Can You Be Tracked When You Use a VPN?
VPNs are excellent security tools because they hide your IP address and encrypt your traffic, making it unreadable. That should make it difficult for ISPs, hackers, and government surveillance agencies to spy on your internet browsing. However, can a VPN be tracked? Also, are there any ways your browsing can be monitored even when you use a VPN?
Yes, it’s possible to detect and track VPN connections. ISPs, governments, websites, and others can detect VPN IP addresses and use traffic analysis methods to detect VPN data. Plus, online platforms can still track some of your data even when you use a VPN.
For example, let’s say you use a VPN to buy something on Amazon using your credit card. Amazon will still collect your credit card details, which include your full name.
Also, if you use a VPN that doesn’t have a no-logs policy, it can track your browsing and share it with third parties. This usually applies to free VPNs, but paid providers that don’t provide any value can do this too.
So you really need to make sure you pick a secure VPN that doesn’t log user data. Ideally, it should also provide ways for you to avoid VPN tracking to an extent (like regularly refreshing IPs or obfuscation). Keep reading to find out more about how to protect your privacy while using a VPN.
How Can a VPN Be Traced?
There are several ways an ISP, government agency, or network admin can detect VPN usage. The most common methods are to check the VPN’s IP address, the port number used by the VPN connection, or use Deep Packet Inspection (DPI).
Here’s a quick look at each detection method:
Checking IP Addresses
The simplest way to trace a VPN is by knowing its 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.
Checking Port Numbers
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, OpenVPN uses UDP port number 1194 by default and IKEv2 uses port 4500.
Using Deep Packet Inspection
Deep Packet Inspection is the most advanced way to inspect internet traffic. This method is used by ISPs and governments in restrictive countries. For example, China’s Great Firewall uses DPI to block and detect VPN traffic.
DPI inspects internet traffic beyond simple IPs and port numbers. It analyses every packet structure using sophisticated algorithms.
DPI can usually detect OpenVPN traffic because the protocol has recognizable patterns. To combat this, many top VPNs implemented obfuscation, which hides VPN traffic and makes it look like normal internet traffic.
Who Can Track VPNs?
Here’s a list of third parties that might try to monitor VPN usage:
- Governments — government authorities don’t really bother with average VPN users. They usually focus on VPNs when they track a criminal who uses such a service. However, governments in restrictive countries (like China) regularly monitor VPN connections. They do it to prevent people from bypassing national firewalls.
- ISPs — unless you live in a restrictive country, your ISP probably won’t try to monitor your VPN usage. But if they want to, they can track your VPN connection. That’s because your connection to the VPN first goes through your ISP’s network.
- Employers — many employers ask network admins to track employee traffic on the company’s network. They do it to prevent security breaches. If the company has a policy against using a third-party VPN, the admins might monitor network traffic for signs of VPN connections.
- Hackers — cybercriminals might try to spy on VPN connections if they suspect you’re using a weak VPN. For example, if you’re using a weak protocol like PPTP, whose encryption can easily be cracked. In that case, hackers might try to intercept your traffic to steal your data or redirect your connections to phishing sites.
- Online platforms — pretty much any website you access via a VPN can track the VPN’s IP address. They can also see information about your devices. Sites where you have accounts could also track some of your browsing while you use a VPN. For instance, Google will still associate your YouTube preferences with your Google account even if you watch them using a VPN.
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 with a 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, installed plugins, browser version, and OS.
All these browser parameters are pretty common and anyone can have them. But digital fingerprinting combines this data with a 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, IPv6, or WebRTC leak. This usually happens if you use poorly-configured 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.
An IPv6 leak means the VPN doesn’t encrypt your IPv6 traffic, so your ISP can monitor it.
Finally, a WebRTC leak, which is caused by a browser issue, can expose your real IP address.
Always make sure you use a VPN that provides protection against all types of leaks.
Paying for a VPN with a credit card or PayPal leaves a permanent mark in your payment history. Your payments are now 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 you use a VPN. They only show that you paid for a VPN service.
Do VPNs Prevent Tracking?
Yes, VPNs can protect you from many types of tracking. These services can stop ISPs and governments from monitoring your internet browsing. They can also prevent hackers from spying on your traffic and targeting you with cyber attacks.
What’s more, some VPNs come with ad-blocking features — like NordVPN’s Threat Protection, for example. These features get rid of annoying ads and prevent ad trackers from monitoring your online preferences. In addition to that, VPN ad blockers block connections to malware-infected sites to keep you safe.
Can a VPN Monitor Internet Activity?
Yes, as your internet traffic goes through the VPN server. If the server is not configured to erase all data that goes through it, it will collect your browsing. In that case, the VPN could see what sites you accessed or what files you downloaded.
To avoid this, we strongly recommend only using VPNs with no-logs policies. Ideally, there should be proof that the VPN doesn’t log anything. For example, NordVPN’s no-logs policy passed 2 independent security audits.
Also, make sure you avoid free VPNs, as they almost always keep logs of your IP address or activity.
Can Google Track You with a VPN?
Yes, Google can still track some of your data when you use a VPN because it uses browser fingerprinting and tracking cookies. Also, if you’re logged into your Google account while you use the VPN, Google will still have access to your information.
Google will think you’re connecting to it from the VPN server’s location, but that’s about it. It will still be able to associate what services you interact with using your Google account. For instance, let’s say you watch YouTube videos with retro game reviews with a VPN. You’ll still see recommendations for those kinds of videos after you disconnect from the VPN.
How Does Google Know My Location If I’m Using a VPN?
If this happens, it’s because the VPN is leaking your real IP address to Google. Such a leak can occur due to WebRTC or IPv6 leaks. It can also happen if the VPN doesn’t have a kill switch and disconnects while you access Google. To prevent that, get a VPN with good leak protection and a kill switch, like NordVPN.
In some situations, Google might also be able to determine your location because it uses tracking cookies. To solve that, just use incognito mode.
Also, if you use Google’s app on mobile, it might see your real location if it checks your GPS data. VPNs generally only hide your IP address, not your GPS data. Though, if you use Surfshark, its Android app lets you spoof your GPS data on Android devices.
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 get more privacy.
Here’s how to stay anonymous online:
- Use a no-logs VPN
- Use incognito/private mode
- Use a different browser
- Use the Tor browser
- Use DuckDuckGo
- Pay with cryptocurrencies
- Use Tails OS
Use a No-Logs VPN
A no-logs 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-logs 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/Private Mode
Incognito/Private mode is great at protecting you from tracking cookies. It prevents storing or sending cookies to the website or other third parties. Incognito/private mode clears all cookies once the browser is closed and deletes the browsing history too.
Use a Different Browser
Try the Tor Browser
The Tor browser is one of the most popular anonymity tools out there. 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.
DuckDuckGo is a search engine that could be used instead of Google. It does not log any of your queries when you search for something. This prevents your searches from being traced back to you. This is one of the best privacy-focused search alternatives to Google.
Pay with Cryptocurrencies
For even more anonymity, you can pay for a VPN using 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 RAM memory. 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.
How Can I Test If My IP Is Traceable? (VPN Detection Test)
Here’s how to check if the VPN makes your IP untraceable:
- Use an IP lookup tool — we recommend ipleak.net.
- Note down your IP address.
- Connect to a VPN server.
- Use the IP lookup tool again.
- If you see your real IP address again, the VPN is leaking it. You should normally see a different IP address, which belongs to the VPN.
Can VPNs Be Tracked? (Common FAQs)
We found the most common questions about VPN tracking and answered them all here. If you have more questions, just drop us a line in the comments.
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.
Are VPNs Traceable by the Police?
Police can trace a VPN by asking an ISP for 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’s difficult to tell if someone is using a VPN, but not impossible. If you can see that person’s IP address, you can use an IP lookup tool to analyze it. If you see that it belongs to a data center, that might be indicative of VPN usage.
Also, you could use a packet sniffer to inspect that person’s traffic. If it’s encrypted, they’re likely using a VPN.
Can Your IP Be Tracked Through a VPN?
Yes, if the VPN logs your IP address for example. That way, it will know what your real location is even if you’re connected to a VPN server.
Also, if the VPN suffers IPv6 and WebRTC leaks, your real IP address can be exposed. That’s why it’s ideal to use a VPN that comes with full leak protection.
What’s more, if the VPN doesn’t have a kill switch, it can leak your real IP address if the VPN connection drops.
If I Use a VPN, Can I Be Tracked If It Disconnects?
If the VPN has a kill switch, then no — the kill switch will disable web access when the VPN connection drops. That way, your device can’t share unencrypted data with the Internet. The kill switch will only disengage when the VPN connection is restored.
However, if you use a VPN without a kill switch, it’s pretty easy for anyone to track you when it disconnects. For example, your ISP will be able to see what sites you access. Also, the websites you’re connected to will see your real IP address.
Is a Free VPN Traceable?
A free VPN is just as traceable as a paid VPN. It might be even easier to track free VPN users because free VPNs might use weak encryption. They also almost always experience leaks and don’t change their IP addresses very often.
What’s more, most free VPNs might track you because they keep IP and traffic logs. So they’ll know where you’re from and what sites you access.
If you don’t want a VPN that’s very traceable, we recommend avoiding free VPNs and sticking with paid VPNs instead.
Can a VPN Be Tracked by the Government?
Yes, governments can track VPN traffic. For example, they could force ISPs to notify government authorities when they detect VPN connections. This mostly happens in restrictive countries, though.
Governments could perform VPN tracking by checking the VPN’s IP address or by using DPI to detect VPN traffic.
Can You Track a VPN?
Yes, but you won’t find out much:
- You could check the VPN’s IP address with an IP lookup tool. However, that will only tell you what country it’s from and what data center or ISP it belongs to.
- You could check what ports the VPN uses on the network. That will only tell you what VPN protocol might be used, though.
- You could use a packet sniffer to track a VPN connection. That said, you won’t understand anything because you will only see encrypted data, which is unreadable.
Using a VPN is a perfect way to get online privacy. It’s hard for someone to trace you online when you use a VPN, but keep in mind it won’t provide full 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-logs VPN. Here are some popular no-logs VPNs: