What does online anonymity mean to you? Do you only want to keep your browsing private or do you need complete anonymity because you’re fighting for freedom of speech? You know that a VPN protects your privacy, but are you revealing your identity even when your VPN is on?
The short answer is – it depends on the level of anonymity you require and on what you’re doing. If you only need a VPN to protect you from snoopers who are trying to find out what you are doing online, then – yes. But if you want to be completely invisible online, you need more than just a VPN.
It’s very difficult to be 100% anonymous online, with or without a VPN. There are many ways you can or already are revealing your identity and location without even knowing it. Let’s find out who might be snooping on you behind your back.
With a VPN, your ISP can no longer see what websites you visit. However, your ISP will always know your original IP address because they’ve given it to you. You pay for the service so they need to keep a record of your personal and payment details.
If you are not using a VPN, your ISP can see what websites you visit (to be precise, their IP addresses) and how much time you spend there. They know who you are and your original IP, so without a VPN, they can trace any information back to you. In the US, they don’t even need your permission to record, share or even sell your browsing history.
Even though a VPN protects you from prying eyes, including government surveillance, there are countries where VPNs are blocked or considered to be illegal. In oppressive regimes with strict online censorship laws, governments want to have full control of cyberspace. As a result, they find ways to track you and invade your privacy.
For example, in China, only government-approved VPNs are allowed. However, these VPN services are monitored by government agencies. Using such VPNs defeats the purpose of using a VPN in the first place. In these cases, it’s important that you choose a trustworthy VPN service provider.
The moment you go online without a VPN, your IP is visible to the websites you visit. Even with a VPN, the websites can see the operating system and the browser you use, the plugins you have installed, your CPU and even whether you are currently logged into any social media platforms. You can see how much information they collect for yourself.
If you joined a new Wi-Fi network and allowed your browser to use your location, even a VPN won’t be able to mask where you are. The browser will be able to detect your location pretty accurately just by knowing where nearby Wi-Fis are. Google has a heatmap of Wi-Fi access points, which serves them for this purpose.
Most websites use trackers and cookies too. Cookies can be useful because they can save login sessions or shopping baskets. However, they also play a huge role in creating your ‘user profile.’ This personal information of who you are and what products or ads you’ve engaged with can then be sold to third parties. You can avoid this by deleting cookies manually after each browsing session or installing various browser plugins.
If you reveal your IP address, it will be easier to link the cookie to your real identity. With a VPN, you gain more control over the cookies – they’ll gather information about your online habits, but they won’t know who you are.
Social media platforms make money from ads, so it's in their best interest to get as much information about you as possible. From your email address and the pages you liked to the friends you interacted the most and the way your face looks like – they know it all.
You’re not protecting your privacy if you keep your social media profiles public or openly share sensitive information. If you forget to disable your location settings, social media giants and everyone else can see where in the world you are every time you post anything online. If you are willingly sharing this information, a VPN won’t protect you. Make sure your social media profiles are as private as possible.
Similarly to other social media platforms, this tech giant built their business on trackers and advertising. However, the worst part about Google is that it owns a huge number of different platforms and the more apps you use, the more information they gather about you. The ‘user profile’ they create is pretty accurate and includes a lot of personally identifiable information like your location, age, gender, things you’ve searched for, videos you watched on Youtube. Let’s not forget that Google tracks your location even if you disable your settings.
It uses face recognition technology to scan your photos, its robots crawl through your Gmail and Google Drive documents, and Chrome tracks all the websites you visit and ads you’ve engaged with. This information is used to feed you ads. You should learn how Google tracks you and look for privacy-oriented alternatives.
There are ways to track your location by your phone’s GPS and cellular signal, and no internet connection is needed. It’s even accurate enough for emergency services to find you in case of an emergency. However, your mobile service provider can and does use these signals to track you. Some go as far as selling your sensitive information to other businesses, governments and law enforcement. The problem is that you cannot disable or block this type of tracking without turning off your phone.
Your credit card and digital payment platforms also leave a trail and can be personally identifiable. They track where and when you shopped, where you boarded the train and where you got off, and which cities or countries you traveled to. This is why privacy-focused companies like NordVPN now accept payments in cryptocurrency.
Metadata is the data hiding behind your digital documents and photos. It cannot be seen in plain sight when using a standard viewer as it’s stored in your file settings. Metadata can indicate who created the document, what organization they’re a part of, when it was edited, and the device and even the software used to create it. The metadata is generated automatically, but it can be manually stripped off.
If you use an unencrypted messaging app, it’s very likely that someone might be snooping on your private conversations, whether they’re hackers or the company that designed the app. Sometimes, even encrypted apps still track some information, like who you talk to the most. Some fail to encrypt other sensitive information like your mobile phone number or your metadata. Make sure you use a truly secure messaging app.
It also largely depends on what you consider tracking. If you’re using Chrome connected to your Google account, it doesn’t matter that your traffic is encrypted. Google will know what sites you visited and the content you interacted with. On the other hand, your ISP or the government won’t be able to tell what you do online after you connect to the VPN server.
If you live in a totalitarian regime that has highly restrictive internet rules, the authorities will be able to tell that you connected to a VPN, but not what you did afterward. For additional protection, you can use Double VPN feature to encrypt your traffic twice. It will slow down your connection, but it will be next to impossible for the government to track you.
All of the above factors make you susceptible to identity leaks, even with a VPN. You have to take precautionary measures to keep your information and your identity private. However, it’s also true that it’s nearly impossible to achieve full anonymity without a VPN.
This is how NordVPN ensures that your information stays as private as possible:
Protect your privacy online and stay secure with NordVPN.