Security at the End of the Tunnel: The Anatomy of VPN Mental Models Among Experts and Non-Experts in a Corporate Context


Veroniek Binkhorst, Technical University of Delft; Tobias Fiebig, Max-Planck-Institut für Informatik and Technical University of Delft; Katharina Krombholz, CISPA Helmholtz Center for Information Security; Wolter Pieters, Radboud University; Katsiaryna Labunets, Utrecht University


With the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 necessitating working from home, corporate Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have become an important item securing the continued operation of companies around the globe. However, due to their different use case, corporate VPNs and how users interact with them differ from public VPNs, which are now commonly used by end-users.

In this paper, we present a first explorative study of eleven experts' and seven non-experts' mental models in the context of corporate VPNs. We find a partial alignment of these models in the high-level technical understanding while diverging in important parameters of how, when, and why VPNs are being used. While, in general, experts have a deeper technical understanding of VPN technology, we also observe that even they sometimes hold false beliefs on security aspects of VPNs. In summary, we show that the mental models of corporate VPNs differ from those for related security technology, e.g., HTTPS.

Our findings allow us to draft recommendations for practitioners to encourage a secure use of VPN technology (through training interventions, better communication, and system design changes in terms of device management). Furthermore, we identify avenues for future research, e.g., into experts' knowledge and balancing privacy and security between system operators and users.

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@inproceedings {279890,
author = {Veroniek Binkhorst and Tobias Fiebig and Katharina Krombholz and Wolter Pieters and Katsiaryna Labunets},
title = {Security at the End of the Tunnel: The Anatomy of {VPN} Mental Models Among Experts and {Non-Experts} in a Corporate Context},
booktitle = {31st USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 22)},
year = {2022},
isbn = {978-1-939133-31-1},
address = {Boston, MA},
pages = {3433--3450},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug

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