You might want to hide your personal information from the government. This is your right. If you decided to use a VPN to hide your data, you must be curious about if the government has ability to track you while using a VPN. Let’s learn if they can or cannot!
You may have heard that using a VPN makes you anonymous online. This isn't strictly true, but it's also not entirely false.
The internet is a wild and wonderful place, but it's also a dangerous one. For example, if you want to go on a shopping spree at Nordstrom or buy some illegal drugs online, you could get tracked by law enforcement and investigated.
That's why people use VPNs—virtual private networks—to protect their privacy. But can the government track VPN users? We're here to answer that question!
Governments Track Your Activities Through Your IP Address
Your IP address can be public or private; when it's public, anyone can find out what it is with some simple tools like Google Maps. When it's private, only certain people who have permission from the owner of that IP address (like their ISP) can see what it is.
If you're using a VPN that doesn't offer strong encryption or has weak security measures, your IP address could be exposed. You might also have trouble using certain websites if they don't allow VPNs or if they're blocked by your ISP.
If you're using public Wi-Fi and connecting to the Internet through a VPN, your information could be intercepted by hackers at any point along the way.
What Kind of Information Could The Government Get From VPNs?
VPNs can be a great way to protect your privacy, but they're not perfect against governments. Here's what the government can get from using one:
Metadata about who you talk to and when
IP addresses (which can help them identify you)
Information about how much data you've downloaded and uploaded (which can help them identify a person who has specific footprints on the internet)
Data Retention Laws and VPN
One of the biggest problems with VPNs is that they can be used to circumvent data retention laws. Data retention laws require companies and ISPs to keep the logs of their customers' activities—including what websites they visit, what apps they use, and sometimes even where they are at any given time—for a certain amount of time before deleting them.
The problem with these laws is that they are often used as an excuse for government surveillance. While the purpose of these laws is to make sure law enforcement can find out who was responsible for a crime or an act of terrorism, it's also been used in countries like China to track dissidents and other political opponents of the state.
VPNs pose a double threat to this kind of tracking: not only do they allow users to access a larger number of websites (which would otherwise be blocked), but they also obscure where those websites are being accessed from. In fact, some VPNs promise "no logs," meaning that even if your ISP wanted to store information about what you were doing online, there wouldn't be anything for them to collect!
Can Law Enforcement Track Your Online Activity While Using VPN?
The short answer: no, law enforcement cannot track your online activity while you're using a VPN.
But let's unpack that a little bit. There are two main ways law enforcement can track your online activity and they both involve the government getting your IP address.
The first way is by getting the IP address directly from your internet service provider (ISP). When you connect to the internet, your ISP assigns you an IP address and keeps track of it for billing purposes. They also keep the logs of when you connect and disconnect from their network, which means they could be subpoenaed by law enforcement to share this information if they wanted to find out what websites a user connected to over time.
The second way is through a court order or subpoena for records from an internet company or website (like Google or Facebook) that stores browsing history or other user data. This is what happened with Lavabit founder Ladar Levison, who had been ordered by the government to turn over his encryption keys so they could read all of his users' email messages but refused on principle—and then shut down his service entirely because he believed complying would compromise the privacy of all his users.
In fact, it's actually really common for people to use VPNs.
However, If you live in one of these countries that restrict VPN usage, then your government can track what websites you visit and even see what sites you're looking at when you use a VPN:
Everyone has the fundamental right to privacy. And while a VPN can be helpful in protecting your identity and location, it doesn't mean that the government or anybody else can't track you. After all, they have their ways of seeing what you're doing online. However, the concern regarding VPNs is largely unwarranted. There's good reason to use a VPN, but you need to make sure that it's being used legally. You can do to hide your identity from prying eyes!