A police car with a browser window behind it, showing a checkmark, and next to it, a magnifying glass with an eye icon inside.

A VPN promises privacy and security online – but how far does the protection go? Does it apply in all cases, even if criminal acts are committed? Can police track VPN activity when you purchase something online? What’s the role of a country where a VPN is registered?

These are fair questions to ask. Let’s discuss it.

Police can’t track live, encrypted VPN traffic, but if they have a court order, they can go to your ISP (Internet Service Provider) and request connection or usage logs. Since your ISP knows you’re using a VPN, they can direct the police to them. Whether your VPN provider gives up that information depends on factors such as the jurisdiction and the VPN’s privacy policy.

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What information could a VPN give to the police?

When it comes to handing over the information about its users, it all depends on what data a VPN provider collects.

There are three main categories of data collection:

  • Usage logs. These logs include visited websites.
  • Connection logs. These records include times of connection, data usage, users’ real IP address, and an IP address assigned by a VPN.
  • No logs. Some VPN providers keep no logs of your VPN activity, except information needed for billing and troubleshooting.
We don’t know what you do online

Some VPNs claim they don’t collect any logs, but it may be a facade. That’s why it’s crucial not to overlook privacy policies. You might see things you don’t want to see there, such as intrusive data collection.

Why do some VPNs collect users’ data? More on that in the next section.

VPNs vs. data retention laws

If a country has strict data retention laws, a VPN that’s registered in that country has to keep logs regardless of what they claim on their website.

For example, a VPN provider can’t claim to be no-logs if they’re under the jurisdiction of the US or any other country with laws that require providers to keep user data. Let me be clear about this, most premium VPNs don’t monitor your browsing activity day-in-day-out, but they can keep connection logs, IP addresses, session information, or used bandwidth.

Surfshark VPN is legally registered in the Netherlands. The country has no data retention laws. Because of this, we’re under no obligation to store users’ data. That goes for usage and VPN connection logs alike. We advocate for privacy and the open internet; thus, it’s important for us that our users don’t feel watched by their VPN provider.

Can police track online purchases made with a VPN?

A box with a dollar-sign price tag, a magnifying glass with a police shield, and an order page in the background.

There is no way to track live, encrypted VPN traffic. That’s why police or government agencies who need information about websites you visited have to contact your internet service provider (ISP for short), and only then your VPN provider. Whether your VPN provider gives away any information or not depends on several factors, such as the country’s data retention laws or a VPN’s internal privacy policy.

Speaking of purchases, unless they have a reason to believe that you’re doing something illegal, the police don’t care what you buy online.

Using the Tor browser could be suspicious to your ISP and, therefore, to the police. However, you’re not going to get in trouble just because it looks a bit suspicious.

It’s important to point out that if a user is engaging in criminal activities, a VPN will not save them. Police and federal authorities alike have more methods to catch a perpetrator than asking their VPN provider for connection and usage logs.

Here at Surfshark, we do not condone illegal acts despite not keeping VPN logs of our users’ activity. We believe that online privacy is a human right, but we draw the line if your actions harm others.

Is it legal to use a VPN?

VPN tracking takes a different meaning when it comes to countries that restrict VPN usage. In some regions, you won’t be able to download a VPN, let alone connect to it. In these cases, obfuscated servers can be very helpful. In short, they work like an invisibility cloak for a VPN, masking your VPN traffic and making it look like regular internet traffic.

Most countries have no problem with VPNs. However, a handful of governments feel the need to control their citizens’ lives in as many aspects as possible. And VPNs sometimes don’t slip through the cracks. Here is a list of countries where VPN use is illegal or restricted.

Current VPN status
North Korea
The United Arab Emirates

What’s the takeaway on police tracking VPNs?

Can police track a VPN? In short, not really. But if they have a court order, they can request usage or connection logs.

Overall, being completely anonymous and untraceable online is virtually impossible. A VPN is a great tool that gives you more privacy by masking your IP address, minimizing commercial advertising, and hacking attempts. However, a VPN will not hide you from legal troubles, and it should not be used as a way to do that.

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