While some broadcast their lives on Instagram, YouTube, or Twitter, others prefer to remain nameless. In search of anonymity, internet users turn to tools promising just that. One of those is a VPN. But is complete anonymity on the internet even possible? What does it take to achieve it, and how do VPNs help? Let’s get into it.
In short: Does a VPN make you anonymous?
Well, no. But it’s an essential tool for those seeking some degree of anonymity online. A VPN service encrypts your data, hides your internet traffic, bypasses website blocks, protects you from tracking, ISP snooping, hacking attempts, targeted advertising, and internet censorship.
Why it’s impossible to be 100% anonymous online
Do you have an email with your name? I’d guess yes – most of us do. Have you purchased books, clothes, electronics, or anything else online? Again, probably yes – it’s easy, quick, and time-saving. But it’s tied to your name, your address, your bank account credentials. That’s quite a lot of personal information we provide for just one online purchase. And that’s aside from leaving a trace with our IP addresses wherever we go online!
All the data that you put out on the internet is stored somewhere. It’s more likely than not that your data has been collected and used without your knowledge – perhaps it’s for research purposes, maybe marketing, or something shadier, like hacking or surveillance.
Of course, the amount of data stored in some remote server about you depends a lot on your internet habits, but one thing is clear – none of us are anonymous online, and our online privacy is always at risk.
If VPNs don’t make me anonymous, why do I need one?
Without a VPN
With a VPN
Your real IP is logged wherever you go
The VPN server’s IP is logged wherever you go
Your data isn’t encrypted
Your data is encrypted
Your real IP reveals your real location
VPN server’s IP reveals VPN server’s location
We’ve already established that complete anonymity on the internet is virtually impossible. But don’t delete your VPN. Despite complete anonymity being unrealistic, a good VPN service helps you come closer to it by improving your online privacy.
A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel from your device (e.g., a computer or a phone) to the destination you’re trying to reach (e.g., YouTube). As you connect to a server located in another country (say, France), your internet service provider and the site you’re visiting “think” you’re in France.
This connection to a VPN server creates a good degree of privacy, but I would be lying if I said you become 100% anonymous.
With a VPN, you protect your data. Some incredibly important components play a part in ensuring no information goes past the encrypted VPN tunnel.
Can you be tracked if you’re using a VPN?
There are many factors that come into play with this question, but for most intents and purposes, no, you can’t be tracked if you’re using a VPN. Of course, some caveats may apply, especially if you’ve been compromised by hackers!
What goes into a good VPN service?
Not all VPNs are made the same, and a lot depends on which features the VPN provider prioritizes. Here are some things to consider when searching for that “anonymous” VPN:
- VPN encryption: Surfshark uses the AES-256 encryption algorithm, a top standard in the industry. Even for the most powerful computers, it would take more than a lifetime to decrypt the data.
- Strict no-logs policy: To be private means to be private from everyone, including your VPN provider. Surfshark maintains a zero-logs policy, meaning that nothing of your connection logs is kept aside from what is needed to keep your connection up. What you do online is only your business.
- RAM-only servers: Not that many VPN providers rely on 100% RAM servers. Surfshark is one of the few that do. Essentially, running all servers on RAM means that the technical configuration information that would be stored on the hard drive is automatically wiped clean when a server is off.
- VPN protocols: A reliable VPN connection wouldn’t be possible without VPN protocols. Such industry-leading protocols like IKEv2, OpenVPN, and Wireguard ensure your successful route to a more anonymous browsing experience.
- Obfuscated VPN servers: With obfuscation, your VPN traffic looks like regular internet traffic to your internet service provider and the websites you visit. It benefits you by bypassing VPN blockers and shielding you from excessive ISP snooping.
- MultiHop: Surfshark offers a feature that allows you to connect to two server locations at the same time. It strengthens VPN connection, improves security, and hides your location and internet traffic even more reliably.
How privacy is different from anonymity
When it comes to VPNs, terms like anonymity, privacy, and security seem to come hand in hand. However, being private is not the same as being anonymous.
If I say someone’s a private person, I’m still aware of their existence. I just don’t know anything about them. However, when someone’s anonymous, even their existence is a secret.
So, being private online is an achievable goal because you can hide your internet activity, protect your personal data, information, and remove a lot of digital identifiers from websites or apps you visit. But hiding yourself completely might only be possible if you’ve never been on the internet at all.
If anonymity is your goal, be wary of free VPNs
Free vs. paid VPNs at a glance
May contain malware
Has malware blocker
Free VPNs are barely better than having no VPN at all. Sometimes, even worse. Why do I say so?
- Shady business models: VPN infrastructure requires a lot of resources to stay afloat. Not to mention paying for hosting services and advertising campaigns. They might not be charging you, but they’re most likely still making a profit off you. How? Usually, by storing and selling your data. And that isn’t exactly what you expect from a tool promising you anonymity, privacy, and security.
- Vague or non-existent privacy policies: The fact that over half of the most popular free services on app stores have Chinese ownership and unclear privacy policies has been public for a while now. It’s crucial to keep in mind that many of these VPN services don’t care about your privacy and instead are jumping on a skyrocketing VPN trend to earn money.
- Ads upon ads upon ads: Free app developers, in general, tend to turn to ads to make a profit. VPN providers are no exception. Besides being irritating and often suspiciously too personal, ads also make the loading process slower and use up a considerable amount of your mobile data – which you pay for! And who wants to pay to see ads?
Aside from using a VPN, what else can you do to get some online privacy?
While 100% anonymity online is probably only obtainable if you’re not on the internet at all, tools like a VPN help you protect your data. But a VPN isn’t the only service that brings you closer to anonymity.
Get a better browser
Tor (The Onion Router) is an anonymous browser that hides your real IP address, online data, and browsing history by routing your traffic through random Tor servers. This random routing ensures a high level of anonymity. However, Tor does have drawbacks; for example, it’s slow, especially for today’s standards.
Ditch Google for DuckDuckGo.
DuckDuckGo is a search engine that focuses on users’ privacy. It doesn’t track or profile its users, so everyone sees the same thing instead of showing you personalized search results.
A VPN goes well with Tor and DuckDuckGo (or even comes with its own search tool). If you decide to use either of those, make sure to also route your internet traffic through VPN servers for an even higher degree of privacy and security.
Remember the privacy settings on your devices
By tinkering with your device’s privacy settings, you can control what apps have permission to your location, contacts, messages, camera, photos, or even health information. When an app asks to access your camera, carefully assess why they need it, and only then make a decision.
Check your accounts for breaches
You probably have a lot of accounts across the internet. I know I do. Not to alarm you, but there’s a big chance that at least one of your accounts has been compromised. Check your email address (or addresses if you have multiple) on Have I Been Pwned or our email security tool Surfshark Alert. If you find compromised accounts, change passwords – and make sure they’re strong!
A reliable VPN service is the first step to online privacy
Realistically speaking, an anonymous VPN does not exist. However, VPNs offer invaluable privacy and security from online surveillance, tracking, hacking attempts, data collection, targeted advertising, ISP monitoring, censorship laws. With digital privacy worldwide standing under assault, there is no doubt that internet users need a VPN now more than ever.