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How does a VPN protect your privacy and anonymity?

vpn online privacy
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

For those of us who live on the Internet all day, there is a pesky problem. We know we are being watched. Cookies installed in the background when you visit a website, advertisers that serve us ads based on our browser history, an Internet service provider that knows which sites we’ve visited - with only a VPN at our disposal to stay anonymous.

And, it goes far deeper than that. There are voicebots like Google Assistant that keep a record of every voice command we have ever made. Unless you opt-out on purpose, Google also keeps a record of your website visits. 

It's also worth remembering that these are the legal, well-known services keeping tabs on us. It doesn’t include the illegal spying networks and government surveillance programs we don’t know about. These days, it’s not a stretch to say we are never alone online.

Using a VPN as a solution

While it’s true that Google and Amazon record what you say and track website visits, and that Facebook is well-known for serving ads that match what we search and what we do online, that doesn’t have to be the case. A VPN (short for Virtual Private Network) provides the security, privacy, and anonymity we all crave when we’re online.

You could argue that a VPN has a bad name in some circles. Connecting in a secure and anonymous way does protect some nefarious individuals who are transmitting illegal software, child pornography, copyrighted movies, and other illicit material. However, that view of a VPN is completely false.

The vast majority of VPN users are protecting their online activity and transmissions due to business reasons. In fact, a VPN started in the business world to help remote workers connect to corporate networks in a secure way roughly 15 years ago and business VPNs are just as popular in the 2020s.

For the average consumer, a VPN is a godsend. It means you can access your own files and media from any location in the world, securely and privately. And, getting the best VPN gives you peace of mind. 

You can visit websites without an overlord watching what you do. When you use a VPN, it’s much harder for advertisers to track your website visits. In general, the two most important benefits of a VPN have to do with privacy and anonymity. Here’s how that works.

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(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Protecting your privacy

Privacy is not always a given when you’re online. In fact, it’s usually a taken. Advertisers, social media networks, and apps routinely track who you are, what you are doing, and where you live. If you connect in New York and start browsing for a new apartment, you will suddenly start seeing ads for apartment rental services in your area. It’s like clockwork.

A VPN makes it impossible to track your location. Using a service like ExpressVPN or NordVPN, you essentially obscure your location from advertisers. Let’s say you connect from an Android phone using a VPN from New York. You can select the country you want to use for your VPN connection and even the city. If you select the United Kingdom and then pick London, your Internet Service Provider won’t report the IP location of your local connection.

That obscures your location and makes it impossible for advertisers to serve ads based on where you live. And, the profile that advertisers create -- and we know they create profiles for every website you visit and the sites you visit -- will be incorrect. To the ad networks and website owners, your IP address won’t match the location from where you are connecting.

That can be surprisingly freeing - you don’t have to think about someone spying on your online activity or serving ads, you don’t have to worry about anyone building a profile about you and what you like to do or the sites you like to visit. Of course, there are also benefits in terms of personal security because the VPN also encrypts the connection.

From a business standpoint, employees who are working on projects and coordinating business plans can be sure they are not being watched or tracked online. 

There are times when you might be transmitting financial records, credit card information, and other materials and do not need to wonder if another party has access to those files or those records.

Protecting your anonymity

A VPN also protects your anonymity. This is a slightly different term than privacy. It means you are completely anonymous. When you visit websites or purchase products, when you stream movies or download television shows, it’s one thing to be private in the sense that no one can track what you do. 

However, anonymity goes one step further. Not only are you safe from being watched and tracked, but your identity is also safe. No one can see what you are doing online (that’s privacy) and no one will know who you are or where you live (that’s anonymity).

It’s a curious distinction because combined together, it does give you a sense of protection and security from all of the ways your online activity can be tracked. In terms of surveillance, what you transmit is safe and who is doing the transmitting is also safe.

This includes everything about you -- your gender, your location, your private information such as an address and home phone, your email, your social media footprint. 

Cookies used to track personally identifiable information won’t know your location, and the VPN encrypts the transmission of data so that an Internet Service Provider can’t track it.

Being anonymous online has several advantages. Once you establish the VPN connection and obscure your location, you can then use other security measures to protect your identity. One of the most common is secure email. If you are conducting financial information, a secure email sent over a VPN protects that data from anyone.

The message itself is encrypted as is the connection you use to send it. Only the recipient -- who must either enter a passcode or even visit the secure email portal to retrieve the message - can open your message.

Overall, a VPN provides a level of security, privacy, and anonymity to make your web travels safer and give you the peace of mind that you are not being tracked at all times.