There are plenty of VPN services which claim that they make you anonymous online, but is this really true? Until you understand how a VPN works, you might well think no-one can identify you as you browse websites and use online services.

But this isn’t the case at all: your behaviour online can reveal who you are and no VPN provider should be claiming to make you anonymous.

Allow us to explain why.

How does a VPN give you privacy?

Let’s be clear from the start: a VPN offers better privacy. Privacy isn’t interchangeable with anonymity and VPNs don’t make you anonymous.

When you press the Connect button in your VPN app, an encrypted connection is established between the device you’re using and a VPN server in the location you choose.

Being encrypted, no-one can see what you’re up to: the websites you’re looking at, the messages you’re sending, the files you’re downloading.

This applies for the encrypted portion of the connection which is illustrated in the image below: it’s encrypted only to the VPN server. So the VPN service can see exactly which sites you’re visiting, who you’re talking to, when and for how long.

Does a VPN make you anonymous?

The connection between the VPN server and website (or web service) isn’t encrypted but your identity is protected because the server changes your IP address. For better protection use a VPN service that offers a ‘double VPN’ where your connection is routed via two servers and your IP address is changed twice.

An IP address is a unique code which can be traced back to a particular location and along with other information such as your device identifier (such as ‘iPhone 12’). But when you use a VPN, you get a new IP address which masks your real one. Along with using a different DNS, which is like the internet address book that translates a website’s name to its IP address, a VPN helps prevent that website and anyone who would try to figure out who you are from doing so.

This is why VPN services claim to make you anonymous.

So why am I not anonymous while using a VPN?

If you sign into a website, you immediately reveal your identity. That may be only an email address, but if you have your name, address, gender, date of birth and payment information stored on your account, this is a clear picture of exactly who you are.

Plus, it’s not impossible for those with the appropriate knowledge and tools to work out who you are based on things like your digital footprint – the trail of bits of information you leave behind as you use the internet. Sure, a VPN and encryption make it difficult, but the point is that it’s not impossible.

You should also know that even if your connection is encrypted, or your email or messages, the metadata isn’t. Take Signal as an example. This is the go-to app if you want to communicate securely, but even though the messages are encrypted, the metadata can reveal who you’re talking to, even if not what you’re saying.

The bottom line is that VPNs don’t offer anonymity. They do give you extra privacy and security and you certainly should use one – ideally all the time. Use a trustworthy one, too. Here are some of the VPN services we recommend you pick.

But if you want true privacy you’ll have to work a lot harder.

Related articles for further reading