Anyone with the slightest morsel of interest in computers (or tech) probably knows what a VPN is, and has heard the phrase before ad nauseum. Since the advent of piracy, data tracking, and digital security – the ‘concept’ of the VPN has existed. Naturally, with the progressive and ever-shifting internet landscape, the utility of VPNs has changed dramatically in the 25 years since their inception.
A VPN is now an essential tool for anyone using the internet in more restrictive countries. Those who want ‘enhanced’ security when using the internet, or simply seek privacy from their ISP (internet service provider) have helped to popularize the VPN conceptually.
Streamers or ‘cord-cutters’ will often opt for a VPN to access regionally restricted websites or content. This can mean U.S. (or European) specific entertainment sites, film and television sites, and even social media platforms.
Given that third-party companies, retailers, data bots, malware, agencies, service providers, and other less than legitimate corporations can easily access your personal data without a VPN, enhanced safety becomes a focus of properly navigating the internet.
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First, let us briefly touch upon what a VPN is, and what it is typically used for. We can then glean a better understanding of how a VPN can protect your personal identity, digital identity, and data. What does a VPN hide? Learn how a VPN can (and can’t) protect you.
What Does ‘VPN’ Mean?
VPN, as an acronym, explicitly stands for: “virtual private network.”
While there seems to be some confusion about the specifics that constitute a virtual private network, we can definite it most simplistically as: a service that establishes a private internet connection online, by encrypting data and hiding your IP address.
The VPN, in essence, ‘changes’ your IP address. What are the specifics? Let us break things down a little further. It would help for us to better understand all the components before we look at the bigger picture.
A “network” in this sense, generally, is comprised of any number of devices that communicate between each other. This will include computers, but can also refer to other tech like phones and routers. These networks can be across any number of international locations.
Privacy in this sense mostly means ‘secret.’ The “private” network in VPN has no physical component to it. The devices participating in virtual communication are unaware of the “private relationship between the virtual peers.”
What does a VPN hide?
When you connect to a VPN, the IP address of your connection is changed and all the data traffic and information generated through your device becomes encrypted. Someone using the internet with a VPN in the United States may appear as a resident of India or Portugal. At the same time, your browsing activity, history, location, logins, passwords, account information, and entire online identity is secured.
VPNs Can Hide Your IP Address
Devices essentially use IPs to communicate with each other.
An ‘IP address’ has a unique numerical value ascribed to it, often in the format of a 32-bit number and is an address that that can help identify a device on the internet or a digital network. ‘IP’ stands for “Internet Protocol.” Any device within an IP network will have a unique address within that network.
Public vs. Private IP Address
People wondering what their IP address is — are actually wondering about their “public IP” which was assigned to them by their internet service provider. Devices that exist within the same network (laptops in the same house, on the same internet for example) will share this IP address while accessing or browsing the internet.
Your phone, tablet, laptop, etc. will all be using the IP address that has been assigned to the router via the internet service provider. These same routers will assign ‘private’ IP addresses to each device within the network (say, your phone) so they can properly connect to each other, but remain “hidden.” Only the IP address of the router itself is visible — that means the information relating to the connection for the IP (like your home address) is visible to others and can be tracked.
This IP address does hold personal information that can be maliciously used by cybercriminals. While people with access to your IP address cannot obtain contact information like your cellphone number or credit card information, they can track your online activity, download or engage in illegal content using your IP, hack your device, or initiate a DDoS attack.
This information is pretty readily accessible. Individuals, software, or corporations can get your IP address from an email (which can be contained in the header of the email), by you clicking on a link or visiting a website (collected and stored on a server — provider to that server so it can deliver the content provided by the link or website), or through ads contained on websites themselves.
How a VPN Hides Your IP Address
When using a VPN, your public IP is ‘hidden.’ It is changed from the assigned Internet Service Provider (ISP) IP to a ‘generated’ IP address from the VPN’s server. A VPN will completely hide your real IP address, encrypt your internet connection, and prevents online activity from being tracked back to you.
Most of these companies have multiple servers (several thousand) across different countries, enabling you to protect your identity by reflecting as an IP from a completely different location. When browsing online with a VPN, your data is rerouted through a VPN server with a unique IP address that is constantly changing and not static.
The VPN also establishes an “encrypted tunnel,” which is sometimes referred to as ‘tunneling.’ This means that as your data moves from your device or router to the VPN server, others will not be able to access your data.
Tunneling in the realm of networks means “transporting data across a network,” using a set of rules not traditionally supported by that network. Online traffic in these tunnels used for VPN encryption is often fully encrypted but decrypted once it reaches the network, device, or destination. Most VPNs will be using IPsec protocols. These are groups of protocols set up to ensure encrypted connections between devices.
Remember, a good VPN will always hide the fact that you’re connected to a VPN by concealing the metadata. Certain VPN providers like NordVPN offer this function. For those unaware, encryption essentially hides information by altering the data so only ‘authorized’ networks or servers can interpret the data or ‘decrypt’ it.
What Does a VPN Not Protect Against? Can You Ever Be Truly Secure Online?
Of course, nothing in life is guaranteed or ‘full-proof.’ Using a VPN doesn’t assure complete online anonymity or make you untraceable during online activities or general internet activity.
While individuals will not be able to see what you’re looking at online, they can still determine whether or not you’re using a VPN. There are additional ways in which you are not fully protected when browsing the internet, even with the help of a VPN provider. A VPN can’t hide everything.
With the increasing emphasis placed on internet security and online security, a VPN connection becomes all the more alluring as a way to safeguard yourself from data collection or harmful activity. While a VPN can protect against such things as history from your ISP being collected, your browsing history being accessible, or third parties collecting your information — it cannot hide your browsing history completely if you use data collecting websites or applications, get hit with malware, or via cookies.
Google — for instance, can track your data if you Google search information while connected to your account. The region or IP address may be different, but Google can still determine that it is you. For instance, your searches, ad suggestions, or video suggestions may all be saved if you sign into your account while still using a VPN. Cookies and “browser fingerprinting” can still reveal your data or personal information shared on websites or under accounts.
These are both tools used by websites to gain access to information from who they are being accessed from. These risks can be minimized by using more secure browsers (Firefox, Brave, etc.) and using ad-ons or cookie blockers.
- You’ll also want to clear pre-existing cookies. This can be done from your browser — even Google Chrome offers this feature. It includes your search history, stored information from previous websites you visit, Google account information, streaming services, their data, and activity from your ISP.
- You need to still be smart when browsing online. A VPN will encrypt your data, hiding your IP — but it cannot protect you against malware or spyware on risky or unsafe websites if you still visit them. Accidentally or unintentionally landing malware on your PC can result in confidential or personal information being compromised easily.
- VPNs hide a lot, but will not hide your browsing history or search history on a browser level. So if you don’t want others to see your browsing history when using a device after you, you will need to clear this within the browser itself. An alternative option would be to use incognito mode (but we still recommend you use a VPN for the other benefits).
While a good VPN will provide a level of security and online privacy you would not otherwise be able to attain, it is still imperative to be conscious and self-aware when browsing online and inputting any sort of personal data into a website. In our current internet age, we know becoming totally anonymous online is all but impossible. Using a VPN with features like obfuscated servers, strong data encryption, tunneling, and DNS leak protection can ensure you’re on the right track to safely peruse the internet.
Film lover and technology connoisseur. Nicholas likes to spend his time reading, writing, and engaging with his passion for all things tech. He wants to share his knowledge in a fun and engaging way with expert and novice alike.