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How untraceable am I when using my VPN?

Virtual private networks – also well-known by their abbreviation “VPN” – are important online privacy tools which have become more and more popular over the last several years. As internet users become more concerned about how much websites and online services are tracking their browsing history, streaming preferences and other online activity, they are looking for ways to prevent these online footprints from being discoverable by anyone not explicitly permitted to do so. 

VPNs create a virtual tunnel between your device – be it a PC, a smartphone or a tablet – and a secure server at another location. Many VPNs also encrypt data, meaning that only you and the website or service you’re using will see the actual unencrypted data being transferred. 

These security measures make it much more difficult for third parties to track your online activity and determine your location. They also provide an extra basic layer of security against viruses, malware and hacks. But exactly what is a VPN used for?

Many VPN users are just looking for online privacy. Internet browsers, social media apps and even your internet service provider may trace your online activity and share that data with third parties. This is normal, and is normally explained in the terms of use of the software or service you’re using. If a user would prefer that their online activity be further concealed from the prying eyes of advertising companies, then a VPN is a great option. 

Other VPN users desire anonymity. There are endless reasons for wanting to be anonymous online, but most of them are related to government oppression and censorship. However, it doesn’t have to be – the anonymity of VPNs adds a level of privacy and data security to your internet experience whether you’re actively avoiding being identified online or not. 

When you consider all of this, it may sound like VPNs make you invincible and undetectable online. As long as the data is encrypted and flowing through that secure tunnel, you’re untraceable, unfindable, and untrackable – right?

Well, while your online activities will certainly be more protected with a VPN than without, you are not, in fact, untraceable. 

  • Not all VPNs are equal

The popularity of VPNs today means that there are tons of VPN apps available for you to download and use for many devices. Many of those apps are free – which is a great thing for your wallet, but not necessarily for your privacy and anonymity. 

In one high-profile case, the popular VPN service Hotspot Shield was accused of not only collecting their users’ online activity and personal data, but of even selling it to advertising firms. This is the opposite of what people would want if they’re concerned about privacy and anonymity. In other cases, no-cost VPN providers have sold users’ unused bandwidth on third-party markets. 

VPNs which cost money often avoid these practices, but it’s best to read the fine print on a VPN provider’s terms of use and data privacy policy to see exactly how they collect and use your data. 

  • A VPN without logs?

Scores of VPN providers claim that they don’t keep logs (records) of their users’ online activity. This makes sense, since that’s a primary reason why people want to use a VPN in the first place. There may be a caveat to that claim, though. 

While the VPN service might not log and keep your online activity on one of their own databases, the same cannot be said for the actual server and server provider which makes up the other end of your VPN tunnel if your VPN provider doesn’t use their own physical servers. Some VPN providers use cloud-based servers which must store logs in order to run properly. 

It’s next to impossible to run a server without logs. Without logs, servers can’t do basic operations such as monitor connection issues and process DNS requests (DNS = Domain Name System: how the “language” of internet traffic is translated to terms we humans can understand). So no matter how much your VPN keeps its “no logs” promise, they likely have no control over the physical server they’re using or its operator. 

  • Everyone leaves a footprint

Virtual private networks can reduce your online footprint from the equivalent of man-sized footprints to mere bread crumbs on a huge beach. That means that basic methods of tracking your online activity or determining your online identity will be much more difficult, if not impossible. 

But a VPN will not make you invincible, and you can indeed be found and tracked if a person or organization has the time, resources and desire to do so. 

For starters, most VPNs simply mask your IP (internet protocol) address with their tunnel. That means your real internet location (and your location in the world) won’t be immediately visible to websites you visit or online services you use. 

Your IP address is only the most basic and easiest way to locate you, though. Because of the way internet traffic works today, it’s always possible that a DNS request may leak out of the secure VPN traffic. There are other ways that packets of data can be transferred from your regular, non-VPN IP address to the internet, such as leaks from IPv6 (a more modern, more enhanced version of the standard IPv4 IP address) connections. 

All it takes is one very brief interruption in the VPN connection, and you’ll be leaking out enough data from your normal connection to be potentially tracked down by a serious pro. 

It’s important to know that these are absolutely not reasons to not use a virtual private network. Advertising agencies aren’t going to commit the amount of money and resources to track you down, and governments are only interested in tracking down and identifying people actively committing crimes in their jurisdictions. 

That being said, take some time and research the VPN you want to use. That includes reading the VPN’s terms of use and privacy policy. It may be boring and a bit time-consuming, but it may prevent you from browsing the web with a false sense of security, or even worse, inadvertently handing over all your online activity and personal data to a less-than-trustworthy VPN provider.

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