With a VPN, your web traffic and IP address can't be tracked anymore. But will a VPN guarantee your digital anonymity? Can someone still eavesdrop on your browsing activities? Well, a lot of it comes down to your behavior online and how reliable the VPN is.
When you connect to a VPN (or virtual private network) server, your IP address changes, and the data traffic on your device gets encrypted. It creates a private network between your device and the VPN server (hence the name, virtual private network).
Changing your IP changes the location that's associated with you online: if you're using the internet in Australia, but connect to a VPN server in the US, you'll appear online with an American IP address. Meanwhile, encryption scrambles data, making it look like gibberish to anyone who tries to read it. If you're using a trustworthy VPN service, your browsing activities become illegible to snoopers.
However, this doesn't mean a VPN user is entirely untraceable online. Internet service providers (ISPs), websites, and even governments can determine whether you're using a VPN. They might not know what you're up to online, but they will have no difficulty with VPN detection. So, how can a VPN be traced?
When online you can be tracked by:
Here are some of the ways you can be tracked online even when using a VPN:
No, your web traffic and IP can't be tracked anymore. However, if you use a poor quality VPN, you could still be tracked. A premium quality VPN encrypts data and hides your IP address by routing your activity through a VPN server; even if someone tries to monitor your traffic, all they'll see is the VPN server's IP and complete gibberish. Beyond that, you can only be tracked with information you provide to sites or services you log into.
Free VPNs need to make their money somehow, and that's often done by selling your data to third-parties. Some free VPN providers will keep connection logs, monitoring and recording your general connection information. This includes your IP address, the IP address of the website you're trying to visit, the connection time, and the amount of data transferred.
As you can see, tracking this information pretty much gives away everything you're doing online anyway, and offers no privacy – making the point of a VPN useless. We would strongly advise against using a free VPN; with a premium service like NordVPN, you don't need to worry about the company keeping invasive usage logs and compromising your privacy.
Can my ISP see my VPN? While using a VPN service, your ISP can only see that encrypted data is traveling to a server. They can't see the contents of your traffic, or where its travelling to and from. Your ISP won't be able to see what websites you visit when using a VPN, or anything you do online while you're using a VPN.
Your data becomes exposed again, if your VPN disconnects. Your ISP will be able to see what you're doing online, as well as the websites you're visiting. Premium VPNs come with a kill-switch feature which immediately takes all of your devices offline, if your connection to the VPN suffers.
Some VPNs may accidentally reveal your actual IP address through DNS leaks. NordVPN prevents DNS leaks by exclusively using our own DNS servers.
As mentioned before, governments can determine whether you're using a VPN service. For example, the so-called Great Firewall of China uses DPI and other methods to recognize and block VPN traffic. Fortunately, NordVPN's obfuscated servers help address some of these VPN detection methods, so they're great if you're connecting from a region with strict censorship. They hide your VPN connection by making it look like regular internet traffic.
But can traffic hidden by a VPN be monitored? It depends on the VPN. If the VPN has a no-logs policy, even if the government approached the VPN provider, the provider wouldn't be able to hand over your activity logs because they don't have any to begin with.
Some VPN services agree to install backdoors for the government, allowing agencies to monitor user traffic. For example, government-approved VPNs are allowed to operate in China. However, considering the country's tendency to control all online communications, a “legal” VPN in China is very likely to have backdoors.
It depends on your behavior. If you surf the internet while connected to your Google account, it can trace your online activities back to you. Since a VPN changes your virtual location, it might look like you're accessing the websites from a different region, but Google will still be able to determine it's you.
Let’s say you log in to your account when you're connected to a VPN server. You go to YouTube and watch some adorable puppy videos. The next time you go to the website while not connected to a VPN, you may still see cute dogs in your suggestions.
There are some other ways Google can track you online. For example, cookies and browser fingerprinting can also trace your activities back to your account. However, you can minimize tracking by using privacy-oriented browsers and cookie blockers.
This mainly depends on the type of VPN you're using. Business VPNs have a different function from commercial VPNs. If you're connected to a business VPN provided by your employer, they would probably be able to monitor you. Most business VPNs log employees' activities and do not guarantee anonymity from your employer.
But let's say you use a commercial VPN. If your workplace monitors employees' online behavior, a VPN might not be enough to shield you entirely. However, they would need to have monitoring software installed on your work device to see what you do online. For example, if your company has installed keyloggers directly onto your computer, a VPN service won't be able to hide what you type on your device from your employer.
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If you know what to look for, it’s easy to find out if someone is using a VPN. With a VPN, all the user’s traffic is routed through a single IP address of the VPN server they’re connected to.
Without a VPN, the traffic will show that it’s being routed through many different IP addresses, based on the different websites the user visits. Their VPN-assigned IP address will also be different from their real IP address, which you can inspect against known VPN IP addresses.
PRO TIP: You can hide the fact that you're using a VPN with NordVPN's obfuscated servers function, which conceals the VPN metadata so no one can see that your device is connected to a VPN server.
You can perform a simple VPN test by comparing your real IP address with the one given to you by your VPN. Here’s how:
Connect to NordVPN and you'll never have to worry about your IP leaks again. Moreover, its Dark Web Monitor function will notify you if your credentials linked to your email address are exposed to the dark web.
The best VPNs will not allow your IP to identify you. However, there are ways to identify VPN traffic:
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Staying completely anonymous online is virtually impossible. However, there are ways you can minimize your digital footprint:
All in all, if someone's hell-bent on tracking you online, you'll need to be very careful and thorough to remain anonymous. If you choose a VPN service carefully, it can still protect your data from ISPs, criminals, and government surveillance. NordVPN has a plethora of security-oriented features to ensure your privacy online, no matter what device you're on.
While a VPN protects you from tracking, you should also be careful when choosing one. We strongly recommend staying away from free VPN services as they usually do more harm than good. The problem is that a lot of them monetize their operations by collecting user data and selling it to third-parties, or by bombarding you with ads. Moreover, they may have quite limited functionality. Some disreputable free VPN companies are less likely to comply with data retention laws and other regulations, too.
Here are a few other aspects to pay attention to when choosing a VPN provider:
Have a look at NordVPN's extra security-oriented features.