Can You Be Tracked with a VPN, and Who’s Trying?

It’s easy to think no one knows you’re looking up embarrassing questions or stalking your crush on Instagram, but the truth is your online habits are far from private. Your browser, websites, ISPs, and third parties like advertisers constantly track everything you do online. All that tracking is creepy and invasive when you stop to think about it.

While the situation sounds bleak, you’re not entirely powerless against it. That’s where VPNs come in — they fortify your internet traffic against intrusion. VPNs encrypt your traffic and hide your real IP address, making them a powerful deterrent against certain types of tracking. It’s also important to know what VPNs can’t do, though, and how to tackle different online privacy challenges.

Curious how it all works? This guide covers everything you might want to know about VPNs and tracking. Find out who’s snooping on you online, how you can still be tracked if you use a VPN, and whether VPNs are traceable.

Who Can Track You Online? 

Your online activity can be tracked by: 

    • Internet Service Providers. ISPs can see almost everything you do online, including the websites you visit, your downloads, and what you watch. They often sell this data to advertisers or other third-party entities, and if requested, share it with authorities.
    • Governments. Many governments monitor online activity for surveillance purposes. Surveillance can range from monitoring specific individuals to mass data collection. Many governments obligate ISPs and other companies to collect and hand over your data but some also use spyware and trackers.
    • Browsers. If you’re using a popular commercial browser like Chrome, it likely knows more about you than you’d have guessed. Most browsers track all of your online activity and collect information about your device and location.
    • Websites. Most websites use browsing analytics and cookies to monitor you on their platforms. They collect data about your device, browsing habits (often even when you close the site), location, age, gender, and preferences. Websites use this data to optimize their websites and for targeted advertising
    • Third-party trackers. Websites often use third-party plugins to help manage their sites and collect information about you. Most sites also use trackers to make money by letting them add content, ads, or links to pages. While some legislations, like the GDPR, try to curb tracking, third-party trackers are largely unregulated and their practices are murky. Trackers build accurate profiles of you by following you across the web.
    • Browser extensions. They may be convenient, but browser extensions (or plugins) can also secretly track your browsing habits. Malicious extensions can even redirect you to shady websites, collect the sensitive information you enter on websites, and turn on your device’s camera.
    • Apps. Besides tracking everything you do on their platforms, many apps also collect data about your location and device. Many also ask for more app permissions than they need so they can track what you do on your browser or other apps. 
    • Cybercriminals. Malicious actors have a growing list of methods to track your online activity, including cookie hijacking, malware, and phishing. If they manage to infiltrate your privacy, it can lead to identity theft, fraud, or having your data sold to other cybercriminals.

But how, you ask? How can all these different entities see what you do online? Let’s take a look at how tracking works.     

How Does Online Tracking Work?

You’ve likely heard of website cookies before, but did you know about the many other ways websites, apps, and third parties can track you online? This list is by no means exhaustive, but we wanted to give you a glimpse of how they’re able to collect your data.

    • Browser fingerprinting. Websites identify you by your unique browser settings and device characteristics. This makes it easy to track your activity and link it back to your digital profile. Scripts collect information about your browser configurations, extensions, screen resolution, and operating system. Companies use digital fingerprinting with the help of these identifiers to recognize you with more than 99% accuracy.
    • Cookies. Tracking cookies are tiny bits of code stored on your device or browser. Different types of cookies exist, including session cookies, permanent cookies, first-party cookies, third-party cookies, and supercookies (zombie cookies).
    • Javascript localStorage. Third-party sites can run JavaScript and set values in your browser’s local storage. These have no expiration date and they can retrieve them later on to track your activity across multiple sites.
    • Web beacons. Also called tracking pixels, this analytics tool lets websites check what content you looked at. These are tiny, often transparent, pixel graphics with embedded HTML code somewhere on the webpage. When you visit a page, the code instructs your browser to open a link to a server that registers your activity, browser, device, and IP address information. They’re used to track your activity across multiple websites.
    • Spyware. This type of malware hides on your device and keeps track of everything you do. Spyware doesn’t just end up on your device, it has to be installed. Always check reviews and trust scores before downloading apps or browser extensions and never leave devices unattended.
    • Website analytics. Most websites use scripts to gather data about your location and device and how you use their pages. This includes what you look at, where you click, everything you type, and how long you take. Reputable websites and services outline their data collection practices in their privacy policy. Unfortunately, they’re often tedious to read and it’s impossible to read them every time you visit a new site.
    • IP Address Tracking. Your IP address is a unique identifier that websites, platforms, and other entities can use to track you. Websites typically log your IP address when you connect to their servers while browsers often use HTML5 geolocation. Your IP address gives away your region and can be used to identify your ISP which could ultimately lead to identifying you!

Can You Be Tracked with a VPN?

Yes and no. If that’s confusing, it’s because two types of tracking are at play here. VPNs can’t protect you against website trackers but if you use a VPN, third parties like your ISP, cybercriminals, and the government can’t easily track you.

Website Trackers: Yes, You Can Still Be Tracked but a VPN Helps

When we say a VPN encrypts your connection so snoopers can’t track your activity, this doesn’t include websites or the third-party trackers they allow. This means you can still be tracked using the examples mentioned above. That’s because VPN encryption can’t interfere with how browsers, extensions, websites, or apps function. The encryption scrambles your traffic so outsiders like your ISP, cybercriminals, and the government can’t access and read your data. 

After you turn on a VPN, it encrypts the traffic on your device and reroutes it to the VPN server. The server then decrypts your traffic before directing it to the web server. If a VPN kept your data scrambled, websites wouldn’t be able to send you the information you were asking for because they wouldn’t be able to “read” the information that tells them where you’re clicking or what you’re typing.

You might be left wondering: if a VPN can’t prevent websites and apps from tracking you, how does it help then? It gives you a shared IP address, which increases your anonymity by letting you become part of a crowd. Websites use your IP address as one data point to link your activity across the web. When you have dozens or hundreds of people using the same IP address, that data point becomes useless.

Hiding your IP address in favor of a shared IP address in a different location isn’t enough to make you anonymous online, but it is a start. Preventing tracking and protecting your online privacy will take more than one tool or solution. To eliminate some other types of website tracking, you can use an anti-fingerprinting private browser like Brave or Firefox. It’s also worth considering anti-tracking software — which is different from a VPN. 

Third-Party Tracking: No — As Long as You Use a Trustworthy VPN

Websites and apps aren’t the only types of tracking you should be concerned about. Your ISP, the government, and cybercriminals are interested in your online habits too, and this is where a VPN really shines.

ISPs can see pretty much everything you do online, and if they’re asked to share that information with authorities, they will. Using a VPN stops your ISP spying by encrypting your traffic before it leaves your device. That means, not even your ISP can see what you’re really doing online. The only data it has is what VPN server you’re connecting to (it may or may not know it’s a VPN server) and how much data you’re sending and receiving. No more ISP snooping!

VPNs also protect you against cyber attacks like cookie hijacking, Man-in-the-Middle attacks, DDoS attacks, and other remote attacks. Since you get the VPN server’s IP address when you connect to it, stalkers, swatters, and doxxers can’t use it to help pinpoint your location or identity either. Unless they have other ways to track you, outsiders can’t track you while you’re connected to a reliable VPN that doesn’t leak or sell your data.

Governments can’t track your encrypted internet activity while you’re using a VPN either unless you use a VPN that collects and hands your data over to the authorities. They can still request data from other companies that collect information about you, though, including device manufacturers and social media companies. Governments and intelligence agencies also have a wide variety of internet surveillance tools at their disposal. If you have government spyware on your device, a VPN won’t be able to protect you.

The Difference between Anti-tracking Software and VPNs

Anti-tracking software prevents websites from collecting data about you and your online activity. Websites gather information about your browsing habits, location, preferences, and device configurations. Anti-tracking software blocks this type of data harvesting to prevent websites from using it for targeted ads or selling it to third parties. 

VPNs on the other hand don’t prevent websites from collecting data. Rather, they encrypt your internet connection to prevent data from being intercepted by your ISP and cybercriminals that might be lurking on your network. They also mask your IP address and reroute your internet traffic through secure servers. 

It’s a good idea to use anti-tracking software alongside a VPN. While they may be different, they certainly complement each other and improve your overall digital security and privacy. 

How Do VPNs Work?

VPNs act as a mediator between your device and the internet. This helps you stay private in several ways. Here’s a quick breakdown of what VPNs do when you turn them on.

    • Tunneling. VPNs create a private connection or “tunnel” between your device and the internet using secure VPN protocols. Tunnels stop prying eyes like your ISP from snooping on what you do online.
    • Encryption. VPNs encrypt your internet traffic — this scrambles your data into indecipherable code. As a measure to prevent unauthorized access, only the VPN software on your device and the VPN server can decode your private data. The strongest VPN encryption algorithms are impenetrable. It would take 200+ times longer than the universe has existed to crack them with the most powerful quantum computer we have today.
    • Rerouting. VPNs reroute your internet connection through secure private servers. Your internet traffic still goes through your ISP’s servers, but with a VPN you benefit from the added privacy of secure servers.

Get CyberGhost VPN and connect to our servers to mask your IP address and make yourself harder to track. Try CyberGhost VPN risk-free with a 45-day money-back guarantee.

Can the Police Track You With a VPN? 

In most countries, the police can’t track your live internet traffic without a court order. Generally, they need to approach your ISP for data and need a legitimate reason for doing so. That said, even in countries where the police can track your activity without a warrant, a VPN will stop them in their tracks. A VPN hides your internet activity from your ISP so it won’t have any data to hand over to the police.

This only works if you use a strict No Logs VPN, though. Many VPNs claim to not log your data but when the authorities come knocking, they hand over your browsing history. A reputable No Logs VPN will be able to prove their claims, usually through independent verification by a trusted entity like Deloitte.

Note: Laws are changing in many countries (including Western countries) to make it easier for governments to spy on citizens indiscriminately.

Can Google Track You With a VPN?

Yes. If you use Google while logged into your account, Google can track your online activity and link it to you. When you connect to a VPN, you might appear to be browsing from a different location with another IP address, but Google still knows it’s you. 

If you want to stop Google from tracking you, don’t log into your Google account and use a privacy-focused browser instead of Chrome. If you’re serious about getting Google out of your hair, see our guide on how to deGoogle your life.

Can Employers Track You with a VPN?

Your employer can’t track your activity if you use a commercial VPN like CyberGhost VPN. However, they can probably track you when you’re connected to a business VPN or if they put monitoring software on your work computer. 

Some employers use surveillance software to track employee activity at work. This became a popular way for employers to monitor remote employees during the pandemic. Learn more about how to achieve better privacy when working from home.

If they don’t use surveillance software, they can’t track your activity when you use a VPN. Reliable commercial VPNs bypass censorship blocks imposed by your employer by encrypting your connection before it leaves your device. This means the router firewall won’t detect what you’re doing and you can access websites or apps that are normally blocked at work.

Note: Keep in mind that you could face disciplinary action if you’re caught using a VPN to bypass surveillance and blocks!

Can P2P Peers Track You with a VPN?

No, they can’t. When you don’t use a VPN, it’s easy for “peers” on torrenting sites to see your location and IP address. This no longer happens when you use a VPN since it cloaks your IP address and ISP’s server location.

Can You Be Tracked with a VPN If It’s Disconnected?

Yes, you can. If your VPN disconnects, your internet traffic is no longer encrypted and you’re left exposed. That’s why it’s important to use a reliable VPN that features an automatic Kill Switch.

CyberGhost VPN’s automatic Kill Switch protects you even if your VPN connection drops. It stops incoming and outgoing traffic between your device and the internet until your connection to the VPN server is restored. 

How to Choose the Best VPN to Prevent Tracking?

Not all VPNs are created equal and it’s important to get one with extra tracking prevention features. Here’s what you should look for in a VPN to prevent tracking:

    • Unbreakable Encryption. The foundation of any good VPN is strong encryption. Look for a VPN that uses bank-standard AES-256 encryption. This makes it impossible for anyone to intercept or decipher your online communications and data.
    • Strict No Logs Policy. Choose a VPN provider that has a strict No Logs policy. This means they don’t keep records of your online activity, so they can’t share it with authorities or third parties for tracking purposes.
    • Independently Audited. Trustworthy VPNs undergo third-party audits to verify privacy claims. Look for a VPN that’s been independently audited by reputable security firms.
    • DNS Leak Protection. DNS leaks expose your online activity to tracking. A quality VPN should have built-in DNS leak protection to ensure your DNS requests are encrypted.
    • Automatic Kill Switch. If your VPN connection drops unexpectedly, your internet connection is immediately severed, preventing you from being exposed to trackers. This feature acts as a fail-safe mechanism to maintain your privacy at all times.

Looking for a VPN with all these features in one place? CyberGhost VPN uses impenetrable government-level encryption to protect your data against tracking. Our strict No Logs policy ensures we can never share your data with anyone — we don’t collect it in the first place! 

Don’t take our word for it, though. Our No Logs policy has been independently audited by Deloitte. CyberGhost VPN also features DNS Leak Protection and an automatic Kill Switch to keep you safe from tracking.


Does a VPN stop your location from being tracked?

VPNs conceal your IP location so websites and platforms will “think” you’re in the same location as your VPN server. However, VPNs can’t change your device’s GPS location so any apps or services tracking your location that way can still see where you are. 

Can someone see my internet history if I use their Wi-Fi with a VPN?

No, they can’t. Once you’re connected to a VPN server, your online activity is encrypted before it leaves your device. This prevents others on your network from seeing your online activity. Even if they check the usage logs on their router, they’ll only be able to see you connected to a server.

What can VPNs hide from my ISP?

When you connect to a VPN, your ISP can no longer see which websites you visit, what content you watch, or what you download. They may still be able to see that you’re using a VPN and how much traffic is going to and from your device.

How do I mask a VPN connection?

The best way to stop platforms and sites from knowing you’re using a VPN is to get a Dedicated IP address. Your VPN can only be detected when the IP address has been identified as a VPN. When you use a personal dedicated IP address, it’s highly unlikely this will ever happen. 

Is a free VPN a viable option for privacy?

In short — no. Free VPNs often collect your data and sell it to third parties for advertising purposes. This defeats the purpose of getting a VPN in the first place — to protect your privacy. Free VPNs are often unreliable and many come with limitations and data caps. You could end up spending more on “free” VPNs than on higher-quality paid VPNs. 

Can the government track you through a VPN?

If your VPN provider doesn’t adhere to a No Logs policy, they may be collecting data about you which they could potentially share with your government. To avoid this, make sure you choose a VPN provider that operates a strict No Logs policy. 
Deloitte independently audited CyberGhost VPN’s stringent No Logs policy we don’t log or share your data.

Can Google track you through a VPN?

Google still knows your location even when you’re connected to a VPN. It tracks your location by collecting geographical data from your device and browser. 
You can turn off location tracking in your Google settings, but as long as you’re logged into your Google account, Google can track your activity. Use a privacy-focused alternative to prevent Google from knowing everything about you. 

Can the police track you with a VPN?

The police can’t track your activity live when you’re connected to a VPN. But it’s important to remember that authorities have a wide range of tools to track your online activity. Using a VPN will make it tougher to track by encrypting your traffic so ISPs can’t see it and by masking your IP address. The police could still request your data from Google or other services you use. 

Can websites track you with a VPN?

In short — yes. When you use a VPN, websites can’t see your true location or IP address but they can still track you in other ways. Websites collect a lot of data about your device and browsing history. This helps them identify you whenever you visit their site. Cookies on your browser and device can still track you online even if you use a VPN.

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