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What a VPN hides (and what it doesn’t)

A virtual private network encrypts your data traffic and changes your IP address for more online privacy and security. But what does that mean — and what does a VPN actually hide? While VPN encryption can boost your online security and privacy, a VPN won’t hide all your online activity. Here’s what VPNs hide, what remains visible — and why knowing this is important.

What a VPN hides (and what it doesn’t)

What does a VPN hide?

A VPN is a cybersecurity tool that encrypts your online traffic and hides your IP address. It also masks your virtual location, browsing history, downloads, and streaming activity. When you use a VPN, your online activity and virtual location become inaccessible to cybercriminals, websites, internet service providers (ISPs), and restrictive governments that want to keep an eye on you.

Let’s take a closer look at the information a VPN hides and how it all works.

Your IP address

Your IP address is a digital number your internet service provider assigns to your device. It can reveal a great deal of information about you, including your approximate physical location (e.g., state, ZIP code, and country) and the ISP you’re using.

Think of IP addresses as mailing addresses for your device that websites, online services, network admins, government agencies, and ISPs can see. Unfortunately, this information may also be available to cybercriminals potentially looking to launch attacks on your device.

Luckily, a VPN can hide your IP address, instantly enhancing your digital privacy. When you connect to a VPN server, it assigns a new IP address to your device — one that your ISP doesn’t own. Your online activity is now connected to the VPN’s IP address and can no longer be traced back to you (or your digital profile).

Your digital profile is a collection of information about you and your online activity accumulated over time. Also known as your digital footprint, this profile records your online interactions and behaviors, which may be accessible to various platforms and services.

While having this information about you helps companies make their marketing more targeted and efficient, it also poses privacy and security risks. Not only do companies know a little too much about you — but your digital profile may also provide opportunities for cybercriminals to launch attacks.

A VPN helps you safeguard your information and hide your digital footprint by masking your real IP address. Your ISP can’t see your online activity anymore, making your online experience safer and more private.

Benefits of hiding your IP address

A VPN protects your privacy by replacing your actual IP address with a VPN IP address. Here’s why that’s a good thing:

  • You get more online privacy. Hiding your IP address lets you win back some of your web privacy. The online world has a complicated relationship with privacy — everything you do online is stored somewhere. Shielding your actual IP address and using one that a VPN server provides helps you hide some of the sensitive information IP addresses may reveal.
  • It reduces web tracking. When you connect to a VPN server, the websites you visit can no longer track where you’re connecting from or whether you’ve previously visited the website. As a result, they can’t track you as much.

As you can see, you may want to hide your IP address for many privacy and security reasons. Safeguarding your IP boosts your privacy on the web and gives you more control over what online platforms can know about you.

Your virtual location

Besides hiding your original IP address, a VPN connection shields your virtual location. When you use an internet provider-assigned IP address, your virtual location is visible to the websites and online services you visit. But with a VPN, all they can see is your VPN’s IP address — and your virtual location also remains hidden.

Why is hiding your virtual location beneficial? First, it further enhances your internet privacy. Companies, ISPs, and snoopers can’t determine your approximate location for whatever reason they want to. Also, hiding your virtual location lets you avoid internet censorship and securely access your favorite content from anywhere (even abroad).

Imagine you live in Canada but are traveling to a country with stricter internet censorship for several weeks. You still want to access the content you typically watch back home, but those websites are not available in the country you’re visiting. In this case, all you need to do is connect to a Canada VPN server. The VPN will change your IP address, and the platforms you want to access will think you’re browsing from Canada, letting you read the news or watch your favorite shows with more privacy as if you’re back home.

Finally, changing your virtual location can also help improve your online shopping experience. Websites often show different prices to users depending on where they’re browsing from. By changing your virtual location with a VPN, you can outsmart these platforms and save money on flights, hotels, and other products and services. Here’s how to use a VPN to change your location.

Your personal information and data

A VPN encrypts the internet traffic traveling to and from your device, making your devices safer and more resilient to cyberattacks. It does so by creating a secure encrypted VPN tunnel through which it reroutes the data you send and receive.

While attackers can target your data and devices in many ways, some cyberattacks target unsafe Wi-Fi connections. A good VPN service uses reliable, secure VPN protocols to scramble your online traffic, making it difficult for cybercriminals to intercept it. As a result, you’re safer online, even on public Wi-Fi (say, at a cafe, airport, or hotel).

Though VPN encryption is an excellent way to safeguard your internet connection, not all VPN services offer the best encryption and privacy protection. Some free VPN companies don’t take user privacy seriously and make false promises to draw in customers.

For the best protection, choose a reliable, no-logs VPN that doesn’t track or sell your data to third parties. To get a reliable service that keeps your data safe, avoid free VPN service providers because they’re more likely to sell your data for profit.

Your browsing activity

Using a VPN also hides your browsing activity from your internet provider. Many people don’t realize, but your ISP can access a wealth of information about you — including your browsing and search history. They can see what you search for, the websites you visit, and the content of any unencrypted data you submit.

Did you know your ISP can see your activity even in private browsing mode? That’s right, while incognito mode doesn’t store your search history, cookies, or other local data on your device, it doesn’t hide anything from your ISP.

That’s where a VPN can help. Connecting to a VPN means your search requests travel through the VPN server rather than your ISP’s. As a result, the internet provider can no longer see what you do online — including what you type in your browser.

Your ISP will know you’re using a virtual private network but will no longer see your online activity. It may also know what time you connected, the VPN protocol, and the amount of traffic traveling to and from your device.

However, any websites you visit and the pages you browse will remain hidden, including the amount of time spent on them. Here’s more on what your ISP can see (and what a VPN helps hide from them).

In addition to a VPN, consider using a reliable cookie cleaner. Combining trustworthy privacy-enhancing tools is an excellent way to make yourself more private in the highly tracked and closely monitored online space.

Your downloads

Similarly to hiding your browsing activity, a VPN also hides your downloads from your ISP. That means your internet provider can’t monitor what you download and see the content of those files.

Remember that a VPN won’t hide the amount of data you’ve used up for downloading files. The ISP will still be able to see that you’re transferring data — but not its content.

Even though a VPN shields this activity from your ISP, you should only use reliable, official sources for downloads to avoid potential security threats. While providers like NordVPN check files for viruses as they’re downloaded, it’s generally not something a VPN does. You should always be cautious and only download from trusted platforms — or you may unintentionally end up downloading malware.

You should also always make sure you’re not downloading copyrighted material. A VPN shouldn’t be used to infringe copyright laws or engage in illegal activities.

Your streaming and gaming activity

Using a VPN also protects you when streaming and gaming. With your real IP address shielded, ISPs can’t see that you’re streaming or gaming.

Connecting to a VPN server may even help you improve your internet connection when streaming or gaming (in some cases). When you’re using a lot of data (e.g., by streaming high-quality video for hours), your ISP may slow your connection to manage network congestion and ensure fair data usage. This process is known as ISP throttling.

Using a VPN for streaming means your ISP can only see your data traffic in encrypted form, making it difficult to tell your streaming activity apart from other types of traffic. As a result, ISPs can no longer slow you down based on your online activity. You can enjoy content on your favorite streaming platforms with more privacy and without interruptions.

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What does a VPN not hide?

While a VPN connection hides a lot from snoopers and ISPs, it doesn’t hide everything. It’s important that you know exactly what a VPN can hide and what remains visible so you can take additional steps to protect yourself.

Your account activity

You may think that using a VPN hides your online activities on digital platforms. However, if you’re logged in to an online account, your activity remains visible to the provider — even if you’re using a VPN to send your data through a private tunnel.

For example, if you’re logged in to Google and use the search function while connected to a VPN server, Google can still access your search history. The ISP won’t be able to see what you search for, but your search engine will.

Your entire online identity

While a VPN boosts your online privacy and security, it doesn’t guarantee complete digital anonymity. No online cybersecurity tool can do that because of how interconnected the online space is.

A VPN connection does give you a degree of anonymity in the ways mentioned above. It secures your online traffic with encryption, hides your real IP address, and protects you from being tracked online (to an extent).

However, true online anonymity would include complete digital privacy, with nothing you do on the internet traced back to your digital identity. While that would be tempting for some users, remaining completely anonymous is impossible. Not if you’ve used your name, email address, or other personal information to sign up for accounts (like most of us have).

While a VPN can’t keep your identity completely hidden, it can help you reduce the risk of identity theft. Securing your internet traffic and hiding your IP address makes it harder for cybercriminals to steal your information and, as a result, your identity. Learn how to keep your identity safe with these ID theft protection tips.

Your identity on social media and other platforms

Your identity on social media is tied to the information you’ve shared about yourself (such as your name, email, or phone number). Using social media while connected to a VPN means you’re generally safer online — but a VPN doesn’t hide your identity from the social media provider or other users. Everything you do on social media — liking posts, sharing comments, blocking people — is still accessible to the social media platform.

Depending on your privacy settings, other people will also see your activity (like the photos you’ve liked or your updates). A VPN doesn’t anonymize these activities — but gives you more web privacy by changing your IP address and virtual location.

Remember that while social media is an excellent way to stay connected with others, oversharing on social media could have negative consequences. Here’s how to be more private on social media.

Your search history

Though using a VPN hides your search history from your ISP and third parties, it doesn’t hide it from the websites you visit. Search engines like Google or Bing can still see, track, and log your search queries if you’re logged in — even if you’re using a VPN.

Every search engine has a different privacy and data retention policy. If you’re worried about the type of information search engines track about you, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with their terms and conditions before use. Additionally, check out these private search engines for more control over your data.

Cookies that are already on your device

While VPN software provides an additional layer of privacy, it doesn’t protect you against already stored cookies. Website cookies are small pieces of data that track your browsing activity and remember your preferences (like your login information, pages you visited, or items you’ve added to your shopping cart). Third parties use these cookies to track your online behavior and tailor advertising to your needs and preferences.

A VPN doesn’t protect you against these tracking cookies since they’re stored on your web browser, not the network. To make yourself more private, you can clear these internet cookies from your device. Do this regularly to increase your privacy — but remember that clearing them will also remove saved login credentials and site preferences, so you’ll lose a degree of convenience.

Your device from online threats, viruses, and malware

While a VPN generally makes you more secure online, it doesn’t provide complete protection against online threats and viruses. A virtual private network can help prevent certain types of cyberattacks and hackers from intercepting your connection, but it doesn’t replace reliable antivirus software.

Consider using a VPN and antivirus software for comprehensive online security and privacy. You may also want to choose a VPN that offers some malware protection. For example, NordVPN protects you against malware by blocking malicious sites and scanning downloads.

How to know if you can trust a VPN

If you’ve decided to start using a VPN, it’s paramount that you choose a VPN provider you can trust. A reliable VPN company will be user focused and offer many security-enhancing features to make your digital life safer, smoother, and more private.

Choose a provider with next-gen VPN encryption for securing your online traffic. VPN encryption is one of the most important security features, so look for a provider with robust encryption protocols. You should also look for a VPN that can protect your data at all times (even if your connection drops) with the Kill Switch feature.

A good provider will offer a range of other features, like DNS leak protection, VPN apps for multiple devices, reliable customer service, and a global VPN server network for a fast and stable connection.

Some VPN companies may even offer advanced cybersecurity features to take your online safety further. For example, NordVPN offers Threat Protection that blocks malicious sites, annoying ads, and intrusive web trackers. It also checks the files you download for malware to keep your devices safe.

Finally, a trustworthy provider will not make false promises, like saying they can fully hide your online identity or completely erase your browsing history. A good VPN hides some of your online information and helps you enjoy the perks of more online privacy. However, no VPN can make you completely anonymous online — and if a VPN provider claims to do so, they may also be overpromising in other areas.

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