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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.
We put together a whole article covering the “How safe is a VPN?” topic.
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.
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.
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.
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.
True Web Anonymity
So…is there anything you can do to make sure you can’t be tracked when using a VPN?
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.