A VPN is an excellent tool for protecting your online traffic and privacy over the internet. However, achieving total anonymity and avoiding being tracked when using a VPN is hard.
Other aspects are often used when tracking online users. If the VPN logs identifying information and activities, your IP address can be traced back to you.
Generally, it is hard but not impossible to be tracked while using a VPN.
In this article, I’ll explore if you can be tracked by entities such as the ISP, police, government agencies, cybercriminals, employer, and tech companies when using a VPN.
Let’s get started!
Fundamentally, a VPN encrypts your online traffic and masks your IP address. When you connect to a VPN server, the VPN creates a secure tunnel and routes your online traffic via the specified server.
The tunnel encrypts your connection, including your online traffic. The encryption protects your traffic and connection over the internet from prying eyes.
The VPN server assigns you a new IP address that masks your actual IP address. To the entities on the internet, your traffic will seem to originate from the VPN server.
Additionally, you get the geo-location associated with the IP address, usually the server’s location.
Concisely, when using a VPN, you get online privacy. Prying eyes will not snoop on your connection or online activities, but they will know of your existence.
Tracking a VPN user is a time-consuming, complex endeavor. It also depends on the tracker’s information about the user and associated online behavior.
A privacy-conscious internet user with a reputable and safe premium VPN will almost be untraceable. Nonetheless, different entities can potentially track the user.
These entities include:
As the name suggests, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) provide services that allow you to access the internet.
In most countries, ISPs have lots of identifying information about their customers. They monitor how users utilize the service and what they do online to provide quality services.
This is how most ISPs throttle your connection when you are downloading content. It is also how they know you are engaging in activities that violate copyrights.
Some governments also require ISPs to retain data regarding their customers for a while. This data includes activity and connection logs such as your IP addresses, time stamps, visited sites, and everything you do online.
When using a VPN, you minimize what your ISP can track. They cannot see what you are doing online, but they know you are using a VPN.
They can only log your VPN connection details, such as IP addresses and connection times. If your IP leaks, they will know what you have been hiding.
Law enforcement agencies like the police rely on ISPs to track online users. If you are using a VPN, this will be a challenging task since encrypted traffic is hard to crack.
Usually, the police will obtain a court order to request logs or information from the ISP. The ISP will then point them to your VPN provider.
If your VPN doesn’t keep usage and connection logs and its servers are RAM-based, the police will have to look for other avenues.
Other government agencies, such as the FBI, use a more thorough approach that relies on intelligence or force.
If they can’t get what they want from your strict no-log VPN provider, they will use lawful interception and other means necessary to keep tabs on you until you slip.
Intelligence agencies also cross-reference information from your digital footprints and other metadata. They might also raid your place and take your electronic devices for analysis.
Usually, the government and law enforcement agencies only track persons of interest.
A VPN encrypts your connection and online traffic, making it hard for cybercriminals and anyone interested in tracking you.
However, determined parties can go an extra length to track your activities even when using a VPN.
Cybercriminals and interested parties may use social engineering techniques, including phishing, to compromise security.
If phishing is successful, cybercriminals may compromise your devices by unintentionally making you install malware such as spyware or even software with a backdoor.
Thus, cybercriminals and other interested parties may know what you do online if your device is compromised and you have no effective security measures.
Workplaces provide employees with VPNs that they can use to connect to the organization’s network remotely. They ensure the organization’s network and your traffic are safe from prying eyes.
However, these VPNs usually log what employees are doing online. Employers can track what their employees are up to anytime they use the VPN.
Employees who use commercial VPNs on workplace devices are also at risk of being tracked and monitored.
Most work devices have keyloggers and other software designed to keep tabs on what employers do while they use office devices.
Big tech companies such as Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Meta (Facebook), Apple, Microsoft, and others have been known to track users all over the internet.
Unless you have been using a VPN since you created an account with these companies, most of your online activities can be traced back to you.
For instance, if you search for things on Google with your account signed in, even if you use a VPN, Google will still track you. The same goes for other companies.
For persons of interest, the government and other agencies can go to these companies and ask for information regarding a specific IP address or particular searches.
Even if the VPN provider doesn’t have the logs, the tech companies can have some identifying information that can be used to connect the dots.
You can maximize your online privacy and make it more difficult to be tracked when using a VPN.
Potential entities that can track you rely on cookies, your digital footprint, the availability of identifying logs, malware, and big tech companies.
To thwart most tracking attempts, you will need to adhere to the best cybersecurity practices regarding privacy, such as:
Privacy-focused browsers like Brave help you do away with trackers, ads, cross-site cookies, and browser fingerprinting.
They also help with social media blocking, safe browsing, safe WebRTC handling, and safe searches, and they sport many privacy and security features.
If you prefer to use other browsers, such as Firefox, ensure you tweak the settings to recommended levels. You can also use reputable extensions to improve your privacy.
Popular search engines such as Google deliver results while keeping track of your online movements and other data.
If your Google search is connected to your account, you will be traceable even when using a VPN. Try safe search engines such as DuckDuckGo.
Unlike popular email clients such as Gmail and Outlook, private and secure mails offer better privacy and security since they are not connected to big tech companies.
You get anti-phishing and anti-spam features, end-to-end encryption, two-factor authentication, zero-knowledge encryption, and even custom domains with a private and secure email.
The only downside, most private and secure emails, such as ProtonMail, require a subscription if you want to enjoy most features.
Messengers such as WhatsApp are owned by Big Tech firms that are always after your data. Popular messengers also require you to have a phone number and even an email address.
To get better privacy, opt for messengers that don’t require identifying information and offer proper end-to-end encryption.
Potential trackers can use your online footprint to connect the dots when tracking a VPN user. Be careful with online people and interact cautiously on social media.
Cybercriminals and other interested parties may use trojan horses to deliver malware that spies on your online activities.
Other software may even create backdoors that they can use to monitor what you do on your device. To be safe, use premium antivirus and antimalware software and set it to update automatically.
Free VPNs may help you save some bucks, but this will be costly in the long run. Most free VPN services track, monitor, and store data regarding your online activities.
They also track your VPN usage; they know when to cap the speed limit when you have exceeded the allocated bandwidth.
Free VPNs sell or share your data with interested third parties to cover their operational cost.
Most VPNs claim that they can make you anonymous, but that’s not true. The best you can get is ultimate security and privacy if you choose an excellent VPN.
Aspects to consider include:
Can you be tracked with a VPN? Yes. It might be difficult, but it is not impossible with the right resources and determination.
Since you cannot be completely anonymous, you can make it harder for anyone trying to track you while using a VPN.
Always use the right VPN, minimize your digital footprint, and adhere to the best cybersecurity practices.
Some people found answers to these questions helpful
Can a VPN track my online activities?
Like ISPs, VPNs provide the gateway that routes all your data before it reaches its destination. Rogue VPNs can track your online activities and make it easy for other parties to do the same.
Can government agencies break VPN encryption?
Government security agencies can break weak VPN encryption. That is why it is recommended to use a reputable VPN that implements military-grade encryptions with minimal vulnerabilities.
Can Tor make me anonymous?
Tor improves your anonymity status as it can avoid surveillance and traffic analysis. However, Tor doesn’t have all the solutions to make you completely anonymous. For better results, use the Tor over VPN configuration.