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Does a VPN really make your online activity private?

An anonymous person holding a newspaper with a question mark in front of his face.
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VPNs are advertised as the best way ̵

1; maybe even the only way – to stay private online, but is that really true? Looking beyond the marketing copy, we find a much messier reality than what is depicted on VPN providers’ homepages.

What Does a VPN Do?

When you connect to the Internet, you open the website you want to visit through your ISP’s network. Your ISP knows the domain you are visiting and where you are located, as well as the website you are visiting, although it has a rougher idea of ​​your location. This information is stored in log files, which can record information such as your IP address, the time of your connection and the length of time you were connected.

This data is worth good money for marketers and has become a source of income for ISPs and websites. In addition to commercial purposes, log files can also be used to track people who use BitTorrent to illegally download files, as well as people who use social media to brag about their crimes.

If you are concerned about your privacy, perhaps because you just don’t want third parties to make money from your data, one of the things you can do is use a virtual private network when connecting to the internet. When you connect to a VPN, the VPN sits in the middle and functions as an encrypted tunnel. Your Internet service provider or local network can only see that you are connected to the VPN, not what you are using through the VPN. The websites you visit see the VPN’s IP address instead of your IP address. We have a full article on how VPNs work, but in short, instead of sending your connection to the ISP server and then to a website, you put a server in between that is owned by the VPN. By going through this private server, both your ISP and any sites you visit will see the IP address instead of yours.

RELATED: What is a no-log VPN and why is it important for privacy?

VPNs and privacy

According to what many providers promise, VPNs are a panacea that will alleviate all your privacy concerns in one fell swoop. However, replacing your IP address with the VPNs only solves one problem, and not even a major one. There are many more ways to find out who you are and what you do.

Probably the biggest problem that VPNs don’t solve is that you can still be ‘seen’ thanks to browser cookies (which websites use to remember who you are) and any social media accounts you’re signed in to. registered, like it or not. This means that if you are signed into Google or Facebook when using your browser with a VPN, they can still track you. Your physical location appears to have changed.

The only way to fix this is to use Incognito mode and a VPN together, but we have yet to find the VPN provider that will tell you this.

In fact, it’s hard to find out anything about how VPNs work: for whatever reason, they don’t like sharing details about how their products or businesses work. For example, one thing that is very difficult to test is how secure is the connection that a VPN provides.

For example, one of the biggest promises they make is that your connection will be encrypted in a so-called ‘secure tunnel’. That sounds really cool – until you realize there’s no good way to test if it works from the outside. While the AES-256 encryption advertised to encrypt most tunnels is nearly impossible to crack, there’s no good way to tell if it’s really that encryption key being used.

RELATED: What’s the difference between Incognito Mode and a VPN?

VPNs and Logs

This brings us to another thing that we are asked to accept by faith. Namely, how your logs are handled. Many VPNs claim to be “no-logs” or “zero-logs” services and say they do not track your online activities.

However, this claim takes some imagination to believe as there is always a record of the event when servers connect. The internet literally cannot function without generating this data. It should be kept (at least temporarily) so that servers know where to send data back and forth.

We suspect that most of these services destroy logs as soon as they are created, which is fine from a privacy standpoint, but doesn’t fit well into marketing copy.

Many VPNs admit to logging certain types of data, although this usually comes with a guarantee that they will only record insignificant information, such as what time the VPN server connected. The log files that could identify users are supposedly not recorded or destroyed, as with a zero-logs service.

Whether you go with a no-logs service or one that only keeps connection logs, you are confiding in the VPN provider as neither claim can be investigated. Ultimately, you have to rely on VPNs not to sell your data. Look for a VPN in good standing, not one that just promises “no logs” – some VPNs partner with third-party auditors in an attempt to prove their security promises.

RELATED: What is a no-log VPN and why is it important for privacy?

What are VPNs good for?

With all of the above information in mind, the question arises as to whether VPNs are actually good for anything. They are, in fact, very useful tools. They just aren’t the privacy panacea they are often referred to. In general, there are four reasons to use a VPN:

  • As a privacy tool in a broader strategy: If you just enable a VPN and continue to browse normally, you don’t necessarily need a lot of privacy with a VPN. But when combined with Incognito mode, secure email and messages, plus some other tricks, you’re much harder to track.
  • As a way to get around regional restrictions: For example, you can unlock the Netflix library of any country or visit the sites of state broadcasters in other countries.
  • To stay ahead of copyright enforcers: People who illegally download copyrighted content with software such as BitTorrent often use VPNs to disguise their peer-to-peer traffic.
  • To bypass censorship: People living in countries with internet restrictions, such as China, can use a VPN to get away from their country’s internet and into the ‘real’, unfiltered one.

VPNs are useful tools, but they are not the only way to protect yourself online, or even the best. While VPNs are certainly of use to most people who spend a lot of time on the internet, their usage (as with any tool) is much more accurate than many would have you believe.

If you’re looking for a VPN to protect your privacy, recommend ExpressVPN here at How-To Geek. ExpressVPN has been our top pick here at How-To Geek for years, and many of us have been using it for so long. ExpressVPN is a stable company that has been around for a long time. The company is even innovating by developing new technology such as Lightway, a next-generation VPN protocol that will be open-source.

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