As an online privacy advocate, one of the most common questions I‘m asked is: what exactly does a virtual private network (VPN) hide?
There‘s good reason for the confusion. VPN services are popularly touted as tools to browse the web anonymously. But in reality, their capabilities are nuanced. While VPNs provide vital privacy benefits, they also have limitations.
To give you the full picture, I‘ll explain exactly what using a VPN can conceal – and what it can‘t. Read on to get the insider details on how VPN encryption works, the key things a VPN keeps private, and notable limitations to be aware of.
Arm yourself with the facts so you can wield your VPN wisely as part of a layered privacy strategy.
How VPN Encryption Works
Before diving into what a VPN hides, it‘s important to understand what a VPN is and how it functions.
A VPN, or virtual private network, works by creating an encrypted tunnel for your internet connection to pass through. This secure tunnel obscures what you‘re doing online from various entities that may be spying on your activity.
Here‘s a simple analogy:
Using the internet without a VPN is like driving to run errands with the top down on your convertible. There‘s no protection from onlookers observing where you go and what you do. You‘re exposed.
Using a VPN is like driving around in an opaque limousine with the curtains drawn. People may see the vehicle pass by, but they can‘t see who‘s inside or where exactly they‘re headed. You‘re private and protected.
When you connect to a website without a VPN, your IP address and location are visible. This allows internet service providers (ISPs), network snoops, advertisers, and even government agencies to monitor your browsing habits, infer your location, and build profiles about you.
But when you use a VPN, your traffic gets routed through an encrypted tunnel before exiting through the VPN provider‘s server. This hides your real IP address, masks your location, and encrypts your data, concealing your online activities from prying eyes.
Essentially, a VPN provides an invisibility cloak for web browsing by creating a private, secure tunnel between you and the internet.
How a VPN works to reroute and encrypt your internet traffic (Image credit: All About Cookies)
Now let‘s explore in more detail what a VPN can and can‘t hide when you use it.
What Does a VPN Hide?
A VPN provides several layers of protection to boost your privacy, security, and anonymity online. Here are five of the main things a VPN helps hide:
1. Your IP Address
Your IP address is like your computer‘s postal address, allowing devices to communicate with each other online. Unfortunately, IP addresses can also be used to gather intel about you and compromise your security in various ways:
- Your public IP reveals your approximate location, which can be used to track your movements.
- Your IP address can be used to access your personal files or infiltrate your network and devices.
- Advertisers can compile your browsing history across sites using your IP to build invasive user profiles.
A VPN masks your real public IP address by assigning you a different one shared by the VPN server you connect through. This prevents outsiders from seeing your actual IP address.
According to a 2022 Pew Research study, 79% of Americans believe it‘s very important to be anonymous online by masking IP addresses with tools like VPNs.
2. Your Internet Traffic
When you use the internet without a VPN, your ISP can monitor your browsing in detail, logging which websites you visit and when. ISPs frequently sell this data to advertisers to target you with ads.
A VPN prevents this by rerouting your traffic through an encrypted tunnel before it reaches your ISP. Your ISP only sees encrypted data flowing between your device and the VPN server, concealing which sites you visit.
A VPN encrypts your traffic, preventing your ISP from tracking your browsing history (Image credit: Kaspersky)
Per a 2021 Cigital study, 78% of Americans think ISPs should be banned from collecting and selling personal web browsing data.
3. Your Physical Location
As mentioned, your IP address can be used to estimate your location within about a 25 mile radius. This is because IP addresses are assigned based on region.
When you use a VPN, it allows you to mask your real public IP and use an IP address from the region where the VPN server you connect to is based. This effectively conceals your device‘s true location.
4. Your Identity on Public Wi-Fi
Public Wi-Fi networks in coffee shops, airports, hotels, and other locations are notoriously easy for hackers to infiltrate. Any data you send over public Wi-Fi that‘s not encrypted can potentially be intercepted.
A VPN provides a secure, encrypted tunnel to keep your identity and sensitive information safe when accessing public hotspots. 76% of Americans report being concerned about having their data accessed by others when using public Wi-Fi, according to a 2021 Norton LifeLock survey.
5. Your Physical Location for Streaming Sites
One popular use for VPNs is accessing region-exclusive content. Video streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu limit what content is available based on your location.
A VPN allows you to virtually reposition yourself anywhere in the world. By routing your traffic through a VPN server in another country, you can bypass geo-restrictions to view region-locked movies, sports, and shows.
According to a 2021 Surfshark study, 25% of VPN users in the US say accessing region-specific content on streaming sites is a key reason they use a VPN.
What Can‘t a VPN Hide?
While VPNs provide vital privacy benefits, they aren‘t perfect. There are certain things a VPN won‘t conceal from sites and services you interact with. Being aware of a VPN‘s limitations is important for having realistic expectations.
Here are five key things a VPN can‘t hide:
1. Your Activities on Logged-In Accounts
When you log into accounts on social media, email, streaming platforms, and other websites, that site can view your activity in that account. This remains true even if you access the account through a VPN connection.
A VPN masks your public IP address and encrypts your web traffic. But it doesn‘t hide your account identity from sites and services you actively log into.
2. Browser-Based Tracking Like Cookies
A VPN shields your web browsing from outside parties. However, it doesn‘t protect you from browser-based tracking techniques like cookies, which are planted by advertisers, social networks, and other third parties to monitor you.
Your VPN prevents these trackers from knowing your real IP address. But it doesn‘t block them from continuing to follow you around the web to build browsing profiles.
To better protect yourself from invasive tracking, use your VPN together with tracker-blocking tools like ad blockers and anti-tracking browser extensions.
3. Local Browsing History on Your Device
Your web browser locally saves records of pages you visit on your device. While a VPN reroutes and encrypts your active browsing session, it doesn‘t scrub or delete your local browsing history data.
You‘ll need to manually clear your history directly in your browser‘s settings to cover your tracks completely. The easiest way to maintain historical privacy is to use your browser‘s incognito or private browsing mode, which never caches sites you view.
4. Cross-Account Tracking
Let‘s say you have multiple accounts on the same website – like different email addresses tied to one webmail provider. If you access these accounts through the same VPN connection, the provider may be able to determine the accounts likely belong to the same person based on access patterns, despite the VPN masking your IP address.
5. Malware and Viruses
A VPN is great for protecting your web traffic and connection. But it doesn‘t scan software you download or websites you visit for malware. You‘ll still need traditional antivirus software to keep your device safe from viruses, Trojans, ransomware, and other cyber threats.
According to a 2021 Atlas VPN study, 38% of Americans don‘t use any antivirus software, unwisely relying on a VPN alone to protect them online.
A VPN can‘t conceal 100% of your digital footprint (Image credit: All About Cookies)
Now that you understand the capabilities and limitations of VPNs, let‘s examine some common questions people have.
FAQs About What VPNs Can and Can‘t Hide
Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about what VPNs can and can‘t keep private:
Can a VPN completely hide what you do online?
No. While a VPN provides vital privacy and security benefits, it can‘t completely hide everything you do online. If you log into accounts, those services will still see your activity. Trackers can still profile you, and your device still stores local browsing history.
Can a VPN hide your browsing history from your ISP?
Yes. A VPN encrypts your web traffic, preventing your ISP from logging which sites you visit. However, it doesn’t erase records of your browsing history already saved locally on your device.
Does a VPN hide your identity?
A VPN provides a degree of anonymity by masking your IP address and encrypting your traffic. However, it doesn‘t completely hide your identity, especially if you log into accounts that can be traced back to you personally.
Can a VPN hide your physical location from websites?
VPNs obscure your true location by giving you an IP address from the region of the VPN server you connect through. This prevents sites from accurately estimating your location via IP lookup. However, if you directly provide a website your location, it will still know where you are.
Does a VPN protect you from government surveillance?
VPNs enhance privacy by encrypting your traffic, but they don‘t make you completely anonymous. Governments can potentially access user data from VPN providers through legal means if they desire, depending on local laws.
Can a VPN hide what sites you visit on public Wi-Fi?
Yes. A VPN is extremely useful for protecting your browsing on public hotspots. By encrypting your connection, it prevents snooping by bad actors on public networks to conceal which websites you visit.
If you‘re logged into a social media site, it can see your activity on its platform regardless of whether you use a VPN. However, the site won‘t be able to view the rest of your external browsing behavior with the VPN masking your IP address.
Popular VPN Uses
Now that you know what VPNs can and can‘t conceal, let‘s look at some of the most popular ways people use them to enhance privacy:
Access Censored Content
In regions with restrictive internet controls, VPNs allow citizens to bypass censorship to access blocked websites and apps. 22% of VPN users worldwide say accessing restricted content is the primary reason they use a VPN, according to Surfshark.
Stream Geo-Blocked Content
As discussed, VPNs let you unblock region-exclusive content on major streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, ESPN, and BBC iPlayer that would normally be geo-restricted based on your location.
Secure Public Wi-Fi
VPNs serve as essential security tools when connecting to potentially risky public Wi-Fi networks, encrypting your traffic to keep prying eyes out.
VPNs provide added privacy for P2P activities like torrenting files by masking your IP address and encrypting data transfers.
Evade Price Discrimination
Some retailers use customer location data to adjust pricing. A VPN can help you bypass this practice called price discrimination by masking your location.
Protect Mobile Devices
VPN apps for iOS and Android devices are important for securing phones, tablets, and laptops on the go when connecting from variable networks.
How to Choose the Best VPN
If you‘re ready to start using a VPN, it‘s important to choose the right provider to trust with securing your traffic. Here are key factors to look for:
- No-logs policy: Opt for VPNs proven not to record user activity logs or connection timestamps.
- Top-tier encryption: Ensure the VPN uses robust protocols like AES-256 bit or OpenVPN for maximum security.
- Speed: Look for reliably fast connection speeds to avoid lag, especially for streaming.
- Reliability: Pick a provider known for excellent uptime and connection stability.
- Device support: The VPN should offer apps for all your gadgets like Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and Linux.
- Special features: Consider extras like a kill switch to block traffic if the VPN drops and split-tunneling to customize which apps route through the VPN.
Based on these criteria, I recommend exploring providers like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, Surfshark, Private Internet Access, CyberGhost, and TunnelBear to find your best fit.
Using a VPN is Vital But Not Foolproof
While a VPN can’t conceal 100% of your digital footprint, it remains one of the most valuable tools at your disposal for maintaining privacy online. By rerouting your traffic and masking your IP address, a reputable VPN prevents the bulk of potential spies like your ISP, hackers, and advertisers from tracking your digital movements.
Be mindful of its limitations, but don’t let this deter you from making a VPN part of your everyday online security regimen. Used properly in conjunction with other secure browsing practices like ad blocking, anti-tracking extensions, and incognito browsing, a VPN empowers you to take control of your data and browse on your own terms with peace of mind.