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  • Writer's pictureisaacmathu

Can You Be Tracked If You Are Using a VPN?

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

The whole point of using a VPN is to hide your IP and block any third party tracking whether from your ISP (internet service provider) or the websites you visit.


But is it foolproof? Can you be 100% sure that no one is tracking your online activities?


Who The Heck is Tracking You?


Before we get into how much you should trust your VPN, let’s discuss who is tracking you in the first place. Who cares what you are doing online?


Plenty of people, it turns out.


Your ISP is the biggest snooper. They can see everything you do online, even if you are in incognito/private mode.


Next, the websites you visit. They have a huge financial incentive to track you online. They can optimize their ads to better target you. Some websites (and apps) profit more directly by collecting information about you and selling it to third parties. Yikes!


Other entities that can track you include governments, your employer and hackers.


A VPN Is Good But Not Foolproof


Using a VPN definitely steps up your online privacy and security. It’s harder for anyone to track your location or online activities.


That’s not to mean that a VPN is foolproof. Even if you have a good VPN, there’s still a chance that you could be tracked.


The risk that you are being tracked while using a VPN depends on your internet hygiene (don’t be careless just because you have a VPN), the VPN service you are using and additional security measures you are or aren’t taking.


VPNs Don’t Make Up for Bad Browsing Habits


One of the downsides of using a VPN is that it creates a false sense of security in many users. It’s easy to assume your VPN is this impenetrable firewall that protects you no matter what you do.


That’s not true at all. Even an excellent VPN doesn’t cover up for poor cyber hygiene. If you go around clicking suspicious links, opening spam emails and downloading iffy content, your VPN won’t save you.


Cyber criminals can uncover information about you and even track your location.


What to do: Don’t let your guard down just because you have a VPN. Be as careful as ever when browsing the internet.


Betrayed by Cookies


A VPN does not prevent cookies from tracking you. You probably already have cookies stored on your device. A website or a third party advertising service can track your activities and location even if you are using a VPN.


That’s why it’s a good idea to clear your browser to get rid of any downloaded cookies.

Keep in mind that you can still be tracked if you accept new cookies, especially from a website that uses third party advertising services like Google Ads.


They may not be able to figure out your IP address, and thus physical location, but they can track you across the web.


What to do: Most browsers have a setting to block cookies. Turn it on. Also check if your VPN has a setting that blocks tracking via cookies. When visiting websites, do not accept cookies.


Do You Trust Your VPN?


Your VPN, the very one that’s supposed to keep you hidden, can make it possible for you to be tracked online.


That’s one of the biggest reasons I don’t recommend using free VPNs. They tend to have weak or no encryption, meaning someone could intercept and read your data.


Even worse, some free VPNs make money by selling your data to third parties. Why even get a VPN?


But even premium VPNs can have their vulnerabilities.


For instance, some VPNs use third party DNS servers, which creates a risk of a DNS leak. This is where your DNS queries (usually the websites you visit) are leaked outside the secure tunnel between your computer/device and the VPN you are using.


This can allow tracking by your ISP, a hacker or some other entity. A DNS leak typically occurs when a particular VPN service uses third party DNS servers. So when shopping around for a VPN, only consider those that use their own servers.


Another concern with VPNs is information logging. They collect information about your activities online and store it.


The risk with this is that someone else like the government or hackers can access this information, thus defeating the point of using a VPN.


Some VPNs log minimal data (called connection logs) to optimize your VPN configuration and ensure you are using the VPN as per their Tc & Cs (e.g. not exceeding device limit).

But other VPNs store a whole lot of data that can be used to track you.


What to do: Get a premium VPN service that you can trust. That means it should use its own DNS service and have a genuine no-log policy. Also be wary of VPNs that have government back doors allowing gov agencies to monitor user activity.


A Really Smart Hacker Will Find a Way


I’ll end this on a sorta sad note: there’s no way to hide if someone’s really determined to track you. The only thing that protects most of us from invasive tracking is that it’s not worthwhile.


But if you are a journalist, a government employee or an employee in a sensitive position, there are probably people who are determined to see what you are doing online.

In that case, a VPN alone will not fully protect you. Even if you somehow find a foolproof VPN, smart people can still track you through browser fingerprinting and other techniques.


What to do: Combine multiple security methods to shield yourself such as VPN, a secure browser like Tor, encrypted chat services and so on.


Bottom Line


A good VPN is an excellent way to improve your cyber security. But do not rely on it alone to prevent tracking.


Make sure you’ve set your browser for maximum privacy, check that your computer antivirus is up to date and be careful whenever you browse the web.


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