If you use a VPN you probably want to keep things secure and private from the third parties. A VPN is a great tool for that, but you might ask, can anyone detect VPN connections and can they actually be traced? These are important aspects to discuss when you want to stay anonymous and private online and let’s take a look to what extent VPNs can be traced.
A VPN disguises you to some degree, however, the usage of service itself can be traced by your ISP. It can be detected in a few ways and mostly it is as simple as knowing the IP address of the server you are connected to. Some VPN providers have obfuscation features that make VPN traffic much harder to spot.
Internet traffic obfuscation techniques would allow you to circumvent VPN blocks that exist in countries where VPNs are constantly monitored and their usage is restricted (for example, China and middle eastern countries). Let’s have a closer look at how ISPs can trace a VPN.
How a VPN can be traced
VPN detection techniques vary from the most basic to the most advanced, and here are three main ways simply explained how it can be traced:
IP address: The most simple way to trace a VPN is via its server’s IP address. This IP address can be seen publicly by the websites you visit and by your ISP. By doing an IP address lookup it is not difficult to tell that a particular IP address belongs to a VPN provider. There are even lists of IP addresses that belong to the most well known VPN services.
Port Number: When a connection to a server is initiated using a certain VPN protocol, along the IP address a port number is sent. Different protocols (OpenVPN or IKEv2 or any other) use specific port numbers that are unique to those protocols. By knowing the port number to which a connection is made it is easy to tell that a VPN was used..
Deep Packet Inspection: The most advanced technique to detect and inspect internet traffic is called a Deep Packet Inspection. This method is used by a well-known project such as a Great China Firewall, that actively monitors, detects and blocks VPN traffic coming to or from the country. This advanced technique goes beyond simple IP and port number detection and analyses every packet structure by sophisticated algorithms. Any kind of traffic (VPN included) could be easily detected with DPI and because of it, few VPN providers actually implemented a way to mask their VPN connections by making it look more ordinary. This helps to circumvent VPN blocks and have access to restricted content.
Can your ISP detect a VPN
Many ISPs do not use advanced techniques such as DPI to detect a VPN traffic, however, they can still detect a VPN because yours and VPN server’s IP address is known to ISP. Even though your ISP might not really care if you use a VPN or not, but since the connection made via their servers, it is theoretically possible that your ISP can detect that you are using a VPN.
How can the government or police trace a VPN
In cases where government or police are involved, most of the time they ask the ISP to tell what time and where the connections were made. From the ISP logs, the police can tell that the connection was made to a VPN server this way tracing a VPN usage, but not the websites visited.
Can you tell if someone is using a VPN
When you’re neither an intelligence agency nor a tech company it is probably very hard to tell if someone is using a VPN or not. Unless you run some hacking scripts and put some decent effort to figure out to about a person’s public IP address you’re most likely can not tell if someone is using a VPN.
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 address that can be traced from the website’s perspective will be 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 true IP address but does not see what websites you visit, and the websites only see your VPN server’s IP address. This gap that the website does not know who you are and ISP does not know which websites you visit makes it really hard to tell who you really are. However, an IP address is not the only identifier to trace you online.
Can you be tracked using a VPN
An IP address is clearly directly related to you, but you as a person can be tracked online in other ways even when using a VPN. Websites and advertisers are able to track you down with or without a VPN even with your IP address hidden. They use different tracking techniques that a VPN can not prevent. 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 either for governments, ISPs, Website owners really hard to identify you or relate internet activity to you, but there are widely used methods that allow websites to track and identify you online. Here’s how you can be tracked when using VPN:
Browser fingerprinting is also a common technique used to track you to pretty high accuracy. Once you visit a website your browser sends a lot of information about itself and OS – such as screen size, language, plugins, version and more. The key point of browser fingerprinting is that even though this information is very generic, but the combination of those parameters allows websites to tell who you are with pretty high accuracy.
Some VPNs keep logs about the internet activity happening on their servers even though they tell they do not. In order to track you when using a VPN, intelligence agencies issue a warrant for a VPN provider telling them to log the server activity this way making it possible to trace you. Some countries where VPN companies are based have a data retention law that obliges to cooperate with intelligence agencies or keep certain logs on their servers. These logs are hard proof that traces back to you. The best VPNs that make their no-log policy legit are based in the countries where data retention law is not implemented such as The British Virgin Island (ExpressVPN), Panama (NordVPN), or Switzerland(VyprVPN).
Sometimes when a VPN if not correctly set up, or specific network configurations are used you could experience a DNS leak even when using a VPN. Leaking DNS requests meaning, that even though your traffic is encrypted, but the specific queries that make it possible to see which website you tried to reach is outside the VPN tunnel. DNS requests are definitely monitored by an ISP and with a DNS leak, it would be pretty easy to track you.
Paying for a VPN with a credit card or PayPal leaves a permanent mark in your payment history. Even though VPN companies do not keep your personal data, they still have associated your payments and your VPN user account. Seeing your online money transactions could trace that you are the VPN user.
How to stay private: 7 tips to avoid being tracked online
There are a few tips to avoid being tracked online and to tackle discussed problems. Here are a few tips that would help you to stay as anonymous as possible online:
To tackle cookie tracking use an Incognito Window. A browser’s incognito window is used to prevent storing or sending already stored cookies to the website or other third parties. This window has great functionality that it not only clears all cookies after the session once closed but also deletes the browsing session’s history from the browser as well.
Use a different browser
Browser fingerprinting is something that is hard to avoid. Many websites collect this data by running scripts extracting that data without you even knowing it. To prevent data collection try using a different browser than you usually use and disable flash players and running java scripts.
Try Tor Browser
The Tor browser is one of the most popular anonymity tools to hide online. It is specifically configured to increase a level of anonymity when using it and prevents running scripts that could identify you. It is based on FireFox and routed your internet traffic via anonymized Tor network.
Use a search engine that does not keep your information
DuckDuckGo is a search engine that could be used instead of Google. It is specifically designed not to tracklog any of your search queries that prevent your searches from being traced back to you.
Use a no-log VPN
A no-log VPN is a critical tool to use to avoid being tracked online. It not only would hide your IP address which otherwise would be very easy to trace back to you but also would encrypt the data so that ISP could not see it. The best VPNs that can be trusted are based in countries where data retention law is not valid such as The British Virgin Islands, Panama or Switzerland. There are a few VPNs such as ExpressVPN that truly keep no logs and their strict no-log policy was proven by an external audit.
Pay with cryptocurrency
To avoid your online transactions directly showing payments use cryptocurrencies for paying for a VPN. This way your bank or credit card information will not be linked with a VPN user account making it much harder to track and link internet activity to you.
Advanced: use Tails OS
Tails OS is a specifically designed OS for anonymity. It does not take much space and it is run on computer RAM memory. Running on RAM means that once a computer is shut down all information is permanently deleted, including OS itself. Tails OS is used by whistleblowers, journalists, spies, and intelligence agencies to leave a digital footprint as little as possible. It is not suitable for everyday use and requires advanced skills to use it.
Using a VPN brings lots of benefits regarding privacy as well as allowing you to unlock content or stream videos and making it hard to trace you online, however, not providing complete anonymity. There are ways to detect not only VPN usage itself but also to track you down in ways a VPN can not protect you from. In order to stay secure, multiple means such as VPN, incognito windows, different browsers or even OS should be used in combination to leave as little trace as possible. In this age of tracking technology, the only way not to be tracked online is not to use the internet at all – but we all know that’s not going to happen.
CyberWaters is a mixed crew of cyber security enthusiasts with a keen interested in data privacy, security and technology behind it. We provide cyber security related content and give advise on best practices and tools how to stay safe and secure online.