayer VPN not working is going to be slightly different to the Chinese throwing billions at the great firewall of China. However the general techniques are basically the same as a small company want to achieve the same thing.
One of the most common options is to block the ports used by these services. Most VPN tunnelling protocols operate on standard ports, e.g using PPTP or LTP. They need to establish these connections to transfer and receive data, without them the service won’t function. Other methods include identifying and blocking specific IP addresses or ranges which are being used by VPN services. It is these two methods that are mostly used by the big media companies like Hulu and the BBC.
Many Rumors – Does BBC Block VPN ?
In reality this does actually happen but not in any sophisticated method. Many companies providing VPN services have been blocked but largely because of their own issues. Using BBC logos and overloading servers are too of the main reasons they have been blocked. It’s not the BBC iplayer detecting VPN services, it’s seeing thousand of individuals using the same IP address accessing the service which is the problem.
In many instances this is very likely to happen, there was a report that NordVPN was blocked by BBC iPlayer for example. This was largely true simply because they are the largest legitimate VPN provider with millions of users. Don’t worry though Nord have allocated specific IP addresses now specifically for access so it works ok as long as you use those. Nord VPN is very good value and you can get some great deals at the moment too if you want to watch the BBC abroad.
If you don’t mind spending a little more and want something even more secure then a program called Identity Cloaker doesn’t have as many users and has optimized it’s UK servers for accessing the BBC. I’ve used it without problems for ten years now and it certainly smashes the rumours that BBC iPlayer is not working through VPN programs.
The reality is that although many VPN services have been blocked it’s not actually that easy to achieve unless the company is careless or greedy. Normally it’s just a numbers game but even then if IP addresses are rotated carefully there shouldn’t be an issue. The BBC doesn’t have the time and budget to technically spot and block VPN services in any other way other than mentioned above.
These methods can be time consuming though and it’s possible to switch address and some services allow you to configure alternative ports too. The Chinese Government as you would expect have gone one step forward and use more sophisticated techniques like deep packet inspection. These involved looking at the data itself to identify if a VPN is being used to transport it. For example if you are unable to read any data because none of it’s in clear text then there is the likelihood that it is being encrypted. Of course, there are other methods which encrypt data like SSL so you need to be careful that you don’t block other traffic, it’s a risk that the Chinese would probably be happy to take however.
Even these methods are not foolproof and VPN companies can scramble things like the meta data to make identifying the use of a VPN even harder. It is worthwhile noting that many people in China still use VPNs routinely and so if the huge resources available to the Chinese State can’t block their use. there’s little likelihood that our BBC VPN workaround is going to stop working in the foreseeable future as long as we choose the right company to use.