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Can you be tracked with a VPN?

VPNs are great. They secure your data, boost your privacy online, protect you from tracking, and provide internet freedom. 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 the reliability of the VPN itself.

Sybil Andrea

Sybil Andrea

Sep 10, 2021 · 7 min read

Can you be tracked with a VPN?

What does a VPN hide?

When you connect to a VPN (or virtual private network) server, your IP address changes, and the data traffic on your device gets encrypted. Changing your IP address 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 you're 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?

Can I be tracked if I use a VPN?

So can you be tracked if you use a VPN? The answer is yes, if you use a poor quality VPN. But it is very difficult to track you if you use a good premium VPN service; this will encrypt your traffic and route it through a large network of remote servers. So even if someone can see an IP assigned to you, it won’t be yours.

Some VPNs may accidentally reveal your actual IP address through DNS leaks. NordVPN prevents DNS leaks by exclusively using our own DNS servers.

You might also be tracked if you use a free VPN service. If you're not paying for a VPN yourself, it's likely that the VPN provider is logging your activities and selling this valuable data to third parties.

How can your VPN be traced?

The best VPNs will not allow your IP to identify you. However, there are ways to identify VPN traffic:

  • VPN IP address. The IP addresses of VPN servers aren't difficult to recognize — there are even databases specializing in VPN detection, that try to determine whether an IP belongs to a particular provider. When you access a website with a VPN on, it may be able to identify that you're using a VPN using your IP. However, this doesn't mean the website will know the identity of the person behind the IP address — just that they are using a VPN.
  • Port number. Some VPN protocols use specific port numbers to establish a connection. For example, OpenVPN (UDP) usually uses port number 1194, while OpenVPN (TCP) typically uses 443. So, the port number can give away the type of VPN connection you're using.
  • Deep packet inspection. DPI is a process that involves inspecting the structure of each passing data packet. It has many useful applications, like blocking spam or malware. However, it can also be used to identify VPN traffic. This is what the government of China uses to block VPNs.

Who can track me online?

When online you can be tracked by:

  • Internet service providers. ISPs can see what you do online and even curb your traffic. However, a VPN hides your IP, encrypts your traffic, and protects your online privacy.
  • Government agencies and other similar entities. They can approach ISPs or online service providers to obtain data about you or just use their own tracking methods.
  • Cybercriminals. They can track you and steal your data by intercepting your traffic via public Wi-Fi. However, a VPN protects you from this by encrypting your data. Even if the Wi-Fi you’re connecting to is compromised, your data will still be protected.

Here are some of the ways you can be tracked online even when using a VPN:

  • Cookies. Websites often use tracking cookies to make your browsing experience smoother. Cookies are small pieces of code that are downloaded and stored on your device or browser when you visit a website. This is done so that a website can keep track of your requests — cookies are the reason your online shopping cart doesn’t clear each time you refresh the page. Third-party cookies are usually used for advertising and can identify and track you across different platforms. Fortunately, there are many ways to block them.
  • Browser fingerprinting. The browser you're using can reveal quite a lot about you: the extensions you have, your screen resolution, the operating system you're on. This type of data can form a unique identifier, but it won't reveal personal information about you on its own.
  • Malware or spyware. If you accidentally download malicious software, it can track your online behavior and steal sensitive information directly from your device. Stalkerware can also be installed on your device by someone you trust.
  • Data collecting websites and services. Most services we use collect our data or track our behavior in one way or another. Social media and search websites such as Google or Facebook contain a great deal of info about use and our online habits.

Can the government track you if you’re using a VPN?

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.

Can Google track me if I use a VPN?

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.

Can an employer track me while I'm on a VPN?

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, VPN detection is possible. 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.

Which VPN to choose to prevent tracking

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.

Here are a few other aspects to pay attention to when choosing a VPN provider:

  • Obfuscated servers function. It hides the fact that you use a VPN, so no one can block your connection if they find you doing this. It is especially useful when operating from areas where VPN connection is restricted;
  • Kill Switch. This function terminates your online connection if a VPN service is down. In this case, your online activities won’t be exposed accidentally;
  • Strong encryption. Make sure a VPN uses the most up-to-date encryption protocols with no backdoors or vulnerabilities;
  • DNS leak protection. Make sure a VPN sends all your DNS queries through a secure VPN tunnel to keep them private at all times.

Have a look at NordVPN's extra security-oriented features here.

Protect yourself properly.

Encrypt your traffic and stay private

How can you tell if someone is using a VPN?

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.

But you can hide this fact by using the obfuscated servers function, which conceals the VPN metadata so no one can see that you’re using a VPN.

How to do a simple VPN detection test

You can perform a simple VPN detection test by comparing your real IP address with the one given to you by your VPN. Here’s how:

  1. Note down your real IP address, which our IP lookup tool will instantly show you;
  2. Turn your VPN on;
  3. Review your IP address with our IP lookup tool. It should now show a different IP address and the country your VPN is connected to.

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.

How can I be untraceable?

Staying completely anonymous online is tough. However, there are ways you can minimize your digital footprint:

  • Be careful about what you post online. The information you reveal about yourself can be a goldmine for snoopers;
  • Ditch Google for more private search engines;
  • Use privacy-oriented browsers;
  • Use a VPN.

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.

Find out why NordVPN is one of the leading VPNs on the market. Try it for 30 days with our money-back guarantee.

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