Does a VPN make you anonymous?
No, a VPN does not make you anonymous. In fact, no internet privacy tool can completely hide your online presence. A VPN can encrypt your data, shield your IP address, and even protect you from online trackers, but full anonymity isn’t possible.
When we refer to an anonymous VPN, we really mean a VPN that does everything it can to maintain your privacy. If you only need an anonymous VPN to protect you from snoopers who are trying to find out what you are doing online, then yes, your online identity will be protected. However, that protection only goes so far.
With or without a VPN, it’s impossible to be 100% anonymous online. No matter how many steps you take, you could still be unwittingly sharing and revealing your identity and location right now.
What’s the difference between online anonymity and online privacy?
A common misinterpretation is mistaking anonymity for privacy. Online privacy means that no one can spy on your activity. Website cookies will still store basic information from your last visit. A VPN will encrypt your traffic, making it an ideal privacy tool.
Online anonymity, however, is leaving absolutely no trace of your presence. This feat is virtually impossible, partially due to the sheer amount of online trackers. The difference between online privacy and anonymity is that privacy is a far easier goal to achieve.
Top online anonymity threats
There are tons of different snoopers online who could discover your identity in different ways. And then there are services that require you to reveal your online identity in order to use them. Let’s find out who might be snooping on your online activity behind your back.
1. Wi-Fi networks
Whoever owns the Wi-Fi network you connect to has a great deal of power over your internet connection, including the ability to monitor what you do. On unsecured public networks, a hacker with enough tech-savvy can spy on what you’re up to online.
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.
2. Internet Service Provider (ISP)
Because your ISP processes all of your traffic, it has extraordinary access to everything you do online. In most countries, ISPs are given broad rights to profit from their internet data or to share it with government surveillance agencies.
If you aren’t using a VPN, your ISP can see what websites you visit (via its IP addresses) and how much time you spend there. Your ISP knows who you are and your original IP, so without a VPN, it can trace any information back to you. In the US, the ISP don’t even need your permission to record, share or even sell your browsing history.
With VPN software enabled, your ISP can no longer see what you do online. However, your ISP will always know your real IP address because it’s been assigned to your user profile. You pay for the service so the ISP keeps a record of your personal and payment details. The only way to cut your ISP out of the loop is to use someone else’s internet (like public Wi-Fi), but you’ll still need a VPN so you can’t be spied on.
3. Government surveillance
The anonymity a VPN provides against government surveillance will depend largely on the surveillance methods your government uses. The tools a government has at their disposal far exceed the scope of protection a VPN provides. As far as just your internet connection is concerned, however, a VPN can go a long way to increase your privacy.
Keep in mind that countries exist 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. In some countries, only government-approved VPNs are allowed, and approval usually means letting the government monitor those VPNs’ users.
Even with a VPN, the websites can see the operating system and the browser you use, the plugins you have installed, and even whether you are currently logged into any social media platforms.
A VPN won’t stop you from collecting cookies – only your browser can do that. However, with a VPN, you can prevent websites and their cookies from discovering your real IP address.
Any website you upload anything to, including but not limited to social media, will be able to see your metadata as well – if you have it. Metadata is data attached to your digital documents and photos that can reveal who created the document, what organization they’re a part of, when it was edited, the device, and even the software used to create it.
5. Social media platforms
Your anonymity on social media depends on how much data you give up. If you willingly share this information with social media networks and the people on them, an anonymous VPN won’t protect you. 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. Make sure your social media profiles are as private as possible.
Social media is frequently a tool used for nefarious purposes. Whether it’s trying to scam you out of your money via a dodgy sale or a victim being targeted by cyberbullies, you need to make sure your identifying information is locked away from public eyes. If any hackers get hold of this information, they can make your life a lot more difficult.
6. Google and other search engines
Similarly to other social media platforms, this tech giant built its 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 it gathers about you. The “user profile” created 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 what Google knows about you and look for privacy-oriented search engines.
7. Payment providers
Your credit card and digital payment platforms also leave a trail and can be personally identifiable. They can reveal where and when you shopped, where you boarded the train and where you got off, and which cities or countries you traveled to. Most financial systems require this level of identification, so maintaining anonymity without using cryptocurrency or cash is difficult. This is why privacy-focused companies like NordVPN accept payments in cryptocurrency.
We place a great deal of trust in apps from the moment we download them onto our devices. Almost every app will ask for permission to access certain parts of your device, and you’ll need to grant that access to use them. What they do with that access is up to the app’s creators.
And then there are the apps we share our private data with – messaging apps and image editing apps being some of the most common. If you want to increase anonymity while browsing the web, this might not change much, but the app’s creators or service providers could still potentially access all of that identifying and private data.
When you download an app, make sure you trust the developers. Also, look for any that have good security and privacy features. For example, you can choose a private and encrypted messaging app over some of the more popular options.
9. Cross-site request forgery (CSRF)
Social engineering is a powerful tool that many hackers like to employ. Cross-site request forgery happens when a user is tricked into unwittingly executing a malicious action on their web application. A well-executed CSRF can result in altering major identifying data or even a user unwittingly transferring funds to another, unknown account. Should the hacker target the account of an admin with CSRF, the results could potentially have site-wide ramifications.
Be aware of social engineering and how scam artists will try and appeal to your emotions to get what they want. There’s a reason that many banks and financial institutions constantly inform their customers that they will never reach out via email or text message, two of the most common attack vectors that hackers use.
Can you be tracked with a VPN?
A private VPN will make it very difficult to track your online activity. It all depends on what sort of tracking you might be subject to and what you’re doing. 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. 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 can intrust your ISP to hand over connection logs and data, where they will be able to tell that you connected to a VPN but not what you did afterward. However, NordVPN has a feature called obfuscated servers that will help make your VPN-secured connection harder to detect. Having a truly untraceable VPN is next to impossible, but you can make it incredibly difficult for someone trying to gain that information.
Is NordVPN an anonymous VPN service?
It’s impossible to grant absolute anonymity online, but NordVPN does everything it can to provide fast and reliable security and privacy. While finding the best anonymous VPN is an impossible feat, you can get the closest thing. We have an industry-leading list of powerful features to help you stay anonymous, but even so, you’ll need to take other precautions to increase your anonymity. With that being said…
Here are just a few of the features that help NordVPN keep your information as private as possible:
- Strict no-logs policy. We only collect the data needed to provide our service. We are a zero-logs VPN. We believe that our industry-first audit shows that we won’t share your information with government agencies because we simply don’t have it.
- Next-generation encryption. We offer some of the best VPN protocols available, including our proprietary high-speed NordLynx protocol. Your browsing is private and cannot be seen by hackers or your ISP.
- DNS leak protection. Your traffic is routed through our dedicated DNS servers so it will never leak your IP to a third-party.
- Obfuscated servers. These special servers mask the fact that you’re using a VPN connection at all. This makes it easier to enjoy unfettered internet access in authoritarian countries and other environments where VPN access may be blocked.
- Kill switch. Your IP shouldn’t leak even if your VPN connection drops.
- Cryptocurrency payments. Anonymous payments take you one step closer to total anonymity.
- High speeds. The faster your VPN is, the more often you’ll use it and the better your privacy protection will be.
- Threat Protection. NordVPN’s Threat Protection feature neutralizes cyber threats before they can do any real damage to your device. It helps you identify malware-ridden files, stops you from landing on malicious websites, and blocks trackers and intrusive ads on the spot.