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How Do Streaming Services Know You Are Using A VPN?

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If you’ve attempted to stream Netflix while using a VPN, you’re undoubtedly already aware of some of the problems. Many streaming services, like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and others, don’t want you to access their material via a VPN and will limit what you can watch or block you. What makes them even aware that you’re utilizing a VPN, then?

Most VPN providers concur that specific IP addresses, the string of digits used by VPNs to identify your real-world location, are blocked by streaming services. Streaming providers check the IP addresses of incoming requests, and these IPs are compared to those known to belong to VPN services. 

This list of IP addresses linked to VPNs can be generated in several ways. Most of the VPN services we contacted concur that they likely use specialized IP databases, such IP2Location, and IPQualityScore, which maintain tabs on which VPNs and proxies employ IP addresses.

Residential vs. VPN IPs

This is because different IP addresses serve different purposes. Some of them are referred to as “residential houses” since they are similar to ordinary people’s homes. Others are connected to businesses, hosting corporations, or even proxies and VPN services. 

An IP address is often classified as residential and is not stored in a database if it belongs to an ISP like Verizon. The type of IP that resides in those specialized proxy/VPN databases is one that, if owned by a hosting company, is almost certainly used for hosting. It’s a little unclear how these databases categorize these IP addresses. 

Identifying VPN traffic

It’s unlikely that streaming services rely completely on these databases. Still, there’s a fair probability that they use their tools to analyze their traffic and determine whether a certain IP address is suspicious. It might be as simple as identifying multiple user accounts utilizing the same IP address at the same time, which is exceedingly unusual to occur under normal conditions. 

That doesn’t mean that streaming services are happy to merely compile or purchase lists and obediently verify incoming IP addresses against them.

Apart from tracking IPs or performing upstream analysis, staff at another top-tier VPN – who desired to remain nameless to escape Netflix’s wrath – also mentioned two more ways that streaming services could be able to detect VPN traffic. 

Checking DNS server information

In addition to modifying the information on your DNS server, which is the mechanism that links domain names and IP addresses, when you use a VPN, you are also faking your IP address. However, according to our source, a streaming service may be able to overrule a user’s existing DNS settings and show their true location. 

Though it’s unclear exactly how a streaming platform might do this, forcing DNS through HTTPS within the service application instead of a website may be one option. The outcome is always the same: the service will know where you truly are and may restrict access. 

GPS data collection

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Another alternative is for streaming services to use GPS data gathered from your browser or mobile apps (if you grant location access) to compare it to your IP address. You will be blocked, for instance, if your phone’s GPS information indicates that you are connected via a US IP address but that your GPS data indicates that you are in the UK.

It sounds a little far-fetched and awful, but it’s possible: for instance, Hulu is suspected of using GPS data to confirm your location. The legality of utilizing this technique is also out in the air. Still, if it does (and there is no concrete evidence), we feel it may be a problem anywhere location tracking has been disallowed.

Stay on top of Netflix.

The effort put forward by several streaming services to prevent people who are utilizing a VPN. VPNs, for their part, make every effort to get around these restrictions, resulting in a tug-of-war where one side is constantly attempting to outdo the other. 

With a VPN, you can stream rather well right now, but there’s no way of knowing if that will still be the case in the future. Although we don’t know how they do it, streaming platforms are undoubtedly committed to preventing you from using a VPN. 

How do websites know I’m using a VPN?

vpn on computer

The VPN server’s IP address is blacklisted.

Depending on the server you connect to, a VPN will mask your real IP address and replace it with a different one. These VPN IP addresses are accessible to the whole public. They are, therefore, simple to gather by businesses and sell to websites for blocklisting. 

IPs that belong to the same host or data center are also frequently blocked. Yes, even if they weren’t previously linked to any VPNs in the database of a monitoring service. 

If too many requests come from the same IP address, websites may notice you’re using a VPN. Any network administrator will be suspicious if they observe 1,000 separate accounts sharing the same IP address.

That won’t always result in that IP address being blocked. How so? Hundreds or thousands of users may share an IP address with organizations like airports, hotels, institutions, and others. Therefore, barring IPs based only on these criteria would result in many false positives. 

They check your system time settings.

Through a technique known as “browser fingerprinting,” websites may quickly confirm your system time settings. Your browser transmits information about your device, including frequently your time zone.

Because of this, if the timezones of your VPN server and your system’s time settings differ, websites may detect that you’re using a VPN. Even though browser fingerprinting generally violates privacy, it’s not all terrible. For instance, information about any devices that have recently been included in security emails. 

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Due to DNS location mismatch

VPNs frequently employ their DNS (Domain Name System) servers. This protects your privacy by preventing your ISP from viewing your DNS requests to find out what you are doing online. In the event of a VPN leak, it also aids in preventing discrepancies between your IP and DNS regions. 

However, when you utilize the app version of the online service, DNS location mismatches might occur even if your VPN doesn’t leak. For instance, the Netflix apps for iOS and Android entirely override the DNS settings of your VPN, making your real location visible.

Websites can detect VPN use through GPS data.

The location-hiding qualities of a VPN are essentially nullified if you permit internet businesses to access your location data for any purpose. Of course, there are instances where websites or apps track your GPS data without even requesting your permission. To discourage users from turning off GPS tracking, they can also bury the choice far down in the app’s settings. 

Fortunately, avoiding this problem is not too difficult. You can use a VPN that spoofs GPS data, like Surfshark and be cautious about the apps and websites you use. If not, switch to a new device without a GPS chip. 

Deep Packet Inspection (DPI)

Without becoming too technical, DPI essentially examines network data by examining its origin, destination, content, and other important details under a (metaphorical) microscope. Businesses, ISPs, and governments primarily use DPI to identify and stop cyberattacks, improve server performance, and monitor and manage user behavior.

For the most extreme examples, look at China’s Great Firewall or Russia’s Sovereign Internet project. Websites might not function if you’re using a VPN in a region with known Internet filtering problems. When using DPI to examine VPN data, the business or government entity often searches for signatures particular to protocols like OpenVPN.

Imagine doing this as figuring out a pattern in the encryption that sets it apart from the standard encryption used by websites or HTTPS. They still cannot determine the content of your data; they can only determine that you are using a VPN and perhaps the protocol.