Can you be tracked if you use a VPN

In short: can a VPN be tracked? 

If you use a VPN, your IP (Internet Protocol) address is changed and your online activity is encrypted, so it’s really difficult to track it. Some internet service providers (ISPs) or websites may know that you’re using a VPN, but they can’t see your actual online activity. These and other security measures make good VPNs hard to hack as well. 

Why do millions of people around the world use VPNs? Reasons vary, but many agree that it helps them feel at ease on the internet. It’s becoming increasingly challenging to have privacy online, and a VPN does a great job of protecting its users from digital spying, tracking, data collection, invasive advertising, and cybercriminals.

But is a VPN an all-round solution to the invasion of online privacy? It’s natural to raise these questions. That’s why I’m here to answer them.

    What do we talk about when we talk about tracking?

    It’s important to first understand what tracking is in this context. There are three aspects to it:

    1. Can someone see that you’re using a VPN?
    2. What information is available to them?
    3. Can they see what you’re doing online?

    Let’s explore it.

    In what ways can you be tracked online?

    • Malware. Accidentally installing malware on your device can result in severe issues like stolen personal information or even fraud.
    • IP address. Unless you use a VPN, a proxy, a Tor browser, or any other privacy protection tool, your real IP address is visible to websites you visit.
    • Cookies. Advertisers can track you across the internet based on cookies, whether you use a VPN or not. However, popular browsers like Google Chrome allow you to block cookies if you’d rather not have your internet habits saved and stored on the internet.
    • Digital fingerprinting. More intrusive than cookie-based tracking, fingerprinting uses your computer settings, software, web browser preferences, and other similar things to make a digital portrait of you.
    • DNS leak. DNS leaks can happen when a VPN or a DNS is not set up correctly and when your device gets hacked. These leaks can compromise your privacy by exposing your activity online. To avoid DNS leaks, use a VPN that provides you with their own DNS addresses.
    • Doxxing. Doxxing is a malicious practice that people use to expose someone’s private information, like their home address or workplace.

    As you can see, an IP address isn’t the only identifier on the internet. Thus, a VPN isn’t the only solution to online threats. Apart from anti-virus programs, we should also be cautious about suspicious links and emails.

    Phishing is as old as the internet. And no one is really safe from it because modern phishing tactics can be seamless. We can all feel a bit spaced out sometimes and not notice warning signs when they’re there. It goes without saying, though, that not losing common sense on the internet is crucial.

    Apart from that, there are also tools that help filter out email scams, like CleanWeb by Surfshark.

    Who can (potentially) see that you’re using a VPN?

    Not every person online will see that you’re connected to a VPN. But some can. Who has access to this information, and how can they see it?

    Let’s answer the who:

    • Your ISP (Internet Service Provider);
    • websites or apps (e.g., Netflix);
    • hackers.

    Let’s answer the how:

    • Since your ISP provides you internet service, they can see the connections you make through their servers. It doesn’t mean that there are bold letters proclaiming that you’re using a VPN, but based on IP addresses and encrypted traffic, they could theoretically connect the dots.
    • Some apps and websites don’t give access to their service if you’re using a VPN. They can detect it by blacklisting IP addresses that many different people around the world use to connect. This kind of IP looks suspicious to a service provider; thus, it gets blocked.
    • Hackers can see that you’re using a VPN if they try to get to your data through an unsecured network (e.g., a public Wi-Fi without a password), or if you connect to a fake open Wi-Fi created by shady persons.

    It’s important to note that your ISP or an online service seeing that you use a VPN isn’t bad news. That’s because it doesn’t mean that they can see what you’re sharing. When you connect to the internet through a VPN, your IP address appears that of a VPN, so your real IP address cannot be tracked.

    Mask your VPN traffic with obfuscated servers

    A VPN hides your online traffic, while an obfuscated server hides your VPN usage. It’s like an invisibility cloak — sometimes called a stealth VPN.

    Where can you “get” those obfuscated servers? Well, some premium VPN providers (Surfshark included) use them. At Surfshark this functionality is called Camouflage Mode.

    Obfuscation is great for bypassing various VPN blocks, like Hulu or Netflix, as well as the Great Firewall of China.

    Is a free VPN a viable option for privacy?

    In the last few years, VPN popularity skyrocketed. That’s why there are seemingly hundreds of VPN apps promising privacy and security online. Everyone wants a piece of a VPN market pie.

    It’s essential to be extra careful when choosing your VPN provider. While a free VPN might seem like an okay choice, you should know that secure VPN technology requires a lot of investment and resources.

    How do they make money if users don’t pay for the service? Usually, it means that your data is being sold to advertisers and marketing companies. Sometimes these free apps are so invasive that they get more out of you than just your online habits, purchases, and visited sites. Some can have access to your full name, phone number, or even home address.

    If you’re concerned about being tracked with a VPN, I suggest not going for free options.

    Can the government track you through a VPN?

    Here’s the thing: federal authorities don’t waste their time on casual VPN users. There needs to be a legal foundation for them to take an interest in someone’s VPN activity.

    When federal agents suspect someone of a crime, they go to an ISP to ask for connection logs. After detecting VPN connections, they might try approaching a VPN provider. If a VPN keeps no logs of users’ data, they will have nothing to offer even if they wanted to.

    However, there aren’t many cases of authorities approaching VPN providers because they have multiple other methods of tracking a potential criminal down. We also have an extensive guide on “Can police track a VPN” that you might want to check out as well.

    Can you be tracked if you connect to a VPN server in the same country?

    Connecting to a VPN server in the same country is just as secure as connecting to a server in a foreign country. The only downside is that you won’t bypass geographical restrictions since your ISP sees you in the same location.

    If a VPN disconnects, can you be tracked passively?

    When a VPN disconnects, your data is no longer encrypted, and your real IP address is exposed. Your ISP has access to the activity of your IP address (e.g., the websites you visit), so you’re a much easier target for tracking when you disconnect from a VPN.

    A solution to this problem is a so-called Kill Switch feature that some VPN providers offer. I’ll talk more about that in the next section.

    Can a VPN be hacked? 

    While anything can be potentially hacked, a good VPN is safe from hacking due to all the security measures necessary for it to work. The same can’t be said for all VPNs – the free ones are especially shady and can be the actual vector for stealing your data or installing malware on your device. 

    The takeaway on being tracked if you use a VPN

    If someone really wants to track you online, they will probably find a way to do that, whether you use a VPN or not.

    However, a VPN keeps your browsing activity safe. Even those who can see that you use a VPN (i.e., your ISP, websites you visit, or even hackers) can’t access your data, real location, or any sensitive information. Make sure to choose a VPN with transparent privacy and no-logs policies, like Surfshark.

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