A VPN ensures online security and privacy– but how far does it go? Can police track VPN users and what they do online?
Can Police Track Your VPN Activity?
The police can not track VPN user’s activities unless a VPN company agrees to cooperate. The officials can request to provide usage and connection logs by issuing a warrant. If a VPN keeps logs then all online activities can be linked to you. Different jurisdictions can make it much harder to track VPN users.
Police can track all VPN server activity if a court orders a VPN company to start logging certain users. Even if a VPN had a strict no-log policy before, that is no longer the case. Law enforcement can watch all real-time activity. In this case, it is common for a VPN to use a Warrant Canary page to warn its users about an issued subpoena.
A jurisdiction where VPN operates can have an impact on tracking VPN users too. Let’s say that a VPN operates in Panama and law enforcement from the US asks to provide logs. In this case, a VPN company can easily say no, as the US laws do not apply in that jurisdiction. International legal inquiries can take a very long time to unfold.
How Can Police Track Your VPN Activity?
First, ISP knows your real IP address. It also can tell when and to which VPN server you were connecting, but they can not see anything you do online. For that reason, law enforcement needs to get their hands on VPN server logs to track your online actions.
The police could ask for different logs as proof, for example:
- Connection Logs: this information contains times when the user connected to a VPN. It includes your IP address and bandwidth usage. These logs do not tell anything about what you did online. It is almost the same general information that an ISP can provide.
- Traffic usage logs: these logs contain detailed information about your connections. It can contain all the websites visited and serve as proof of your VPN activities.
If a VPN company had a strict no-logs policy, this means it can not provide any usage data for investigators. Without logs, there is no way to link any connections back to you.
However, exploiting potential vulnerabilities or using cookies can be used for tracking users. VPNs are not suitable for anonymity, but it is a privacy tool, so you as a person can still be traced.
For example, posting something on social media using a VPN will not hide you. It’s simply because you have your name on your social media account.
How Long Does It Take Police Officials To Trace VPN Users Activity?
The time it takes for police to track VPN activities depends on the entire legal process. First, they need to get a warrant or court order to reach the ISP. Once they get that, they need to investigate the logs from a VPN company.
This is where it gets tricky as it depends on the jurisdiction where VPN operates. The process is quite short if a VPN company is based in the same jurisdiction as the investigators. But to get all the legal documents to access a VPN server’s data in a different country is another story. It might take months or even years for the legal process to finish in this case.
Note that the process length also depends on the severity of the felony. Federal agencies usually focus on serious cybercrimes and use speedy processes. In a serious case, a VPN jurisdiction does not play a big role here.
Can Police Track Your IP Address When Using Tor Network?
Tor is an anonymity network that can hide your IP address. It is extremely hard to track your real IP address on Tor, but not impossible. Methods like traffic correlation attacks or malicious nodes can be used. But, Tor and VPN combined could boost your privacy.
Here’s why its extremely hard to track your IP on Tor:
- When you connect to a Tor network, your connection is end-to-end encrypted
- Tor network routes your data via three different nodes
- Can not trace any traffic behind the adjacent nodes
- The websites outside the Tor network only see the exit node’s IP address
There were cases where police managed to de-anonymize Tor users. They used coordinated traffic correlation attacks for that. The operation required real-time traffic monitoring and many malicious nodes on the network. Then using advanced hacking techniques it was possible to link Tor activity to the real IPs.
It is very unlikely that agencies like the NSA are monitoring the Tor network like that. It requires a lot of effort and resources to do so. So, for the most part, using Tor will hide your IP from the police.
How to Choose a Trustworthy VPN for Privacy?
If you want to have an extra layer of protection you need a VPN that has lots of privacy features. A no-logs policy is critical, but there are more attributes that a VPN should have to make it much harder to track you.
Here’s what to look for in a VPN:
- No-logs policy: as mention before, this is the most critical feature for privacy. No-logs policy ensures that no logs could be found on a VPN server
- Ram-Disk Servers: a great addition to a no-logs policy are RAM disk servers. They can not store any data as they wipe out everything once they are restarted. It helps to protect all users in case a server is seized
- IP and DNS leak protection: a VPN must never leak your IP or DNS records. Automatic leak protections should be on all apps.
- Internet Kill Switch: for accidental VPN disconnects that might expose your online activities
- Jurisdiction: usually it’s not that big of importance, but it may serve as another layer of protection
The bottom line is that police cannot track online activity unless they have a court order. Once they have a legal document, they are granted access to the usage logs.
When choosing a VPN, it can be challenging to pick an ideal one, especially when many VPN providers are out there. Therefore, it is crucial to pick a VPN that fully protects you.
Here are some of the best VPN for privacy: