Using a VPN was always such a great idea. You could bypass various internet restrictions and even watch movies and shows unavailable in your region. Sadly, it didn’t take long for websites to figure that out.
The VPN universe quickly turned into a game of cat and mouse. VPNs attempted to get around regional blockades while website developers tried to implement new techniques to detect (and prohibit) VPN usage.
Obfuscated servers are the latest addition to the VPN arsenal. With their help, you can regain your online freedom and keep getting around those restrictions.
Summary: Obfuscated servers hide your VPN usage. By making the data packets look normal, a website like Netflix or a restrictive government like the Chinese, won’t be able to to tell that you are using a VPN. And because they don’t know that you’re using a VPN, they won’t block you.
What are Obfuscated Servers?
Obfuscated servers are essentially specialty servers for VPN traffic. Their main purpose is to obfuscate, i.e., hide the VPN connection and display it as regular internet traffic.
This might sound a bit confusing. After all, a VPN connection is designed to mask your traffic. Why would the VPN itself need masking?
The reason is simple: Many streaming services, internet service providers, and even some governments use anti-VPN solutions to prevent VPN usage. They can detect when you’re using a VPN and block your traffic.
That’s where obfuscated servers come in.
How Can Websites Detect a VPN?
A virtual private network (VPN) encrypts data packets much like an SSL encryption. If you have a good VPN provider, your data is safe from prying eyes. However, the fact that you’re using a VPN isn’t as hidden.
The issue is in the very data packets the VPN sends. Besides the encrypted information, these packets include VPN protocol metadata. This is necessary for the website to understand how the data packets are delivered, but it provides the main clue about VPN usage.
The metadata usually isn’t analyzed thoroughly. But if an organization really wants to block VPN traffic, they can employ a special technology for just that. The tech in question is called Deep Packet Inspection or DPI.
DPI looks for VPN metadata in the data packets that are exchanged between your and the website’s server. If such metadata is detected, DPI triggers a firewall software that blocks further access. As a result, you get an “access denied” message instead of uninterrupted traffic.
How Obfuscated Servers Bypass VPN Blocks
Obfuscated VPN servers hide any trace of VPN metadata from the VPN blocker. How this process functions differs between VPN providers, but the essence is the same.
An obfuscated server encrypts, hides, or modifies the metadata. Servers will often use several methods simultaneously to hide VPN traffic most effectively.
Different Obfuscated Server Types
In an effort to find the best solution to VPN blocks, developers have set up obfuscated servers through different methods. This is good news because the variety of servers makes it harder to find one way to block all VPN traffic.
Some of the most effective obfuscated servers include:
OpenVPN over SSL
Shadowsocks is an obfuscated VPN server best known for its ability to bypass the Great Firewall of China. If you didn’t know, the Great Firewall of China is a set of technology solutions and regulations that prevent free access to the internet.
Without getting too far into how the Great Firewall works, it’ll suffice to say that bypassing it is considered quite a feat. And Shadowsocks managed to do just that.
Shadowsocks uses the SOCKS5 proxy to mask encrypted VPN traffic, making it look like regular HTTPS traffic. Since HTTPS is a widely accepted security protocol, VPN blockers don’t see an issue with it. That’s how this obfuscated server manages to bypass all DPIs and firewalls.
OpenVPN over SSL
This VPN protocol functions in a way as double VPN. Data packets are first encrypted by the VPN. Then, the VPN itself gets encrypted through SSL. The result is an additional layer of protection that’s impenetrable to DPIs. Plus, when a DPI analyzes the packets, all it sees is the standard HTTPS data.
The same thing can be done using an SSH protocol. However, this type of protocol isn’t as popular or widespread as SSL and is reserved primarily for businesses.
As the obfuscated server of choice for the famed Tor project, Obfsproxy has the same base approach to data encryption like most other servers. VPN traffic is encrypted to look like regular HTTP traffic. But Obfsproxy has another trick up its sleeve.
In line with the sleeve metaphor, the additional strong point of Obfsproxy is its unusual handshake (the starting data packet when communicating to other devices). Different to other obfuscated servers, this one uses a randomized handshake without a recognizable pattern.
However, the random handshake can be both an advantage and a detriment. On the one hand, it provides an additional layer of online security. But on the other, it can signal the DPI that something strange is happening with the server.
If the DPI is advanced enough, it will simply refuse to allow the connection based on the peculiar handshake. In other words, it might be enough for the DPI to block VPNs solely based on insufficient data.
OpenVPN Scramble uses so-called XOR obfuscation to hide the OpenVPN protocol. XOR is a type of encryption that turns the VPN signature into meaningless code, making it practically invisible for the Deep Packet Inspection.
While this solution can bypass internet restrictions, it might not be completely foolproof. XOR obfuscation relies on a relatively simple cipher which means it can be broken into. If an ISP or other agency creates an algorithm that can crack the XOR code, the VPN service could be left completely exposed.
Why You Need an Obfuscated Server
The reasons people use obfuscated servers are the same as why they’re using a VPN in the first place:
Bypass internet restrictions
Protect internet traffic privacy
Get around censorship
Avoid ISP throttling
Get rid of VPN blocks
Stop ISPs from snooping
Gain access to streaming websites
Avoid government tracking
Increase online anonymity
Maintain internet freedom on strict networks
All of these benefits of the VPN service wouldn’t be possible if the traffic was blocked. This makes obfuscated servers essential in modern-day internet use.
For starters, obfuscated servers allow VPN traffic to get around restrictions. This might mean something as simple and innocent as binging your favorite shows on streaming websites. But it could be a much more serious matter such as circumventing government censorship.
Obfuscated VPN servers can be precious for journalists or anyone else dealing with delicate data. They can ensure privacy and anonymity while allowing crucial information to pass through all obstacles.
Obfuscated servers may also decrease the control your ISP has over your VPN traffic. In particular, VPN obfuscation works wonders with ISP throttling. If you’re not familiar with the term, throttling is when internet service providers limit internet speed to users who are spending too much bandwidth. This can be the case with streaming and online gaming.
VPN obfuscation can bypass social media blocks, unlocking otherwise unavailable networks.
If VPN services allow free internet traffic, obfuscated servers will make such access possible even if organizations try to block VPN traffic. And with the advanced blocking techniques, the specialty servers have become as essential as VPN use itself.
How to Get an Obfuscated VPN Server
Many VPN vendors are expanding their services to include obfuscated servers. Top VPN providers like Surfshark or NordVPN have VPN obfuscation available through their VPN app advanced settings.
Once users enable obfuscated servers, they’ll be able to enjoy genuine stealth VPN. However, it’s worth mentioning that not all reliable VPN providers offer obfuscated servers. Some that do include the previously mentioned Surfshark and NordVPN, as well as VyprVPN, ExpressVPN, and IPVanish.
Third-party VPN obfuscation isn’t a thing, so you’ll want to get a VPN provider that has obfuscated servers.
While for most VPNs the obfuscation option will be in advanced settings, it will usually be very easy to enable. In many cases, you’ll only need to toggle one option to make VPN obfuscation work. Consult your provider’s VPN app or customer support for precise instructions on how to circumvent VPN restrictions.
Are Obfuscated Servers Legal?
There has been some confusion about the legal matters concerning VPNs and obfuscated servers in particular. The confusion mainly stems from two sources.
Firstly, cyber criminals are known to use obfuscated servers and VPNs to keep their sinister online activities hidden.
Secondly, certain countries have actually made VPN obfuscation and related technologies illegal.
That being said, if you live in a western country, you can likely use obfuscated servers without issues. There’s nothing inherently against the law in utilizing stealth VPN. Just because VPN IP addresses may be used for illegal activities (or against the censorship policies of some governments) doesn’t mean all obfuscated servers work that way.
VPN use currently isn’t legal in China, Russia, UAE, and several other countries. By extension, neither is VPN obfuscation. In those countries, signing up with a VPN server might land you a considerable fine.
As for the rest of the world, you’re free to unblock streaming websites as much as you like.
Can VPN Obfuscation Improve Your Online Security?
One of the big issues with using a VPN server is that VPN traffic might be monitored. This is usually the case wherever you are in the world. Many governments try to negate the potential dangers from completely hidden online traffic which may result in VPN blocking and tracking.
When you turn the obfuscated servers option on, your traffic gains an additional layer of encryption. This doesn’t only allow you to bypass any network blocks but also reinforces your online privacy.
While the advanced encryption may make obfuscated servers slower, the added security you get is well worth the slightly longer loading times.
What if the Obfuscation Doesn’t Work?
It might happen that the obfuscated servers option stops working. You’ll know this is the case if VPN blocking is still in place even though you’ve activated, for instance, OpenVPN data or NordVPN obfuscated servers.
Firstly, you should determine what’s happening. If your traffic stops altogether, the issue might be in the VPN itself. Most VPNs have a feature called a kill switch which can terminate the connection.
A kill switch will activate if, for some reason, your traffic stops being protected by the VPN. At that point, the switch will “kill” the connection so your online activity doesn’t get exposed. If this is happening to you, there’s likely no problem with the obfuscation. Rather, it’s a matter of reconnecting to your VPN.
When genuine obfuscation issues occur, you can try several methods to fix them:
Update your VPN
Change the obfuscated VPN server
Check your device for issues
Disable your firewall or antivirus
Reinstall the VPN
Call customer support
Switch to a different VPN
The first thing you should check if your obfuscated VPN tunnel isn’t functional is whether the VPN is up to date. Although most apps update automatically, it would be a good idea to check for updates manually if the connection isn’t working as expected.
If the program is up to date, you can attempt a classic solution to many hardware and software issues: turn it off and on again. Furthermore, you can restart your device as well.
In case the first two steps don’t yield results, try changing the server. The one you’re using currently could be unavailable at the moment. Luckily, most VPNs will allow you to switch to a different obfuscated server without issues.
The next thing you can look into is whether there’s an issue with your device. It could be doing something that interferes with the VPN. To find out what options are available for this kind of troubleshooting, visit the help center of your VPN provider – they’ll likely have a list of the most common device-related problems.
Security software like firewalls and antivirus programs may restrict background activities on your device. If you want to test whether that’s the source of the issue, try disabling these programs and running your VPN again. However, only do this temporarily – VPN or not, browsing the internet without proper protection is never recommended.
Another solution might be to reinstall your VPN. Sometimes the issue might come down to a faulty installation. Removing the app and installing it again might be the answer.
Of course, you can make the process easier by contacting customer support. If you describe the problem in detail, they’ll probably know what to do and will instruct you how to troubleshoot the issue step by step.
Finally, if absolutely nothing is working, you might need to change your VPN. The one you’re using currently could have issues working in your region and another service may be a better fit.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you use obfuscated servers?
On VPNs that have the obfuscated servers option, turning it on is quite simple. It comes down to going into settings and toggling the option.
Are obfuscated servers more secure?
Obfuscation provides another layer of encryption to your traffic. And more encryption means more online security.
Should i use obfuscated vpn?
If you need extra privacy or anonymity online, you would do well to use obfuscated servers. However, if all you need is a fast connection, it might be better to stick to the basic VPN since obfuscation can slow down your traffic.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
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