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A virtual private network (VPN) is an important tool for masking your IP address and encrypting your online traffic. But what else does a VPN hide? Can it disguise your location? Does it keep your search and browsing history private?
It sometimes can hide these elements, but a VPN won’t necessarily hide your full search history or erase your browsing history. Read on to learn more about what a VPN can and can’t hide and the best VPNs for maintaining your online privacy.
What a VPN can do
What a VPN can’t do
FAQs about VPN capabilities
How a VPN works
Understanding what a VPN is can be important to know how it works. A VPN is essentially a private and encrypted tunnel through which your internet activity flows.
Imagine your online activity as a moving car on busy roads as you do your daily errands. You shop at stores, visit different places, and much more. But there are plenty of other drivers and visitors around who can see what you’re doing, potentially being able to trace your every move.
Now imagine you do the same errands inside a private tunnel. Anyone attempting to track you may no longer know what exactly you’re doing or the places you’re visiting. They also wouldn’t typically know where you’re located.
This is essentially how a VPN works, offering you increased privacy and security as you use the internet.
What a VPN can do
Using a VPN doesn’t give you absolute anonymity and online security, but it can boost your cybersecurity and make it harder to track your activity. A VPN can hide your IP address, secure your connection, disguise your location, reroute your online traffic, and give you access to regional content.
1. Hide your IP address
An internet protocol address, or IP address, is a unique identifier assigned to every internet-connected or network-connected device. This allows other devices to communicate with it.
While IP addresses are necessary for online communication between different devices, they also pose privacy and security risks. For instance, a hacker may be able to expose sensitive information or personal data using your IP address.
Fortunately, a primary feature of a VPN is to route your internet traffic through another device that has a different IP address — effectively hiding your real IP address. Other online privacy tools, such as firewalls, might not offer this same functionality.
2. Secure your connection
Apart from masking your IP address, another primary VPN feature is encrypting your internet connection, even on a public network. This doesn’t necessarily mean your internet service provider (ISP) or another interested party wouldn’t be able to see that someone is online and engaging in activities.
But it typically means they wouldn’t be able to see what you’re doing, especially if you activate your VPN kill switch. And not being able to see what you’re doing reduces the likelihood of successfully tracking your online traffic.
3. Disguise your location
Your IP address reveals some information that could affect your overall privacy, including the general physical location of your device. This can be an issue if you prefer to maintain as much online privacy as possible.
Using a VPN routes your online traffic through another IP address, typically to a server in a different location than where your device is located. A VPN server’s IP address rather than your own is assigned to your online activity, effectively hiding information about your device’s physical location.
4. Reroute your traffic
A VPN reroutes your online traffic through a secure VPN tunnel. This allows you to pass your online activity through a remote server that may be in another state or country.
One specific scenario where this might come in handy is when using torrent file-sharing services. Torrent online services allow downloading and uploading files through a process shared between several devices over the internet.
An ISP may flag a user for engaging in certain torrenting activities. However, using a VPN connection allows you to reroute your traffic through a remote server and encrypt the traffic you receive, which may keep your ISP unaware of your actions.
Keep in mind that while torrenting in itself is legal, downloading certain files can be illegal. Using a VPN for illegal activities doesn’t make them legal. Learn more about when VPNs are legal to use.
5. Give you access to regional content
Using a VPN isn’t always about privacy and security. In some cases, people simply want to access content that wouldn’t normally be available to them.
For example, using Netflix or another streaming service will populate all the content available in your region. But what about content that’s available in a different country, such as Australia, Germany, or the U.K.?
Since several VPNs offer access to many servers around the world, you have the option to pick and choose where you want to connect your device — basically spoofing, or changing, your geo-location. You can often open an applicable streaming service and access content from that region of the world.
What a VPN can’t do
VPNs have many uses, but they still have certain limitations and things they can’t hide or protect you from.
1. Can’t fully hide your search history
A VPN typically functions to hide your search activity from your ISP or anyone trying to detect your online traffic. But that doesn’t mean your activity is completely hidden.
You likely still have to worry about cookies and other tracking files that keep tabs on your digital footprint or online identity. A VPN doesn’t remove trackers and may not protect you against them.
Your search history may also be recorded by the search engine you use and it may be associated with your account. A VPN wouldn’t help you hide this information either.
2. Can’t disguise activity on logged accounts
If you log in to a website or a social media app, that website or app knows who you are, even if you’re using a VPN. This is because logging in essentially gives a website access to certain identifying information linked to your account. This may include your name, email address, previous activity, and more.
You may also have more than one account on a certain website. Using the same VPN connection to log in and out of two or more of these accounts may show that these accounts belong to the same device or owner.
3. Can’t erase your browsing history
A VPN helps hide your browsing history, but it doesn’t erase it. Your browsing history is often stored locally on your device or is synced through a cloud service between several devices.
Erasing your history is often a manual practice you can do yourself by selecting the applicable action in your web browser. Here are a few examples of ways to clear your browsing history with different browsers:
- Google Chrome: Select “Clear browsing data” in your settings.
- Microsoft Edge: Select “Clear browsing data” in your privacy settings.
- Mozilla Firefox: Select “Clear Recent History” in your settings.
If you want your browsing activity automatically wiped after each session, consider using incognito mode or another type of private browsing mode. Private browsing modes don’t record your browsing history and can help hide your activity from companies and online advertisers. Once you end a private browsing session, your browsing history should be gone.
4. Can’t protect you from malware
Most VPN software isn’t designed to protect you from malware, viruses, or malicious computer software. This is a job better suited for an antivirus.
You might use a VPN to hide your IP address and encrypt your online traffic. However, a VPN typically won’t prevent you from clicking on suspicious links, downloading harmful programs, or being at risk from cybercriminals if you’re on a public Wi-Fi network, for example.
Learn more about malware and what it can do.
FAQs about VPN capabilities
Does a VPN completely hide you?
No, a VPN doesn’t completely hide you. Using a VPN helps mask your IP address and encrypt your online activity, but it can’t prevent a website or an app from seeing your account activity if you’re logged in. It also won’t prevent a web browser from seeing your online searches if you’re logged into an associated account.
Who can see what you do on a VPN connection?
VPNs provide secure connections designed to prevent people from tracking your online activity. However, people may still be able to track you depending on certain factors:
- Your activities: Logging in to an account on a website may reveal your activity to this website.
- Your VPN service: Some VPN services may log your activities, which may allow them to see what you do.
- Where your VPN is located: Certain countries may force VPN services to reveal user data, either through the legal system or extrajudicial processes.
Can a VPN provider spy on you?
Yes, a VPN provider can spy on you, which is another way of saying it can track your online activity. However, this typically depends on each VPN’s policies. Certain VPN providers have strict no-logs policies, meaning that they will not record user data. But certain countries may still force a VPN to reveal data about its users.
VPNs offer increased privacy and cybersecurity, and they can hide your IP, location, and certain search and browser activities. But it’s important to understand what a VPN can and can’t do if you want to cover all your bases.
Fortunately, using a VPN is often safer than not using one. Review our guide on the best VPNs to find one that best suits your needs.
- High-quality VPN offering safety and speed
- Loads of servers for multiple connection options
- Works with popular streaming services, including Netflix
- Too many confusing plans