There are mainly two reasons why people use a VPN. Either they want to access some online service that is not available to them locally, like Netflix, or they want to be anonymous online. Privacy is the primary reason VPNs were invented, after all, and most VPNs advertise their “anonymity protection” abilities to motivate us to buy. But does a VPN provide complete anonymity?
A VPN alone is not enough to provide complete anonymity. Though the VPN can protect your data while traveling over the internet and hide your IP address in the process, other tracking systems and the login details that you use on some websites can still reveal your identity despite the VPN.
If a VPN does not provide complete anonymity, what is the point of having a VPN? And how can you remain anonymous online? A VPN still has its uses if seen as just one layer in a complete privacy and security solution. Understanding what a VPN does and what you can do to supplement its role in protecting your anonymity will go a long way towards helping you remain anonymous.
Why A VPN Alone Does Not Provide Complete Anonymity
By its very nature, the purpose of a VPN is two-fold. The first is to encrypt your internet connection so that any data and information that you send over the connection cannot be read by someone who might be eavesdropping. Secondly, a VPN routes your traffic through one of their servers so that your IP address is hidden from the destination servers or the general public that’s online.
In some ways, this does help with anonymity. The encrypted connection ensures that your personal details, whether it be your name, email address, contact details, or credit card information, cannot be read by someone who’s not supposed to. A hacker who’s hijacking your connection to get your information will not be able to decrypt it, keeping the data that you’re sending private.
The process of routing your connection through the VPN’s server hides your IP address, so the websites that you access cannot determine where you are, or even who you are, from your public IP or your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Your browsing history is also hidden from your ISP, which means they cannot trace your activity directly to you.
Though important, this does not mean you are anonymous. Any personal or identifying information that you send is protected. However, even though login details are sent over an encrypted link, your identity is revealed to the server that you’re logging in to, and the VPN’s IP address is associated with your account. Logging into any platform, even over a VPN, compromises your anonymity.
VPNs also don’t block browser cookies and tracking pixels, like the Facebook pixel or the Google remarketing code. These cookies and pixels log your activity, username, browsing habits, and search history, and they are saved directly on your device. The VPN does not block them and cannot deny any website access to them. This way, almost any website can access your data, even over a VPN.
So, in summary, a VPN is an essential part of your security and privacy toolkit, but it is just that – one part. If you don’t supplement the VPN with other tools, along with a good dose of common sense, the only guarantee that you have is that you are definitely not going to remain anonymous online. Some would say it is impossible to achieve complete online anonymity. But you can get close!
The 4 Ways To Help A VPN To Provide Anonymity
Though it is virtually impossible to remain perfectly anonymous online, there are some ways you can keep tabs on the ways that you can be identified online and decide for yourself what you want to allow. Remember that many of the services we use daily are designed to mine data that is to be sold, with Google and Facebook being notoriously good at it.
A VPN is a great starting point towards anonymity, but you should supplement the VPN with the following:
1. Use An Encrypted, Privacy-Focused Web Browser Along With A VPN
A web browser that blocks cookies and trackers will go a long way to protecting your anonymity. Used in conjunction with a VPN, a web browser like Brave browser, for example, will provide even more complete anonymity. Brave browser blocks trackers, ads, and even most cookies meaning that websites cannot store tracking- or identifying information on your device anymore.
A good privacy-focused web browser will plug one of the holes that a VPN can’t fill, which is the identifying data stored on your computer. But remember that this is in no way guaranteed – it’s only effective until others find a way around this blocking technology. Also, a browser will only protect your anonymity while browsing the web, while there are many other ways to get your data.
2. Use Encrypted Messaging Apps, Even When Sending Over A VPN
Many text messaging apps are not encrypted, for example, the text app built into Android. Any messages sent using one of these unencrypted apps are sent in plain text, revealing your phone number and other data that you may be sending. When sent over a VPN, depending on how it’s sent, it will encrypt the message while it’s transmitting, but it’s plain text again after that.
Using an encrypted messaging app will eliminate this problem, at least to some extent. Unauthorized people cannot read your data so easily, and neither can your identifying information like your name or telephone number. This will help to keep you anonymous, especially when combined with the encryption and re-routing of a VPN.
3. Social Media Services Make VPNs Useless At Anonymity
It’s utterly pointless to use a VPN to go on Facebook. The moment you log in, Facebook already has all your personal information. Not to mention the stuff that you post – Your work or school details, the photo of your lunch with the restaurant’s name in the background, the geolocation tags included in your selfies – Your anonymity is non-existent despite your VPN’s bravest efforts.
Ideally, anyone who’s concerned about anonymity shouldn’t be on social media at all. Some social networks log more identifying data than others, but there are no real exceptions; they all log enough user data to identify you no matter how hard your VPN is working. They use this data for monetary gain by showing you targeted ads, but if they can identify you, other people can as well.
4. Voice Assistants Violate Anonymity By Default
Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and Google Assistant have become essential and valuable tools in our society. It’s so convenient just to give your phone vocal instructions or to dictate a message while driving. These are all good things. But these AI-based digital assistants have to have access to your personal and identifying information, which is shared with the servers they access.
This happens even over a VPN.
There are also rising concerns with some people claiming that these assistants are spying on conversations even when they’re not commanded to listen since ads are popping up of things discussed in private conversations where the phone was present. These claims, though not proven, are very concerning.
If you truly value your privacy and anonymity, you shouldn’t use a voice assistant at all. Keep it deactivated. Remove its permissions on your phone or device. By their very nature, they have to log your activity and record your personal information, and they have to share that with the servers they are communicating with. Sacrifice some convenience and stay anonymous.
A VPN provider that claims complete anonymity is either lying or withholding important information. No VPN can ever guarantee complete anonymity, no matter how advanced their services are. However, combined with a few other tools and sound online practices, a VPN can certainly help you to be a bit more anonymous, even if you may have to sacrifice some comforts along the way.