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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 an anonymous VPN protects your privacy, but are you revealing your identity even when your VPN is on?
Sep 23, 2021 · 7 min read
First of all, what is an anonymous VPN? That would be a virtual private network that does everything it can to keep you anonymous online. Whether or not it will succeed depends on the level of anonymity you require and on what you’re doing. 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 totally secure. But if you want to be completely invisible online, you need more than just an anonymous VPN service.
With or without a VPN, it’s very difficult to be 100% anonymous online. There are many ways to reveal your identity and location without even knowing it – you might be doing it right now.
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.
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. Plus, on unsecured public networks, there are ways for other participants to see what other people are doing as well.
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.
Because your ISP processes all of your traffic, they have extraordinary access to everything you do online. In most countries, they 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 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.
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 they’ve assigned it to you. You pay for the service so they need to keep a record of your personal and payment details. The only way to cut them out of the loop is to use someone else’s internet (like public Wi-Fi), but you’ll still need a VPN so they can’t see what you’re doing.
The anonymity a VPN provides against government surveillance will depend largely on the surveillance methods your government uses. The tools a government would have at its 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 keep you private.
However, keep in mind that 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. In some countries, only government-approved VPN are allowed, and approval usually means letting the government monitor those VPNs’ users.
Websites need your IP so they can send you their content. Unless you’re using a VPN, that IP will be your real IP address, revealing your location and potentially other information about you. 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. Do you trust every website you visit with that information?
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, 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, and the device and even the software used to create it. Metadata is generated automatically for most types of documents, but it can be manually stripped off.
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 what your face looks like – they know it all.
Your anonymity on social media depends on how much data you give up, but they generally require quite a bit just to sign 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.
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.
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 now 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, image editing apps, and others. If you want to stay anonymous to others 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.
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 – but they may be able to ask Google.
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. However, NordVPN has a feature called Obfuscated servers that will help make your VPN-secured connection harder to detect.
Yes. While it’s practically impossible to grant absolute anonymity online, NordVPN does everything it can to provide fast and reliable security and privacy. 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 stay anonymous. With that being said…
Here are just a few of the features that help NordVPN keep your information as private as possible: