Netflix, Hulu and a host of other content streaming services block non-U.S. users from viewing their content. As a result, many people residing in or traveling outside of the United States seek to circumvent such restrictions by using services that advertise “free” and “open” Web proxies capable of routing browser traffic through U.S.-based computers and networks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, new research suggests that most of these “free” offerings are anything but, and actively seek to weaken browser security and privacy.
The data comes from Austrian researcher and teacher Christian Haschek, who published a simple script to check 443 open Web proxies (no, that number was not accidental). His script tries to see if a given proxy allows encrypted browser traffic (https://), and whether the proxy tries to modify site content or inject any content into the user’s browser session, such as ads or malicious scripts.
Haschek found that 79 percent of the proxies he tested forced users to load pages in unencrypted (http://) mode, meaning the owners of those proxies could see all of the traffic in plain text.
“It could be because they want you to use http so they can analyze your traffic and steal your logins,” Haschek said. “If I’m a good guy setting up a server so that people can use it to be secure and anonymous, I’m going to allow people to use https. But what is my motive if I tell users http only?”
Haschek’s research also revealed that slightly more than 16 percent of the proxy servers were actively modifying static HTML pages to inject ads.
Virtual private networks (VPNs) allow users to tunnel their encrypted traffic to different countries, but increasingly online content providers are blocking popular VPN services as well. Tor offers users the ability to encrypt and tunnel traffic for free, but in my experience the service isn’t reliably fast enough to stream video.
Haschek suggests that users who wish to take advantage of open proxies pick ones that allow https traffic. He’s created and posted online a free tool that allows anyone to test whether a given proxy permits encrypted Web traffic, as well as whether the proxy truly hides the user’s real Internet address. This blog post explains more about his research methodology and script.
Users who wish to take advantage of open proxies also should consider doing so using a Live CD or virtual machine setup that makes it easy to reset the system to a clean installation after each use. I rely on the free VirtualBox platform to run multiple virtual machines, a handful of which I use to do much of my regular browsing, tweeting, emailing and other things that can lead sometimes to malicious links, scripts, etc.
I’ll most likely revisit setting up your own VirtualBox installation in a future post, but this tutorial offers a fairly easy-to-follow primer on how to run a Live CD installation of a Linux distribution of your choosing on top of VirtualBox.