A VPN is an effective tool to help you protect your identity and activity online by blocking others from seeing what you’re doing. But what does a VPN hide? Everything you do, or just a few things? You might be surprised at how a VPN can protect you.
Does a VPN—a virtual private network—hide search history? Yes, it can.
Whether you’re online at work or at home, you use a web browser to access the internet. The average person doesn’t use a VPN to check the news or confirm bank balances—they just hop online and start surfing.
That’s because most people aren’t aware that their internet service provider (ISP) can see where you go online. In some cases, an ISP can even see what you’re doing, too. That’s because it’s the connection that comes between you and the web site you’re trying to access, so it knows which websites you’ve asked to go to and keeps track of when you asked for access as well as how long you stayed there. If you’re visiting an unsecure site, it can even see where you’re going on that site.
When you use a VPN, however, the ISP is instantly limited to what it can see because your internet requests go through the VPN first. The ISP is blocked from seeing where you go or what you do. Instead, it can only see that you’re using a VPN and how much data you might be transferring in or out on your computer, because a VPN’s encryption capabilities won’t let the ISP decipher exactly what’s going on.
This protects you in two ways: maintaining your privacy and preventing the ISP from using and selling any data it might know about your search habits.
Anytime you go online, your IP address is part of your online identity. An IP address is basically a series of numbers that identifies a specific device accessing the internet. Those numbers let other devices, networks and sites receive your data and share information back to you.
A VPN can help protect your identity online by masking your IP address so key clues about you, your physical location, sites you visit and other indicators of your identity are hidden. It does this by hiding your public IP address and replacing it with the VPN server’s IP address. Anyone looking for you or trying to use and sell your information will only be met with information about the VPN, not you.
This VPN feature is particularly useful for anyone looking for protection against phishing attacks, ad networks that track people online and internet data trackers in general. It’s also useful if you frequently use a smartphone or another mobile device to access the internet from public locations; you’ll appear to other users as if you are on a private network.
Did you know a VPN can hide your geographic location? It does that by routing your data through its own servers, which can make it look like you are physically in another city or even country.
Most people don’t realize they are giving away their physical location every time they go on the internet. Log into Netflix, for example, and it instantly knows where you are based on where your device is accessing the internet. If you live in the United States, for instance, Netflix will give you access to certain movies for that region but not movies that it only allows users in Europe to access.
VPNs allow you to determine which country or city you want to appear to be in, which can circumvent content-limiting providers like that. Note: Always check terms of service to be sure you aren’t doing anything that would cause such a provider to terminate your access to their service.
Just like Netflix, others who might have access to your online activities also can see exactly where you are located when you’re only using an ISP. Hiding your real location with a VPN can help you access sites (like movie sites) that limit content based on location, but it can also help you from a privacy perspective: Hackers, authorities, stalkers and others won’t be able to track your movements.
People in countries where the government heavily controls and regulates the internet, for example, are turning to VPNs more and more to stay in touch with the world and share information without fear of reprisal. But the average person is also realizing that this kind of privacy can keep them safe from anyone with nefarious intent.
It’s no secret that most websites track your online activities. So do the apps you use on your mobile devices. A VPN can block people from seeing what you’re actually doing on a website or an app, so if you do things like bank online, look at sensitive work materials or make purchases on your favorite website, a VPN can stop snoops from obtaining your personal data.
That includes your home address, bank account information, passwords and other highly sensitive and personal details. This kind of information is protected by a VPN’s encryption features; it conceals all data you enter or receive with special coding so no one can read it except for the intended recipient.
VPN encryption features also help keep you from leaving an online trail, especially through the cookies used by nearly every site. Cookies can include personal information you submit to websites (i.e., credit card security numbers or home addresses), but most people don’t even realize that type of information is being recorded by a site.
Encryption also makes VPNs inherently more secure than a typical ISP, especially if your provider is the target of an internet breach. That can put any personal details the ISP automatically stores into the hands of anyone interested in stealing from you. And steal they will, from passwords to bank account numbers.
Throttling, or downloading torrents
One problem with accessing the internet directly through an ISP is that some, because they can see what you’re doing, will throttle (slow down) your connection if they suspect you’re trying to see or download something questionable. They could even take legal action to stop your activities, no matter how innocent the actions might be.
When you download files using a torrent client, keep in mind you’re downloading them from another user’s computer that might or might not be secure. Anyone who has access to those files can potentially see your real IP address, too.
A strong VPN not only bypasses ISP bandwidth throttling connections but is usually optimized for bandwidth-intensive downloads to help you get the files you want, faster.
Using a VPN is a smart idea if you’re concerned about protecting your identity and activities online. Its encryption capabilities can help you hide personal information and browsing activities, which may keep you safe from prying eyes and internet thieves.