Can You Be Tracked If You Use a VPN?

So this is another of those topics where I can answer the question with a single sentence:

“No, you can’t be tracked if you use a VPN.”

But the problem with that statement is that it’s not quite that straightforward.

We need to consider the word “tracked” in two different contexts.

“Tracked”, for some people, simply means, “Can I browse the Internet anonymously?”

Whereas for others it means, “I don’t want anyone knowing I’m online or that I use a VPN server.”

There are a few subtle differences to where people stand on the goal of online privacy and protecting their personal information.

Not all VPN’s are created equal.

And there are some knowledge gaps here you might not have considered until you read them.

So let’s take a look at what it takes to avoid being “tracked” while using a VPN (Virtual Private Network).

Covering The Basics

Your VPN encrypts your data as it heads out over your Internet connection to the public Internet, as well as masking your IP address.

It does this by sending your data through a “tunnel” and allowing you to connect to any of thousands of servers in hundreds of countries.

Your ISP (Internet Service Provider) will be able to tell you’re using a VPN (if they go looking) but they will not be able to view your personal data.

Your ISP will however know your actual IP address, as will your VPN provider.

If you’re in any doubt as to how safe a good VPN can be, then you need only look at what happened recently in China.

Even with an entire government trying to censor information coming out, Chinese citizens were still able to use VPNs to successfully get around these controls.

Long story short, a good VPN server can be very difficult for entire governments to get around.

Don’t Use Free VPNs

You’re pretty much guaranteed that not only will all your data be logged but it will be resold again and again by the companies that run free VPNs.

That’s the entire business model – they don’t give a hot damn about your privacy or keeping your data secure.

And that’s without worrying about how many of them have suffered serious data breaches but never disclosed that.

Also, based on testing, free VPNs basically broadcast personal IP addresses loud and clear – there’s no real masking involved.

Use A Secure Browser

Don’t use the same browser you use for everything else.

It’s stuffed full of cookies and thousands of other pieces of digital clutter that would easily be used to identify you.

And I don’t mean use a ‘Private’ tab in your current browser.

I mean install a completely different browser, and anything other than Firefox or Chrome.

Both of those are basically designed to track your online activities while assuring you that they don’t.

It’s total horseshit.

Instead, install something like Brave. Yes, it’s a Chromium browser, but with all the spyware turned off.

Use A Multi-hop VPN

What’s better than having your data encrypted and sent through a remote VPN server?

Encrypting it twice and having it pass through two servers before being decrypted.

That’s how multi-hop routing works.

And it’s becoming a popular option for people who are really concerned about their privacy.

So even if somebody was able to intercept your data on the first server, they’d just find an additional layer of encryption.

That makes tracking you more trouble than it’s worth, unless maybe an intelligence agency is involved.

The only downside to using a VPN with multi-hop is that it can be a lot slower than a regular VPN.

DNS Leaks

Now here’s a problem that is a problem for Windows users, although Mac and Linux users apparently aren’t safe from it either.

A DNS leak happens when using a VPN…but it screws up and routes your Internet traffic through your ISP’s DNS instead of the DNS of your VPN provider.

That means that although your VPN is connected and everything looks fine, everything you do online passes through your ISP’s servers, completely unencrypted.

So you can be tracked very easily.

How can you check if your VPN has DNS leaks?

Open a Google search box and look in bottom left corner to see what country it thinks you’re connecting from.

Or you can use a site like DNS Leak Test instead.

Is there any VPN service that has never, ever had a DNS leak?

None that I’m aware of, but some are better than others.

VPN Logging

Connecting to VPN servers means those servers can log where you go and what you do.

So what you’re looking for in a VPN is one that advertisers, and implements, a “no logging” policy.

But there’s a slight problem with this “promise.”

Only VPN companies located in specific countries can avoid handing over their logs to the authorities if forced to do so.

That’s why many VPN providers try to locate their businesses offshore and away from nosey governments.

Payment

Nobody really thinks about this, but paying for a VPN with your credit or debit card is raises a red flag that you’re trying to surf anonymously.

Doing this in a safe and free democracy is one thing – nobody will really give a shit.

But signing up for a VPN in some countries could see you attracting the attention of the authorities.

All you have to do to get around this problem is sign up for your VPN with either a cryptocurrency, or find one that accepts something like Amazon gift cards as payment.

Source: https://tails.boum.org

True Web Anonymity

So…is there anything you can do to make sure you can’t be tracked when using a VPN?

Of course!

There are actually two choices here – the first of these is to use TOR over a VPN.

Basically, you connect to your VPN, and then connect to TOR.

You get a VPN within a VPN, which effectively make your online activities untraceable.

If you wanted to take things a step further do all of this on a public Wi-Fi hotspot.

The second method is to use something called Tails.

This is a portable operating system designed specifically to help protect your privacy and get around censorship.

Basically, you can boot your computer from a USB key containing Tails.

You can then connect to your VPN of choice and/or TOR along with that.

And when you shut the computer down there are no traces of what you were doing online or on the computer itself.

Very neat, and Tails is completely free.

Summing It Up

So, as you can see, asking whether or not you can be tracked while using a VPN requires a bit more explaining than just saying, “Nah, you’ll be fine”.

Remaining anonymous online is entirely doable, but you’ll have to put some effort into achieving that goal.

It’s not as simple as using whatever VPN is being recommended by YouTubers right now and hoping for the best.

But at least now you know what you need to do.

 

Home Office Tech Essentials – Office gadgets and more

Once you’ve gotten all the basics of a home office (desk, chair, etc) sorted out it’s time to look at the other technical essentials you might need.

Now, we’re not going to get into any detail about buying a computer for your home office because we’ve already covered that topic.

Instead, we’re going to look at the various devices, adapters and office gadgets available to you.

No two home office setups are the same, so take this list of tech essentials as suggestions but not something etched in stone.

Let’s get going.

External hard drive

Yes, your laptop or desktop has almost-endless gigabytes of storage space. But one of the main benefits of an external drive is that you’re not keeping all your eggs in one basket.

Which means not keeping all your data in one place.

And with external hard drives now cheaper than they’ve ever been before, you can get a teraybte of fast (USB 3.0) storage space for well under $100.

Just stick to established brands like Seagate, Western Digital, Toshiba and Lacie.

Lesser known hard drives might be fine, but they’ll probably crash when you least expect it.

 

Wi-Fi extender

Working from home with slow or intermittent Internet access is painful.

If your home office is located a dozen feet from your modem/router then you probably won’t have an issue with signal strength. But most home offices are tucked away in the corner of a spare room, or in the garage or attic of a home.

In situations like that all you need is a Wi-Fi extender from Netgear or TP-Link to boost your signal strength while also supplying you with an Ethernet port that you can hook straight into.

Again, stick to brand names you recognize, and pay attention to reviews.

Noise-cancelling headphones

Even if you live alone there will still be times when you need to drown out background noise – neighbors mowing their lawn, a barking dog, or whatever.

A good pair of noise-cancelling headphones can be worth their weight in gold, providing way more aural isolation than those tiny earbuds ever could.

Personally, I prefer over-the-ear models because they do actually cancel all background noise when listening to music or a podcast, whereas on-ear models tend to have noise “leaks”.

You can get a good pair of Sony or Phillips headphones for about $50, or around $250 for Bose or Sennheiser ear candy.

Dual Screens

One of the single biggest productivity hacks you can implement is to set yourself up with dual screens. Yes, you can get away with working on just your laptop, but all that alt-tabbing between screens is a nuisance.

The thing about a dual-screen setup is that it doesn’t need to cost the Earth, but do pay a little more to get screens that are height and tilt adjustable.

ViewSonic VX2252  monitors seem to be particularly popular right now with visitors to this site.

But please make sure that whatever you buy has VESA mounts on the back.

I’ll explain why in a second.

Monitor mounts

One of the main arguments I hear against dual screens is that they eat up a lot of desktop real estate.

While this is true, there’s a way around that – monitor mounts.

These monitor stands clamp to your desk, and you attack the screens directly to them, freeing up several feet of desk space.

And the really neat part is that you can get “static” dual-screen stands for about $50 or gas-lift models for about $90.

So they’re not expensive, and you configure your monitors to the exact height, tilt and pitch that works for you.

This is a main component of my next upgrade to my home office.

Keyboard and mouse

A crappy keyboard and mouse can lead to levels of frustration that make you want to turn green and Hulk-Smash everything in sight.

Or you might finally get sick and tired of pecking away at your laptop’s keyboard.

Either way, the time will come for a new keyboard and mouse.

Let’s keep this simple – don’t go for a fancy ergonomic design and stick with either Logitech or Microsoft keyboard and mice combos.

One thing to watch out for is the mouse size with cheaper packages – like the Logitech MK270 mouse feels tiny and I don’t have huge hands.

The mouse with the Logitech MK345 package is far more comfy to use.

Should you go wired or wireless with your mouse and keyboard setup?

I’ve already covered the whole wired vs. wireless debate in another post.

It’s a personal preference thing.

Mousepad with wrist support

Ergonomics are great in theory, but how many of you maintain a perfect posture while using your keyboard and mouse?

I thought so…

You can save putting lots of additional stress on your joints by investing in a high-quality mousepad that has a built-in wrist rest.

Now, I’ve tried a few cheaper  versions of these, but the gel support always goes pancake-flat after just a few months.

The Fellowes Crystal gel mousepad I’m currently using is just way, way superior in terms of comfort and durability.

Yes, I paid around $15 for it but it’s been worth every cent.

Webcam

Most laptop webcams are beyond awful, which is why they’re never used by YouTubers or anyonee who takes video quality seriously.

Part of the problem is they’re fixed to the top bezel of your screen so you’re left working with a seriously limited number of angles.

So if you’re going to be doing a lot of video calls or conferences invest in something worthwhile.

I use, own and love my Logitech C920, but I have used both Creative Livecams, and Microsoft Lifecams in the past.

Just bear in mind that a $20 webcam will offer $20 worth of video quality – there’s no freebies here.

Document shredder

When you work in an office somebody else takes care of the paper recycling.

But when you’re working from a home office you are the recycling company, and you’ll probably be surprised at just how much paper you have to deal with.

And to do that in a secure way.

Which is why you need a document shredder, and ideally a cross-cut model because that turns your junk documents into confetti.

What’s cool about the latest models is they can even shred credit cards and staples!

Oh, and don’t buy a cheap/no-name document shredder online – their motors burn out in no time, and that’s speaking from experience.

 

USB flash drives

Why would you need a USB flash drive if you already have an external drive?

Good question.

For me it’s because I keep multiple copies of important documents because I’ve had two hard drives fail within 24 hours of each other.

But I also have various other uses for them like booting different operating systems, storing files for my media player, etc.

What type of USB flash drive should you buy?

Corsair and a minimum of 32GB, but ideally 64GB or above.

All those other (cheaper) brands work just fine, but they tend to have one of two problems:

  1. High failure rate – I’ve lost count of how many cheap flash drives have failed on me.
  2. Slow data transfer rates – every other brand besides Corsair has been pitiful

I own several Corsair USB flash drives and not one of them has failed even though some of them are over 10 years old.

Powered USB hub

3 or 4 USB ports seems like loads…until you plug in your mouse, keyboard, webcam, WI-FI dongle, phone, etc.

All of a sudden you’re having to juggle between what devices you want to keep connected.

And that happens even if you have a desktop PC – it’s not just a problem for laptop owners.

The simple answer is to get yourself a powered USB hub.

How many ports should your USB hub have?

I’d suggest at least 4 – believe me, you’ll find uses for those spare USB ports.

Should your USB hub be USB 2.0 or 3.0?

If your computer has a USB port with a blue connector then get USB 3.0 hub, and if not then get a USB 2.0 hub.

Brand names don’t really matter here – just look for a hub with decent reviews.

A basic printer

Will you need to print documents while working from home?

Probably.

How much of that you’ll do will depend on what you do for a living.

Either way, you’ll need a printer.

We can keep this part mercifully short for you.

If you’re not going to print tons of document or paperwork, then a HP or Canon inkjet printer/scanner will meet your needs.

But if you need to print a lot of documents or contracts, then look at a small office laser printer instead.

That’s simply because a laser printer will have a lower cost-per-page for high volume printing.

Do you need a color laser printer?

Probably not, but if you have the budget for one , then go for it.

In terms of what laser printer brands to buy, I can recommend Canon, Brother or HP.

Just pay really careful attention to the cost of consumables for both – some cheap inkjet and laser printers make up for that initial “discount” by pillaging your bank balance to pay for ludicrously expensive consumables later on.

Desk Riser

Sitting down all day at a desk is bad for you.

It’s bad for your posture, and it can lead to all kinds of physiological problems.

In a 9-5 you have assigned lunch breaks and meetings that force you to stand up and move around.

You don’t get that at home.

So a quick way to get around that problem is to install a desk riser – a simplified version of a standing desk.

A desk riser can be me mechanical or user electric motors.

Either way, they offer a great way for you to stand up and get your blood flowing.

A side benefit of using one is that when you’re standing you tend to be more focused on what you’re actually working on.