Mobility

Why Opera VPN isn't the mobile security solution you should be using

Opera VPN has been available for over a year, but it hasn't managed to get beyond the initial shortcomings. Here's why it's not a viable security solution for Android.

Over a year ago, Opera released its VPN client for Android. During that year, the app has undergone quite a bit of scrutiny for not being truly secure. With Opera's take on the VPN you can connect to anywhere in the US for free, and even route traffic through Canada, Germany, Singapore, or the Netherlands. Opera VPN is easy enough that a user with zero understanding of how VPNs work would have absolutely no problems using the tool. But is it reliable?

The feature list for Opera VPN is short—which is fine, considering it doesn't need too many features to function properly. The list includes:

  • Your choice of five virtual locations (more coming soon)
  • The ability to determine WiFi network security level
  • Built-in ad tracker blocker

However, as I've said, this particular VPN solution has gone through quite a bit of scrutiny over the past year (some claim the product is just a pre-configured HTTP/S proxy that protects only the traffic between Opera and the proxy).

Let's walk through the process of installing and using this VPN tool and then see what we find, with regards to security. I'll be demonstrating on a OnePlus 3, but the app will install on any device running Android 4.0.3 and up.

Installation

The installation of Opera VPN is very easy. Just follow these steps:

  1. Open up the Google Play Store on your Android device
  2. Search for Opera VPN
  3. Locate and tap the listing by OSL Networks
  4. Tap Install
  5. Allow the installation to complete

Once installed, you'll find the application launcher on your home screen or in your App Drawer (or both). Tap the launcher and you'll be greeted by a welcome screen to swipe through. At the app's main window, you're ready to go.

SEE: Special report: Cybersecurity in an IoT and mobile world (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Usage

From the main window ( Figure A), tap the Connect button. This will immediately initiate the connection process.

Figure A

Figure A

The Opera VPN main window.

Once connected, there are a few things you can do:

  • Change region by tapping the Change Region button
  • Tap the Wi-Fi tab and then tap Test WiFi Security
  • Tap the "Eye" tab and then tap Activate Guardian to block ad trackers

By default, Opera VPN will select the closest region. If you choose, you can tap the Change Region button and then tap to select either:

  • Canada
  • Germany
  • Netherlands
  • Singapore
  • United States

If you're curious about the security of your current Wi-Fi connection, tap the Test WiFI Security button to have the app scan the network your device is connected to. The results will indicate what your results are both before and after Opera VPN was started ( Figure B).

Figure B

Figure B

Before and after Wi-Fi security rating.

The metrics used to test the security are:

  • Type of network
  • Security level
  • IP address
  • WiFi sniffing
  • Network admin monitoring

Big claims

Here's how Opera VPN claimed to have changed my network.

  • Type of Network changed from private to protected (Opera VPN claims to protect your data from being seen by others—which is typical for a VPN).
  • Security Level remained high with and without Opera VPN.
  • IP Address went from being listed as exposed to hidden (This does not actually affect the Wi-Fi network, but the IP address of the device).
  • Wi-Fi sniffing shifted from at risk to safe (with no indication as to how Opera VPN pulls this off)
  • Network Admin monitoring moved from at risk to safe (again, with zero indication as to what Opera VPN did to pull this off).

This should be a red flag to anyone looking for real security. For example, Opera VPN claims they can protect a device from being monitored by a network administrator. This is great, but it's misleading. First off, the VPN doesn't change your wireless IP address. In fact, even after enabling the VPN, I was able to see the private LAN address of my Android device. This means the network administrator could still monitor that private IP address.

Big fail there.

SEE: Mobile device computing policy (Tech Pro Research)

One success — sort of

If there's one thing Opera VPN does right, it's to mask the public-facing IP address of the device. After enabling the VPN, I go to whatsmyip.org to see that the IP address has, in fact, been changed. This can be further tested by switching the region used within Opera VPN and refreshing the whatsmyip.org page. Address changed.

So with respect to routing traffic through a real VPN network, Opera VPN does what it claims. Heading over to whoer.net (a site that tests your anonymity) and a completely different picture appears. On the Opera VPN-enabled Android device (with region set to Canada), my anonymity score came up 52%. Running the same test on my desktop (which is on the very same wireless network) and my anonymity score comes up 100%. By disabling the Opera VPN client, my anonymity score immediately jumped to 90% on the device. Enabling the VPN client and switching the region to the United States, my rating remained at 90%. Region shifted to Germany and the score was 70%.

In the end, I have to ask, "Can this app be trusted?"

A simple conclusion

Although Opera VPN is a very simple to use VPN solution for Android, I cannot, in good faith, recommend it be used, as there are far too many questions surrounding how it works and the results it produces. Considering there are already plenty of outstanding VPN solutions available (such as TunnelBear VPN), you are much better off avoiding this particular VPN client.

Also see

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Image: Jack Wallen

About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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