The Security Challenges of VPNs

Over half of all organizations have experienced a VPN-related cyberattack in the past year. With the massively disruptive Ivanti zero-day earlier this year, a significant Palo Alto VPN vulnerability, and recent issues with Check Point’s Remote Access VPNs, security issues with VPNs have often made headlines this year. The supporting data suggests that threat actors are aggressively looking for and exploiting VPN vulnerabilities. 

 So, with all this risk, why do we even use VPNs?  Are they worth the hassle? Or have they passed their best-by-date as legacy technology that needs to be superseded and replaced? Read on to learn more about why VPNs have become critical for modern business, some of their inherent risks, and upcoming trends and developments that will impact the role of VPNs. 

What is a VPN   

VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are essential tools in the modern cybersecurity and IT landscape. Fundamentally, a VPN creates a secure connection over the internet. While internet traffic typically flows between a device and a server hosting a webpage, a VPN uses an application on the device to connect directly with the VPN server, encrypting the traffic. The VPN server will then access the public internet on behalf of the device and route the traffic back to the user. 

This process has several advantages, allowing data to be transmitted safely between remote users and the corporate network. 

 The Benefits of VPNs 

VPNs offer several key benefits that enhance cybersecurity for businesses and individuals alike. 

  1. Enhanced Data Privacy and Anonymity VPNs typically encrypt the traffic routed through them. This ensures that data transmitted between a user’s device and the destination network remains secure from interception and can’t be monitored by the ISP (Internet Service Provider) or the user’s host network. Encryption protects sensitive information from cybercriminals. VPNs also provide a level of anonymity to the user by masking IP addresses. Being harder to trace makes it more challenging for hackers to trace online activities back to individual users. Beyond providing basic privacy, this layer of obfuscation can reduce the risk of targeted phishing attacks or other [social engineering attacks] 
  1. Secure Remote Access With the rise of remote work, VPNs have become indispensable for secure access to corporate networks. They allow employees to connect to their company’s network from any location, ensuring that all communications and data transfers are encrypted and secure. By limiting access to the company environment to users of the VPN, the VPN acts as an extended secure network and a layer of authentication that prevents unauthorized access. 
  1. Network Control and Management By channeling all traffic to a corporate environment through a VPN, a VPN enables centralized control over access and security policies that would typically only be possible in a physically centralized, on-prem network. VPNs simplify the management of security measures across a distributed workforce, ensuring consistent application of security protocols. Administrators can easily manage user permissions, monitor network activity, and enforce security policies, reducing the risk of unauthorized access and potential breaches. By streamlining network management, VPNs help organizations maintain robust security postures and respond swiftly to emerging threats. 

VPNs play a critical role in enhancing data privacy, securing remote access, and enabling efficient network management, making them a vital component of modern cybersecurity strategies. 

VPNs as Targets for Cyber Attacks 

VPNs clearly have many benefits. However, because they have become essential tools for organizations, they’ve also become tempting targets for threat actors. Compromising VPN systems enables threat actors to launch dangerous [man-in-the-middle] attacks.   

VPNs are often treated as trusted networks

One particular security challenge that accentuates the vulnerability of VPNs is that many security programs treat VPN traffic as secure and trusted. Traffic routed through a VPN often bypasses the typical security controls enforced by a firewall. This type of security architecture is sometimes viable for on-prem office networks, where physical security measures protect access to a network. However, this approach in the modern remote landscape allows threat actors to cause major damage if they can compromise just one VPN user’s credentials.  

Vulnerabilities in VPN Systems

In recent times, VPNs have also proven to be particularly exploitable systems. Last year security researchers at NYU demonstrated that most VPN clients could be exploited to redirect traffic away from the VPN, bypassing encryption and tunneling through a compromised connection instead. Almost every major enterprise VPN provider has had a critical vulnerability in their systems in the past year. Furthermore, threat actors have proven to be very quick at exploiting vulnerabilities before patches can be widely implemented. These vulnerabilities turn VPNs from protective tools into entry points for attackers, turning what was meant as a security tool into a liability.   

While VPNs provide essential benefits, they are not immune to attacks. Understanding and addressing their vulnerabilities is crucial for maintaining robust cybersecurity.  

The Evolving Landscape of VPN Security 

As cyber threats evolve, so must the security measures that protect against them. Cybersecurity continuously evolves to address new threats, which is no different in the realm of VPNs and remote access. 

The Turn Towards Zero Trust 

One significant trend is the shift towards Zero Trust architecture. This model reduces reliance on perimeter-based security and focuses on continuously validating every access request, regardless of its origin. In the context of VPNs, adopting a zero-trust model means that VPNs are no longer viewed as ‘trusted’ networks and that all traffic undergoes the same security and authentication checks that it usually would.  

Hardened VPNs 

To facilitate this move towards zero-trust, VPN solutions must ensure more granular security and access controls are available for security teams.  They should be paired with modern IAM (Identity Access Management) solutions and [MFA] to ensure that users on the VPN are correctly authenticated. Intrusion Detection solutions must be leveraged to identify abnormal behavior on the VPN that could indicate an attack. And all traffic from the VPN should b e filtered through a next-gen firewall to protect against malicious content. 

VPNs will remain critical security tools. They have important security functions, such as encrypting network traffic and providing online anonymity to users. However, VPNs are not a shortcut to remote access security, and in too many instances, that’s exactly how they have been used.   


Threat actors have identified VPNs as effective ways to start an attack, making them prime targets for cyberattacks. VPN security needs to be taken seriously if organizations want to continue reaping the benefits of this essential technology. Integrating VPNs with Zero Trust architecture, advanced encryption, and multi-factor authentication is crucial to counteract evolving threats.  

Speak with an Atlantic Data Security advisor today for expert guidance on strengthening your VPN security.   

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