With a VPN you want to keep things secure and private from third parties. A VPN is a great tool for that, but you might ask – can a VPN be traced? Can it be detected? Or even, can you be tracked with a VPN?
These are important aspects to discuss when you want to stay private online. Let’s take a look if a VPN is traceable and if it is possible to track you down.
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Can VPN Be Traced?
VPN usage can be detected. Your ISP can trace a VPN by IP address, Port Number, or other technical parameters. Some services have features that make VPN traffic undetectable or less traceable. These can reduce the chance that a VPN is seen.
VPN obfuscation techniques help to circumvent VPN blocks. This is often the case in countries where VPNs usage is restricted. These countries include China, the UAE, or Iran.
Let’s have a closer look at how ISPs can trace a VPN.
How Can VPN Be Detected?
VPN detection techniques vary from the most basic to the most advanced. There are three main ways how to detect a VPN.
Here’s how VPN traffic can be detected:
- By VPN server’s IP Address
- By Port Number
- Using Deep Packet Inspection
The most simple way to trace a VPN is knowing it’s server’s IP address. ISPs and websites can see that you connect using this IP address. It is not difficult to tell that a particular IP address belongs to a VPN provider. You only need to do an IP address lookup. There are even third parties who collect information about every IP. They have updated lists of addresses that belong to the most well-known VPN services.
A VPN connection is made using a certain VPN protocol. These protocols use specific port numbers that are unique to them. By knowing the port number it is easy to tell that it is a VPN connection. For example, a well known OpenVPN UDP protocol uses port number 1194, or IKEv2 uses port 4500.
Deep Packet Inspection
Deep Packet Inspection is the most advanced way to inspect internet traffic. This method is used by most advanced ISPs and governments. For example, DPI is used to block and detect VPN traffic by the Great China Firewall.
DPI inspects internet traffic beyond simple IP and port number. It analyses every packet structure by sophisticated algorithms.
A simple VPN traffic can be detected with DPI as it has some technical specifics. Because of it, few VPN providers have developed a way to mask their VPN connections. This makes it much harder to spot and makes it look more ordinary. This helps to circumvent VPN blocks and have access to restricted content.
Can You Be Tracked With a VPN
When you use a VPN it is difficult to track you. The websites can not see your real IP address and your ISP does not know what you do online. But, even if VPN hides your IP address it does not make you anonymous. You can still be tracked with a VPN by advertisers because they use different ways of tracking.
Let’s have a look at these tracking technologies used to track you.
How Can You Be Tracked When Using a VPN
Using a VPN makes it hard to identify or link internet activity back to you. With a VPN there’s a missing link so that governments, ISPs, website owners can not connect the dots.
But you are not completely anonymous. There are popular methods that allow websites to track and identify you online.
Here are the ways you can be tracked when using a VPN:
- Website tracking cookies
- Browser Fingerprinting
- DNS leaks
- VPN logs
- Money Trails
Website Tracking Cookies
Cookies can contain information such as your login name or a unique user identifier. It is possible that a website can include advertiser network cookies too. These cookies allow advertisers and websites to identify and track you online, across multiple websites.
Browser fingerprinting is a common method used to track you to pretty high accuracy. Once you visit a website your browser sends a lot of information about itself. This includes browser parameters like screen size, language, plugins installed, version, and OS.
All these browser parameters are pretty common and anyone can have them. But digital fingerprinting combines this data to the one unique identifier. This identifier does not specifically point to you, but the accuracy is pretty high.
VPN logs are the most important piece when tracking someone online. It is possible to link online activity to a person from this data. Some VPNs keep logs of all internet activity that happens on their servers. And such VPNs should be avoided.
When intelligence agencies want to track down a person who used a VPN, they always ask for logs. They issue a warrant for a VPN provider telling them to provide the files from their server. If a VPN collects the logs, then it is easy to track you.
When using a VPN you can experience a DNS leak. This usually happens with technically poor VPNs. A DNS leak means that it is possible to see which website you tried to reach even when on a VPN.
ISPs watch and log the DNS queries all the time. With a DNS leak, you are not protected even with a VPN.
Paying for a VPN with a credit card or PayPal leaves a permanent mark in your payment history. Your payments now are linked with your VPN user account. By knowing your online money transactions it can be easy to tell that you are a VPN user.
Of course, money trails do not link any online activities to you when on a VPN. It only shows that you paid for one.
How To Avoid Being Tracked Online
A VPN is one of the most effective privacy tools out there. But, it alone can not stop all types of tracking. You need to use a combination of techniques to stay anonymous online.
Here’s how to stay anonymous online:
- Use a No-Log VPN
- Use Incognito Window
- Use a different browser
- Use Tor browser
- Use DuckDuckGo search engine
- Pay with cryptocurrency
- Use Tails OS
Use a No-log VPN
A No-log VPN is critical to protect yourself from being tracked. Without any logs stored on a server, it would be impossible to link online activity back to you. Only the best VPNs with a proven and audited no-log policy can be trusted. They are often based in countries with user-friendly data retention laws.
Some providers run their servers on RAM-disks. This is an advanced privacy feature that deletes all data that is on a server once it is restarted.
Use Incognito Window
Incognito Window is great at protecting from cookie tracking. It prevents storing or sending cookies to the website or other third parties. Incognito mode clears all cookies once it is closed and deletes the browsing history too.
Use a different browser
Try Tor Browser
The Tor browser is one of the most popular anonymity tools to hide online. It is specifically designed for online anonymity. It prevents running scripts that could identify you and you can access the Dark Web with it. This Firefox-based browser routes your internet traffic via the Tor network and anonymizes it. The downside is that the speeds are really slow when using this browser.
Use DuckDuckGo search
DuckDuckGo is a search engine that could be used instead of Google. It does not log any of your queries when you search. This prevents your searches from being traced back to you. This is one of the best privacy-focused search alternatives to Google.
Pay with cryptocurrency
For even more anonymity you can pay for a VPN with cryptocurrency. This way your bank or credit card information will not be linked with a VPN user account. It will be much harder to track and link internet activity to you.
Use Tails OS
Tails OS is a special operating system that is designed for anonymity. It does not take much space and it runs on computer RAM. Once the computer is restarted it deletes itself and all the data that was on the RAM disk. Tails OS is used by whistle-blowers, journalists, spies, and intelligence agencies. It leaves almost no digital footprint. This type of OS is not suitable for everyday use and requires advanced technical skills.
Can your ISP detect a VPN
Many ISPs can detect VPN traffic. Even though many do not use advanced tracing techniques such as DPI, they know a server’s IP address. Even with VPN obfuscation features your ISP can tell if VPN was used by looking at the IP address.
Can police trace a VPN
Police can trace a VPN by asking ISP the data it has collected. Then, after investigating the IP addresses it can determine that a VPN was used. It can only tell that a VPN is used, but can not track the websites visited or link any online activities back to you. For that, they would need VPN server logs.
Can you tell if someone is using a VPN
It is very hard to tell if someone is using a VPN or not. You can tell if you have enough technical skills to run scripts or some hacks. It may be possible to track a VPN usage if you spend lots of time investigating a specific IP address. But in most cases, you can’t tell.
Can your IP address be traced if you use a VPN
Imagine a scenario where you post a comment on some website while connected to a VPN. In this case, the only IP that can be traced by the website is the VPN server’s IP address. It is very hard to trace your real IP address if you use a VPN, but not impossible.
An ISP sees your real IP address but does not see what websites you visit. A VPN server between the website and ISP makes it hard to trace you.
Using a VPN is a perfect tool for online privacy. It is hard to trace you online when using it, but, it does not provide anonymity. There are ways to detect not only VPN usage but also to track you in ways a VPN can not protect you from.
To increase security and privacy you should always aim for a No-Log VPN. Here are some audited and proven No-Log VPNs: