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Risky Behavior: VPN Providers Installing Root Certificates Without User Consent

Risky Behavior: VPN Providers Installing Root Certificates Without User Consent

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April 27, 2022 | Brooke Crothers

VPN providers, including Surfshark, TurboVPN and VyprVPN, are installing trusted root certificates that may pose security risks for devices.

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Some VPN apps automatically install self-signed trusted root certificates without informed user consent, says cybersecurity research firm AppEsteem.

“We listed them after our research showed these apps automatically installing self-signed trusted root certificates without informed user consent for the risk that this introduced,” AppEsteem said in a blog.

The problem is, when an additional root certificate is installed by a VPN provider, the certificate can overwrite the encryption and authenticity checks of the service you’re using such as Mozilla Firefox, WhatsApp, as TechRadar reported.

And this can lead to security holes. “When you include a new trusted root certificate on your device, you enable the third-party to gather almost any piece of data transmitted to or from your device,” TechRadar said.

Why is a root certificate so important?

In a word, trust. In the context of encryption, a root certificate is a public key certificate that identifies a root certificate authority (CA). Every device includes a so-called root store: a collection of pre-downloaded root certificates, along with their public keys, that reside on the device. A root certificate allows any certificate signed with its private key to be automatically trusted by the browsers or operating systems. In short, a root certificate is crucial to encryption and the security of your browser, operating system, or service.

Users not informed

AppEsteem said that popular VPN services SurfShark and Turbo VPN, among others, install a Trusted Root Certificate “without obtaining the consumer's permission through explicit user action.”

Installing trusted root certificates isn’t good practice because it could allow an attacker to forge certificates, impersonate other domains and intercept communications, according to comments from a TechRadar security expert.

SurfShark and AtlasVPN respond

SurfShark and AtlasVPN responded to the report citing IKEv2 (Internet Key Exchange version 2), the mechanism that generates encryption keys, ensuring safe data flow between your device and the VPN server.

SurfShark:

Responding to AppEsteem, SurfShark said “We’ve closely cooperated with the company in quickly fixing the highlighted issues… Also, we’ve been working on turning off the no longer popular IKEv2 protocol and focusing all our efforts on supporting Wireguard and OpenVPN protocols. This will eliminate the need to install the certificate.”

AtlasVPN:

“At Atlas VPN, our priority is to ensure security and privacy across all aspects of our services. Differently from most of the VPN providers, we decided to build our Windows client around the IKEv2/IPSec protocol instead of an older OpenVPN protocol. We chose IKEv2/IPSec as a more modern, more efficient, and faster alternative, which is also natively supported by many OSes. In order for the IKEv2-based client to work properly and to be secure, we had to issue our own certificate instead of relying on a third party.”

Read the full responses from SurfShark and AtlasVPN

Root trust gone wrong: Venafi’s view

CA (Certificate Authority) errors or compromise can result in forged or fraudulent certificates that allow attackers to perform man-in-the-middle traffic attacks to impersonate legitimate properties or can result in mis-issued intermediate certificates that allow attackers to act as their own certification authority and issue fraudulent certificates for virtually any site. In many cases, mistakenly issued certificates have been used by hackers for malicious attacks. The use of distrusted certificates and their revocation may cause a ripple effect as people will be denied access to sites that were provisioned with the distrusted certificates.

For these reasons, organizations need to adopt agile CA management that allows for managing actively all your certificates from a CA-agnostic platform, automate the rotation, revocation and replacement of keys and certificates, and enforce consistent security policies across all CAs.

To read more on root certificates, see What Is the Difference between Root Certificates and Intermediate Certificates?  And Why Is It Hard to Eliminate Root Trust? What Can Go Wrong?

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About the author

Brooke Crothers
Brooke Crothers
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