If you’re considering using a digital security tool like VPNs, then you’re probably aware of the many risks to your online privacy and safety— which VPNs help prevent. You may know some of the ways VPNs protect you online, and why they are such a useful tool for keeping prying eyes away from your important data and browsing history.
But now you’ve taken a step back to ask yourself:
“Even though VPNs hide my personal information, can people still determine when I’m using a VPN? And are there circumstances where the hidden data be revealed?”
These are fair questions, and the answers require a bit of background to understand how VPN technology works to keep your data private.
How VPNs Protect Your Data
VPNs establish an encrypted virtual tunnel to transport and conceal your online data transmissions. The VPN takes outgoing data between your computer and a server operated by the VPN and sends it out in a secure tunnel to the servers of all the sites you visit. Likewise, they do the same to protect inbound data, filtering it through the VPN server before it reaches you.
What is HTTPS?
HTTPS is the secure version of HTTP. You may remember that web addresses used to all start with “HTTP” (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol). For instance, you used to type the full address “HTTP://www.google.com” to reach Google. Nowadays, you don’t even need to type the “www.” Before “google.com.”
However, when Google.com loads, you will see that the full URL address displays as HTTPS://www.google.com. That “S” stands for “secure,” and means that your data is transmitted in an encrypted format, as opposed to the unsecure way it was sent with HTTP. You’ll always see a padlock icon with HTTPS websites— a visual reminder of its encrypted security.
HTTPS is controlled by the website owner, not you as the website visitor. It’s an authentication protocol that helps you in some of the ways a VPN would. HTTPS functionality cannot be customized by the user like a VPN can. Nor can HTTPS keep your ISP or the government from seeing that you visited your bank’s website, for example. What it does do is prevent hackers from intercepting and reading your data as you type in your banking credentials.
Unlike VPNs, HTTPs will not mask your IP address or use the servers of another country. In other words, HTTPS is not as robust or feature-rich as a VPN, but rather a good partner technology to use with VPNs.
Can my ISP See What I’m Doing While Using a VPN?
Now that you understand more about how VPNs protect you, can VPNs track what you do online? Can anyone else bypass the VPN and see specifically what I’m doing?
If you have a reputable VPN provider, (and if their technology is working properly) then neither your Internet provider nor the government can see what you’re browsing while using the VPN. They may be able to recognize that you are browsing with a VPN, but they won’t be able to see what specific data transfers are occurring.
Think of a VPN as a large movie theater multiplex, and the movies screened inside are websites you can visit through the VPN’s private tunnel. The parking lot is the unsecured world wide web of servers, including those used by your Internet provider, those run by hackers and government agencies. Hackers may be hanging out in the parking lot to watch you go into the movie theater, but they can’t follow you in, so they have no idea which “movies” (i.e., websites) you are seeing, whether you buy “popcorn” (i.e., download content).
However, if you experience a DNS leak, your privacy could be temporarily compromised.
What Happens with an IP/DNS Leak?
One way your information might be discoverable with a VPN is if you have a DNS leak.
An IP leak (also known as a DNS leak) only happens with the Window operating system. So, if you use Mac OS or Linux operating systems, DNS leaks won’t be a concern.
IP means “Internet Provider” and DNS means “Domain Name System.” A DNS figures out what a word-based URL address is and translates them into numerical IP addresses. For instance, Youtube.com is easier to remember than a sequence of numbers. And since servers communicate with numbers, they translate website names like Youtube through DNS technology queries to reveal the numerical IP address, which looks like 22.214.171.124
A standard browser will show your DNS information, but a VPN will anonymize it for you. Occasionally, something may go wrong, and the DNS request could be sent directly to your ISP instead of routing through your VPN’s secure data tunnel. Thus, it has “leaked” the true address of the sites you are visiting and/or has “leaked” your IP address.
How to Prevent or Fix DNS Leaks
To check your DNS while using a VPN, you can also visit a site like https://www.dnsleaktest.com/ to make sure your VPN is protecting your information. For example, testing your DNS while on your Internet provider’s browser will show your ISP company as the entity that can view what you do online. By contrast, testing your DNS while using a VPN, should show anonymized data or data listed on a secure IP address from an outside server.
- Use a Good VPN: Luckily, if you have a high-quality VPN then they should have built-in DNS leak protection. Many will also offer kill switches that take you offline if anything goes awry. A good VPN will control DNS settings and resolve the requests through their own servers, instead of routing them through your ISP or any another unsecured method. As a idenote, if you subscribe to a VPN company that allows you to customize its features, be sure you don’t accidentally turn off features that prevent DNS leaks.
- Set Up a Static IP Address: Establishing a static IP address reduces the risk of a DNS request bypassing your VPN.For a tutorial on how to do this, visit this page.
- Use Third Party Software: If your VPN doesn’t offer DNS protection and you don’t want to switch to a better VPN, you can download third-party DNS software that will help prevent IP leaks.
For more tips, visit The Windows Club’s overview of DNS Leaks.
What About Money Trails?
Do you pay for your VPN with a credit card, or with cryptos like Etherium and Bitcoin? If you used your credit card to pay for the VPN, someone may be able to see that you are subscribing to a VPN, but they still won’t be able to see your content. Your credit card company has different policies than your VPN will about data they are willing to sell or turn over to government agencies. If you want to be extra careful, you can use an encrypted payment method like Bitcoin to create yet another layer of security.
Are You Raising Any Legal Red Flags?
Government intelligence agencies like the NSA or (international equivalents) have all kinds of shell companies and fake Tor browser nodes and other methods to crack down on movie and music pirating, illegal pornography, terrorism, narcotics trafficking and other “dark web” activities. If you frequently visit or download materials from questionable sites, you are more likely to raise red flags with government agencies, or you might violate the terms a VPN who agrees not to log your data except in cases of severe crimes being committed.
Think of it like therapist-patient confidentiality. Your VPN respects your privacy, but some might be obligated by national laws to intervene if an authority figure thinks you’re causing serious criminal harm to others.
Are there any other ways my VPN activity could be traced?
Outside of a DNS leak or the actions of an untrustworthy VPN, you shouldn’t have to worry about your activity leaking. Sophisticated hackers COULD use phishing tactics to get you to install some advanced malware or trojan on your computer, especially if you don’t use strong antivirus software, and if you don’t have a VPN at the time of the hack. But unless you’re a completely careless AND are some kind of high-value target, it’s not usually worth a hacker’s time anyway.
Are VPNs Bulletproof?
VPN services are an amazing tool that is finally beginning to receive the credit and recognition they deserve in protecting our personal data. That said, while VPNs are important and useful, the reality is that there is no perfectly impervious armor when it comes to online security.
If a hacker or government agent is determined to somehow expose or dox you, it can be done with enough effort and skill.
But the question is, how likely is that? For most people— not very. Furthermore, how likely is it to happen when using a VPN? Substantially less likely than if you aren’t using one. Play it safe and use a reputable VPN provider.