Third-party ad companies, marketers, and online retailers are not the only ones that shadow and use your information for their advantage. Your Internet Service Provider (ISP), the government, and hackers can also track what you browse, search, and download. Of course, you may want to regain some privacy by getting a VPN. But what does a VPN hide? And what does it not hide?
What does a VPN hide?
- IP address
- Your personal data (also protects it)
- Your online activity (it can save you from throttling)
- A good VPN also hides itself
Table of contents
If you’re surfing the internet without a VPN, you’re leaving a digital footprint on every website you visit. Be it lurking on forums, using social media, or simply searching for information, your activity can be backtracked along with your real IP address, location, and other personal information.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) hides your actual IP address automatically when you connect to a VPN server, masking the physical location, browsing history, and online activities performed on your device. By providing you with a VPN IP address instead, it blocks your ISP and self-interested third parties from breaching your privacy and monetizing your personal information.
And while a VPN cannot make you anonymous, accessing the internet through a VPN can provide layers of protection to your online activity from unwelcome eyes. Let’s take a look at how that works.
A VPN hides your IP address
Internal protocol (IP) addresses are digital labels every device or a device network receives before it can access the internet. Because of that, your IP address is roughly linked to your physical location, ISP, and search history.
Your IP address is tied to your online identity
Maybe you’re browsing forums or Reddit under a pseudonym, or perhaps you just don’t want to have your true identity displayed on social media.
But if your IP address is not hidden, it can be used for doxxing, something that hackers and online vigilantes do to acquire information for malicious intent about public and private figures. Tie that information to a person’s name or an organization and imagine how many stories can be spun when it is taken out of context.
IP addresses are used to set online prices
Doxxing is not the only thing someone can do with your IP. Companies and service providers can use your IP information and cookies to track your purchases and tailor prices and deals for you accordingly.
When you use a VPN, it hides your public-facing IP by changing it to your VPN server’s IP address. Anyone trying to backtrack your information requests will not be able to see where it originated from. A good VPN provider can even help against governments and fancier companies trying to track you.
A VPN hides your location
You need a VPN to hide your location. While your IP address can show someone your location, it’s not exactly the most accurate of information. Usually, your IP can only display information provided by your ISP, i.e., the city or place where the internet servers you’re connected to are located. However, aside from your IP address, there are other ways for third parties to track you.
Many apps, for example, do this by using your device’s physical GPS location. Sometimes, access to your smartphone’s GPS is one of the conditions for using certain apps at all. Then these apps track you everywhere you go or visit.
But if you turn off GPS tracking and use a VPN, they won’t be able to track you even on public Wi-Fi hotspots, something that Google can do by triangulating the location from Android users that had connected to the hotspot in the past while using GPS. And with Surfshark, you can choose from thousands of VPN servers to hide behind.
A VPN hides and protects your personal data
Airports, coffee shops, hotels, and other places where you can enjoy free Wi-Fi are also gold mines for hackers and cyber hooligans.
The best advice is to avoid unsecured public networks or Wi-Fi hotspots unless you’re using a VPN. If you’re not protected, anyone with low moral standards and a little know-how could steal your logins, passwords, or any other sensitive information that you might be sharing at the time.
A VPN makes sure your privacy remains uncompromised by encrypting all data before it leaves your device. That way, it makes sure your personal information becomes unreadable pieces of scrambled nonsense for any shady observers. I recommend that you always use a VPN while traveling so you won’t have to worry about connecting to any public hotspot if you need to.
A VPN hides your online activity (to save you from bandwidth throttling)
Many ISP providers in the US have been found to slow their user’s internet connections when they are streaming videos online or gaming. What’s worse is that some ISPs throttled different services like Netflix and YouTube more than Amazon Prime.
This means that internet providers also make money by favoring certain streaming services over others. Since a VPN hides your online activity from your ISP, it can make sure that your internet connection is safe from throttling when streaming videos online or downloading files. And if you’re an avid gamer, you should consider getting a VPN for gaming to have some peace of mind when relaxing with a game.
A good VPN hides itself
As mentioned before, good VPNs can hide their own activity. They do so by allowing you to connect to the internet through obfuscated VPN servers.
This way, you hide the fact that you’re using a VPN, which can help you bypass VPN blockers from your government, ISP, or other institutions like schools and universities.
Censorship is a growing issue in the world, and in China and some Middle Eastern countries, it has grown to the level of human rights violations.
Why you need a VPN to hide your browsing history from your ISP
You may have deleted your search history and cleared your cookies, but your ISP probably hasn’t. ISPs see and process the DNS queries that you make every time you access the internet. This way, they gain a lot of information about your online activity and what you browse.
As of 2017, ISPs in the US have a legal right to sell their user’s browsing history as long as they “anonymize” their personal data. But even that wording is extremely subjective to interpretation. Your personal information should remain your own. By encrypting all data before it leaves your device, a VPN can make sure your browsing history remains hidden even from your ISP.
Does a VPN hide your browsing history?
Well, it depends. If you’re searching on Google, it can still collect data via cookies and (if you’re connected) your account. While a VPN helps, an even better idea is to use a privacy search tool that gives you objective results no matter what – like Surfshark Search!
What does a VPN not hide?
Many VPNs claim that they can protect and hide your information, but can you trust them? Well, there are a few ways you can check how legitimate your VPN’s security is. Usually, that involves doing DNS, IP address, and WebRTC leak tests. These tests can provide you with a better understanding of areas that your VPN might be lacking in.
That being said, here are things that a VPN won’t hide:
- Already existing cookies. Clear them if you want to increase your privacy!
- Your absolute identity, i.e., it won’t make you anonymous.
- It won’t hide you from viruses. While some VPNs like Surfshark offer features (CleanWeb) that can save you from malware or phishing on some infected sites, a VPN won’t save you from accessing every virus-ridden website on the internet or downloading a malicious app. Always be aware when surfing the web!
Does a VPN hide you completely?
No. Nothing can hide you completely when you’re online. In fact, anyone selling you a tool promising complete anonymity is scamming you. Read our article on the subject here.
Can you be tracked if you use a VPN?
Under some circumstances – yes. There are ways to leave a digital trail no VPN provider can protect you from. We dedicated an entire article to the question of tracking when connected to a VPN. Personal diligence is important if you want to ensure that no trace remains.
In closing: Regain your privacy with a VPN
Overall, a good VPN will properly encrypt your data and hide your real IP address, location, and internet activity. This way, you can browse the internet how it was meant to be – without your personal information being used for someone else’s gain or political agendas.
Who can see what you do on a VPN?
No one – as long as you choose a trusted VPN provider. Of course, there are some questionable services out there. For example, free VPNs usually make money by selling the data they collect from you. But as long as you choose a no-logs VPN, you’ll benefit from encrypted data and be the only one in the know.
Can someone find your exact location with a VPN?
No. Well, of course, if you’re going around posting your exact location on Reddit, then nothing will help you. But as long as your address isn’t posted online and you’re using a VPN, your exact location will be impossible to find.
Does a VPN hide you completely?
No. At the end of the day, nothing hides you completely, there’s no one-all product that can work as an invisibility cloak. Still, a VPN comes pretty close.
Can you be tracked if you use a VPN?
Yes, but it’s harder to do when you’re protected. There are ways to track you that do not deal with data encryption. For example, your Google account has information about you no VPN can hide. Still, with a VPN and good cyber-hygiene, you can become almost invisible online.