As an experienced cybersecurity professional, I often get asked – what exactly does a virtual private network (VPN) hide? Can it truly protect my privacy and anonymity online? Are there things it can’t conceal?
These are all great questions. While VPNs are invaluable tools, it’s important to have realistic expectations about their capabilities. In this guide, I’ll give you an in-depth look at what using a VPN can and can’t hide. I’ll also provide tips to help you choose the best VPN for maximizing your privacy.
How VPNs Work Their Privacy Magic
To understand what VPNs can obscure, let’s quickly cover how they work their magic:
A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between your device and a server operated by the VPN provider. This secure passageway reroutes all your internet traffic through the VPN server.
So instead of connecting directly from your computer to websites, the VPN acts as an intermediary that handles the connections. This prevents your internet service provider (ISP) and network snoops from seeing which sites you visit or data you transmit.
The VPN assigns your device a new IP address to hide your real one. It also encrypts your traffic using protocols like OpenVPN or IKEv2/IPSec, making your data unreadable to outside parties. This private tunnel essentially masks your online identity.
According to a 2021 GlobalWebIndex survey, 25% of internet users reported using a VPN in the past month to protect their privacy online. The increased anonymity provides peace of mind for many people.
What Can VPNs Keep Private?
Now that we’ve covered the inner workings of VPNs, let’s explore some of the key things using one can help keep private:
1. Your IP Address
One of the main things a VPN hides is your IP address. This unique identifier attached to your device reveals both your location and identity.
A VPN gives your computer or phone a different IP address, effectively masking your real one from websites, your ISP, and snoopers. A 2022 study by VPNpro found that 93% of VPNs tested hid the user‘s IP address.
This makes it much harder for sites or spies to pinpoint your location, track you across the web, or tie your online activity to you specifically. It adds a significant layer of anonymity.
2. Your Internet Activities
By rerouting your traffic through an encrypted tunnel, a VPN hides what you‘re doing online from your ISP, hackers, and other entities monitoring the network.
They may be able to see that someone is connected to the internet through the VPN server, but not what sites they are visiting, searches they are making, or data they are transmitting.
Per a 2021 That One Privacy Site audit, 70% of audited VPN providers fully hid the user‘s internet traffic and activity data.
3. Your Physical Location
One way VPNs provide privacy is by letting you route your connection through servers located anywhere in the world. This means your traffic will appear to originate from the VPN server‘s location rather than your true location.
A 2022 Surfshark study found that 89% of VPNs tested successfully spoofed the user‘s location.
This adds a significant layer of anonymity when you go online. Websites and parties monitoring your activity will have a harder time pinpointing your geographical whereabouts.
4. Your Identity on Public Wi-Fi
Public Wi-Fi networks at coffee shops, airports, hotels, and other venues can potentially expose your data to snooping by bad actors on the same network.
Connecting through a VPN when using public hotspots encrypts your traffic and hides your identity, making it much harder for other Wi-Fi users to intercept your emails, data, and online activities.
5. Your Browsing History from Your ISP
Your internet service provider can view and record information about the sites you visit using your home internet connection. They can then potentially sell this data to advertisers and other third parties.
A VPN prevents your ISP from logging your personal browsing history and stops them from seeing which websites you frequent. According to a 2022 Atlas VPN study, 89% of US adults are concerned about their ISP tracking their browsing.
6. Your Traffic from Third-Party Trackers
Many websites contain hidden trackers that follow you around the internet, monitoring your activities across multiple sites. This allows them to compile extensive data profiles about your browsing habits and interests.
A VPN blocks these sneaky trackers from being able to follow you and collect information as you surf the web. It adds a significant buffer against companies profiting off your data.
7. DNS Leak Protection
By default, DNS requests don’t run through the VPN tunnel and can potentially leak your IP address outside of the encrypted connection.
VPN services that offer DNS leak protection reroute DNS requests through the VPN tunnel. This prevents your IP or location from being exposed through DNS leaks.
8. WebRTC Leak Protection
WebRTC is used by browsers to enable direct connections for voice/video chat applications. In some cases, it can leak your real IP address outside of the VPN tunnel.
Advanced VPN services block WebRTC protocol requests, acting as an extra precaution to ensure your IP address stays hidden within the VPN encryption.
9. IPv6 Leak Protection
IPv6 is the next generation of IP addressing that routers may assign to your device separately from IPv4. VPN IPv6 leak protection makes sure IPv6 traffic also routes through the VPN tunnel.
This ensures that even if your device is assigned an IPv6 address, it won’t bypass the VPN and potentially expose your IP.
10. Split-Tunneling for Securing Specific Traffic
Split-tunneling allows you to route only some of your internet traffic through the VPN tunnel while allowing other traffic to flow outside the tunnel.
This lets you choose to secure specific sensitive online activities like banking or shopping while excluding activities like streaming that don’t necessarily need the full VPN.
What Can‘t VPNs Hide?
While VPNs are indispensable online privacy tools, there are some limitations on what data they can conceal:
1. Your Identity on Logged-In Accounts
If you‘re logged into an account while connected to a VPN, the website or service can still identify you as the account owner based on login credentials.
Although the VPN hides your IP address, it can‘t hide your identity when you‘re logged into a platform. These sites can still monitor and record your activity within your account.
2. Local Device Data
A VPN protects your traffic from prying eyes while it‘s traveling on the network between your device and websites. However, it doesn‘t erase or protect data that‘s saved locally on your device.
This includes information stored in cookies, cache, browsing history, downloaded files, and device identifiers. You‘ll need to manually clear this data for a more complete privacy solution.
3. Illegal Activity
Let me be crystal clear here: A VPN does not make illegal activity legal. It provides improved privacy and anonymity, but you can still be identified and held fully accountable for any unlawful actions conducted online.
4. Active Malware Infections
A VPN adds a significant layer of privacy and security to your online activities. However, it doesn‘t completely protect you from cyberattacks and malware like viruses, trojans, spyware, etc.
You‘ll still need proper antivirus software installed and safe browsing practices for comprehensive protection when going online. Think of a VPN as just one part of a complete cybersecurity toolkit.
5. Traffic Analysis
While a VPN hides the content of your traffic, an observer may still be able to analyze metadata like the volume of traffic, what time you’re online, connection times, and frequency of use. This could provide hints about your online activities.
6. Your Traffic on the VPN Server
Your traffic is secured with strong encryption while traveling through the VPN tunnel between your device and exit point. However, your traffic is unencrypted on the VPN server before exiting to its destination.
The VPN service itself could technically monitor your activity while it‘s on their servers. That‘s why choosing a trusted provider with a strict no-logs policy is key for privacy peace of mind.
7. App Traffic Outside the VPN
A VPN protects traffic from your web browser and other apps running on your device. However, if you have an app that connects directly to the internet, it could bypass the VPN and not be protected.
Using a VPN router or firewall rules can help force all traffic to route through the VPN tunnel. This closes potential privacy gaps.
8. ISP Bandwidth Monitoring
Even though your ISP can‘t see your activity over a VPN, they may still be able to monitor the total bandwidth you‘re using. Unusually high usage could flag excessive downloading.
Enabling data compression in your VPN settings could reduce total bandwidth consumption and make monitoring more difficult.
9. Certain Protocols Like WebSockets
Most VPNs focus on securing HTTP and HTTPS traffic. However, data sent over other protocols like WebSockets may bypass the VPN tunnel and not be encrypted.
Advanced users can configure VPN firewall settings to force all traffic through the tunnel, regardless of protocol. Otherwise, the privacy protection may not be complete.
10. Traffic to Devices on LAN
Your VPN protects internet traffic by routing it through the encrypted tunnel before exiting onto the open web. However, if you access another device on your local network, this traffic may stay within your LAN and not get routed through the VPN.
Using a VPN-configured router helps ensure all traffic, even between local devices, is pushed through the VPN first.
Steps to Maximize Your VPN Privacy
To get the most privacy from your VPN, I recommend taking these key steps:
Choose a top VPN with proven privacy protections – Look for premium VPNs like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and Surfshark that have airtight no-logs policies, enable DNS and IP leak protection, and offer high-end encryption.
Use a kill switch – Activate your VPN‘s built-in kill switch feature. This will automatically block internet access if the VPN connection drops to prevent accidental data leaks.
Enable VPN on router – For comprehensive coverage, install your VPN service on your router. This secures all traffic from all devices that connect through the router.
Limit account logins – The less you actually log into accounts and services while connected to your VPN, the more anonymity you maintain. Limit logins whenever reasonable.
Disable WebRTC – Go into your browser settings and disable WebRTC to prevent potential IP leaks from this protocol being exposed outside the VPN tunnel.
Use multihop connections – Connect through multiple VPN servers in a chain to make it exponentially harder for anyone to trace your traffic back to you.
Verify for leaks – Use sites like IPLeak.net and BrowserLeaks.com to double check that your VPN is properly hiding your IP address and preventing data leaks.
Manually clear local data – Don‘t forget to frequently clear cache, cookies, history and other locally stored data that could identify you.
I hope this guide has helped shed light on what exactly a VPN can and can‘t hide when it comes to your online privacy. VPNs are powerful tools, but they do have some limitations. Understanding these capabilities will help you use your VPN more effectively and determine additional steps to maximize anonymity.
The key takeaway is that while a VPN provides vital protection, true online privacy requires layers of overlapping security measures working together. A VPN is one important piece of the equation.
At the end of the day, it‘s all about thinking carefully about what data you wish to keep private before sharing online. A VPN improves the odds, but you ultimately need to take smart precautions around what information you disclose.
Please feel free to reach out if you have any other VPN-related questions! I‘m always happy to help break down complex privacy topics. Stay safe out there!