VPNs protect your privacy, but who can still access your data? And what information can they actually see?
VPN at home
In many ways, we already live in the future. With a single tap, we can get almost anything we need delivered right to our doorsteps. The modern world has created many conveniences with custom ads, personalized location-based offers, and next day delivery. But at what cost?
In exchange for convenience, many of us trade our privacy. However, many are beginning to realize how valuable their data actually is. With this, more and more people are investing in VPNs for their safety. So who can see your data when you use a VPN? And exactly what information can they record?
What Is a VPN?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) creates a private connection by masking your IP address. VPNs help protect you by hiding your browsing history, location, and devices from hackers. By encrypting your data and using an IP address that is not your own, you can browse the web safer than without it.
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While a step forward for improving our privacy rights, VPNs are not perfect. VPNs have limitations that you should take into consideration when protecting yourself.
The Three Types of VPN Data Logs
Before we go into detail about who can see your online information, let’s look at the types of data collected by VPNs.
Laptop connection virtual private network VPN
VPN providers have varying policies on how much data they retain from their users, so be sure to read the fine print before downloading or making a purchase.
Depending on their country of origin, different territories have specific laws regarding data retention. For example, despite claims on their website, VPN providers based in the US or EU will be required to log your data by their specific governing bodies.
There are three main types of data that your VPN can potentially record: usage logs, connection logs, and no logs.
Usage logs contain information like websites, apps, or devices you use. Connection logs will include your real IP address, the VPN IP addresses you have access to, and data usage. Lastly, some VPN providers will not log anything at all.
With this, we know that while most VPNs are secure, they are not all entirely private. Check what information your VPN records before downloading.
But who exactly can see your data, even when using a VPN?
While useful as a first line of defense, VPNs do not make you completely invisible or untraceable on the internet. There are many other ways of tracking your online presence, which can reveal your personal information besides your IP address.
Here are a few services that can still see your data while you’re connected to a VPN.
Internet Service Providers (ISP)
Without VPNs, internet service providers have access to everything you do online.
While VPNs help hide your information, ISPs will still be able to see your connection logs—the IP address of the VPN encrypted server, the time used, and even the amount of traffic to and from your device.
Despite having a VPN, many search engines can collect information on you because you have permitted them to use a unified profile.
For example, VPN users logged into their Google accounts while using the Google search engine will still have information about their search history linked to them. While Google currently offers a VPN service with its Google One subscription, its trustworthiness leaves much to be desired.
Social Media Sites
Similarly, staying logged into social media sites such as Facebook can be used to attribute your browsing back to you.
In fact, this is also true for all the websites you have used to log-in with using your social media account as a single sign-on. Regardless of your IP address, data linked to your social media accounts is still accessible to advertisers.
If you think that a VPN can keep your sketchy search history from your employer while using the company laptop, you are mistaken. Unlike commercial private networks, VPNs provided for by companies often route your traffic to a company-owned network.
Despite being away from your office, employers have the power to monitor activity that might go against company policy. For example, sending sensitive documents, viewing pornographic material, or downloading pirated content may alert your company’s security team. Many companies also have administrative access to your device and can view your browsing history locally.
Law enforcement agencies cannot track live, encrypted data that uses a VPN. However, they do have other ways of accessing your information. If you are suspected to be engaged in illegal activity or criminal behavior, federal authorities can request your connection logs from your ISP to learn about your VPN provider.
Law enforcement can then request your VPN provider for your data. If your VPN provider does not have strict policies against logging, they will need to comply and turn over your information.
Protect Yourself With More Than a VPN
smartphones connect to VPNs
Using a VPN, the traffic between your VPN exit server and your final destination is still not encrypted. While tracing actions from your VPN IP address may not lead back to you, other interactions along the way can. Remember, there are multiple ways to trace your online usage back to you.
Additionally, not all VPNs are equal. A bad VPN can be just as dangerous as not having one at all. When choosing a VPN, make sure to check if they have a history of data leaks, operate in countries that do not require logging of user data, and support the devices that you frequently use.
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While VPNs do a great job of adding more security for your online activities, they don’t entirely ensure your privacy. You will still need to be cautious and practice standard internet safety procedures. There is no real substitute for creating strong passwords, using private browsers, routinely scanning for malware, and avoiding clicking phishing emails.
Despite being incredibly useful, a good VPN is only half the battle. As scammers and hackers become more intelligent, it is becoming increasingly necessary to up our personal data privacy practices as much as we can.