A VPN is a versatile tool with many uses. Whether it’s greater online privacy, security, anonymity, or freedom, all of these rely on a VPN’s ability to hide certain data from certain entities along your internet connection.
As VPNs have become more popular throughout the world, there’s been a fair amount of confusion about what a VPN can and can’t do. So let’s set the record straight: what data does a VPN hide, and from who?
1. A VPN hides your IP address from apps and websites
Your public IP address is a unique number assigned to your device when you connect to the internet. Because the number is unique, apps and websites often use it to identify you, remember that you’ve been there before, and serve you personalized content.
More annoyingly, they may share your IP address—and the activity associated with it—with a network of online trackers and data brokers that follow you around the internet and target you with ads.
When you connect to a VPN, however, apps and websites you visit can’t see your device’s public IP address, the one that uniquely identifies you. Instead, they’ll see the IP address of a VPN server, which cannot be used to identify you.
The ability to hide your IP address from apps and websites is also called proxying, and it’s one of the main benefits of using a VPN.
2. A VPN hides your location from apps and websites
Another important thing about IP addresses is that each one is associated with a geographic location. It’s not a precise location like a longitude and latitude or a mailing address. But it’s usually enough to identify which country you are in, very often which city, and sometimes which neighborhood. As a result, apps and websites often use your IP address to serve you localized content.
When you connect to a VPN, however, apps and websites will see the IP address—and location—of the remote VPN server, not your “real” IP address and location.
This means you can actually choose which location you want apps and websites to see you visiting from. ExpressVPN has VPN servers in 94 countries, and you can switch between them as often as you like.
3. A VPN hides your browsing history from your ISP
Your internet service provider (ISP) is the middleman between your device and the internet, so its servers have the potential to learn quite a lot about you. Even when encrypted HTTPS prevents them from seeing the contents of your traffic, they can still see its destination, meaning they know exactly which websites you’ve visited, and when, and for how long.
And although they claim not to sell your browsing history, many American ISPs have been found to share it with their parent companies or subsidiaries, who then sell it to data brokers, who sell it to advertisers, who use it to serve you targeted ads. This is why people often search for methods to hide their browsing history from their ISP.
Using a VPN is the easiest of those methods. VPNs route your traffic through an encrypted tunnel that leaves your ISP with no useful information about your browsing activity. They can see how much data you are transferring, but they cannot decipher it. And they can see that it is going to a VPN server, but not where it goes after that. In other words, your actual browsing history is a mystery.
The same is true, by the way, for any other third party along your connection, including the owner of the Wi-Fi router you are using, or anyone who may be eavesdropping on your network. A VPN hides your browsing history from all of them.
4. A VPN protects your personal data from attacks
In addition to hiding your browsing history, a VPN is also an effective defense against certain kinds of data theft, most notably man-in-the-middle attacks.
Whenever you connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots—such as those found in airports, restaurants, and malls—without a VPN, you’re relying on whatever security is provided by the Wi-Fi operator, which is often weak or non-existent. This allows hackers to easily manipulate your traffic and redirect it to phishing sites, or simply read your unencrypted data in transit.
Inside a VPN tunnel, however, your traffic is safe from tampering and manipulation. That’s why it’s always a good idea to connect to a VPN before doing any browsing on public Wi-Fi networks.
What a VPN hides from who: A cheatsheet
To recap, a VPN hides…
- …your IP address and location from apps and websites you visit.
- …your web activity from ISPs, Wi-Fi admins, and other third parties.
A VPN does not hide….
- …your IP address from your ISP. They provide the internet to you, so they know your real IP address.
- …your web activity from the apps and websites you visit. If you’re logged into Facebook, for example, Facebook can see your activity whether or not you use a VPN. Likewise, a VPN does not hide your Google search history from Google.
Here’s a quick reference guide:
|A VPN hides ↓ / from ->||ISPs and Wi-Fi admins||Apps and websites you visit|
|Your IP address and location||Visible 👀||Hidden ✅|
|Your browsing activity||Hidden ✅||Visible 👀|
FAQ about what a VPN hides
What does your ISP see when you use a VPN?
A VPN hides your browsing activity from your ISP, but it doesn’t hide everything. Your ISP can still see:
- The fact that you are using a VPN
- The VPN protocol you are using
- The IP address of the VPN server
- Your true IP address
- The time and duration of each connection
- The amount of data transferred
- The encrypted data itself (although they cannot decrypt it)
Does a VPN hide your browsing history from your router?
Yes, using a VPN encrypts your traffic before it passes through your Wi-Fi router, so the owner of the Wi-Fi network will not be able to inspect your traffic to see your browsing history.
Can you be tracked if you use a VPN?
Yes, it is possible. A VPN by itself only prevents you from being tracked by your IP address, but it does not block ad trackers or cookies, nor does it prevent browser fingerprinting.
ExpressVPN, however, provides an additional privacy feature called Threat Manager that does block trackers and other malicious websites.
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