Limitations of VPNs: What Does a VPN Not Protect You From? What does a VPN hide really? 

While VPNs offer valuable privacy and security benefits to internet users, they have limitations that users should be aware of.

June 20, 2023

Roughly one third of all internet users, an estimated number of 1.2 billion people use a VPN. Chances are if you landed on this article you are already one of them, but do you know what a VPN does not protect you from? 

VPNs are great, (well some better than others for sure, cough Mysterium VPN cough) and we love them. But it is important to know what your VPN is actually capable of

This article aims to explore the areas where VPNs fall short, providing a comprehensive understanding of what a VPN does not protect you from. So that you know what to look for in a VPN and how to use it responsibly.

First - Let's See What Does a VPN Hide & How Does a VPN Protect You

The big one is your IP address. The basic premise of a VPN is that it hides your real IP address from the websites and apps you use, by rerouting it through a server. Your IP is unique to your device and carries other important information like your physical location.

This is how a lot of the content on the internet is catered to you, with geo-restrictions, location-based price fluctuations, and other ways advertisers and governments shape the web around the world.

By changing your IP through a system of rerouting it, your VPN effectively hides your real physical location.

A VPN allows you to not just anonymise your IP but also choose a specific location for your traffic to be rerouted through, allowing you to bypass bans or access content otherwise unavailable on platforms.

Does VPN Work in Incognito?

The other important piece of information a VPN can hide for you is your web browsing history. 

You may be using incognito mode to hide your browsing history. Incognito can stop people around you from knowing about your web browsing history but it does not prevent tracking on the internet by third parties, websites you visit, your ISP or even the government. 

You can activate incognito and use a VPN at the same time. Your VPN should work while your web browser is in incognito mode. 

Remember that your internet activity, including things like your search history is not just relevant to your mom, partner or boss. It is valuable information that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) records and sometimes sells to businesses, or might hand to governments at their request. So keep your data safe. 

So, what does a VPN not hide?

Your VPN hides your IP address and along with it your physical location (as it can be determined from your IP). It hides your search history. Trackers and cookies are also disabled with a VPN so that websites don't “remember” information about your purchasing habits to use it for marketing.

Online Activities Beyond the VPN Connection

While VPNs establish a secure connection between your device and the VPN server, they do not offer protection beyond that point. Once your data leaves the VPN server and travels through the internet, it becomes susceptible to surveillance and monitoring. Activities such as browsing websites without HTTPS, using unencrypted messaging apps, or making insecure connections are not shielded by the VPN.

Metadata and Traffic Analysis

VPNs encrypt the content of your internet traffic, but they do not conceal metadata about your web traffic, such as the URLs you visit, session durations, or data transferred. Advertisers, governments, or entities conducting traffic analysis can still gain insights into your online browsing behavior, by analyzing this metadata. 

While VPNs help protect the content of your communications, they cannot completely shield you from metadata surveillance.

It also goes without saying but using a VPN does not grant users immunity from adhering to legal and ethical guidelines. Engaging in illegal activities or violating terms of service agreements can still have consequences, regardless of whether you are using a VPN. It is important to use VPNs responsibly and within the limits of the law.

Peer-to-Peer (P2P) File Sharing

While VPNs can be used for anonymous file sharing through peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, they do not provide complete protection against legal repercussions or copyright infringement.

A great example of a gray area is P2P file sharing platforms like BitTorrent. Using file sharing or torrenting is not illegal, but if the files shared fall under copyright then that might get you in trouble. 

VPNs can hide your IP address and encrypt your traffic, but they cannot shield you from detection if you engage in illegal file-sharing or violate copyright laws. 

Does a VPN protect you from Hackers, Malware and Phishing Attacks?

Similarly, VPNs do not offer comprehensive protection against malware or phishing attacks. If you unintentionally download malicious files or click on phishing links while using a VPN, your device can still be infected. 

VPNs are not designed to scan or block cyber threats; they primarily establish secure connections, not act as antivirus or antimalware solutions. 

If your operating system, browser, or any other software on your device has security flaws or is outdated, hackers can exploit those vulnerabilities regardless of whether you are using a VPN or not. It is essential to maintain up-to-date software and follow security best practices to minimize the risk of being compromised.

The same goes for mobile devices. A VPN for iPhone or Android are commonly used to secure internet connections while on the go. However, VPNs cannot protect you from vulnerabilities within mobile apps themselves.

If you install malicious or compromised apps on your device, they can still access your personal information and compromise your security, even when connected to the VPN. Ensure that you only download apps from trusted sources and regularly update your apps to minimize the risk of exploitation.

Public Wi-Fi Risks

VPNs are useful for securing your internet connection while on public Wi-Fi networks. However, they cannot guarantee protection against all risks.

If you connect to a malicious hotspot or fall victim to a man-in-the-middle attack, your sensitive information can still be intercepted, even when using a VPN.

It is important to exercise caution and be wary of sharing sensitive data while connected to an unknown or unverified Wi-Fi network.

Can VPN Be Tracked By Government 

VPNs may not be effective against certain government surveillance efforts. In some cases, governments have sophisticated surveillance techniques that can bypass VPN encryption or target VPN users specifically.

If you are targeted by a government entity, they may still be able to monitor your online activities, even with a VPN. It is important to understand the legal and surveillance landscape of the country you are in and take additional measures to protect your privacy if needed. 

DNS Leaks

DNS (Domain Name System) leaks can compromise your privacy and reveal your true IP address, even when using a VPN. DNS leaks occur when your device bypasses the VPN's encrypted tunnel and directly connects to the default DNS servers provided by your Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Misconfigurations, software vulnerabilities, or technical issues can lead to DNS leaks. To mitigate this risk, it is essential to use a VPN that implements strong DNS leak protection mechanisms.

Vulnerabilities in VPN Protocols

Not all VPN protocols are equally secure. Some older or less secure protocols, such as PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol), may have vulnerabilities that can be exploited by sophisticated attackers. modern VPN protocols like OpenVPN and WireGuard are considered more secure, but you can of course choose a VPN provider that employs robust encryption and regularly updates its protocols to protect against emerging threats.

Legal and Jurisdictional Limitations ie. Government Overreach

VPNs are subject to the laws and regulations of the jurisdictions in which they operate. Some countries like the US, UK and Australia have data retention laws that require VPN providers to hand off any logs or data they have on users to the relevant governmental agency. 

With data retention laws, the country where your VPN of choice is registered is what counts. 

Therefore, it is important to review a VPN provider's privacy policy and terms of service to understand their stance on privacy, data retention, and government cooperation. You can also see if your VPN provider is located in countries with jurisdictions that support strong privacy protections.

VPN Trust and Logging Policies

While VPNs claim to keep your online activities private, some providers may collect logs of your connection details, including timestamps, IP addresses, and websites visited. It’s essential to consider the trustworthiness of a VPN provider and its logging policies. VPN providers can potentially link your VPN usage to your identity if they keep logs or if they are compelled to cooperate with authorities. 

Another massive problem is data branches. In 2018 there was a data breach spanning across NordVPN, Torguard and VikingVPN. It was not announced until someone put it on Twitter more than a year late in 2020 that Nord came clean and admitted to it.

These logs, whether handed off via court order or hacked and leaked, can potentially be used to identify and track your online behavior. Always research and choose a reputable VPN provider that has a strict no-logs policy  with a strong commitment to privacy and to respect your anonymity.

Social Engineering Attacks

While VPNs provide encryption and anonymity for your internet traffic, they cannot protect you from social engineering attacks. Social engineering involves manipulating individuals to disclose sensitive information or perform actions that compromise their security.

VPNs cannot prevent you from falling victim to phishing emails, phone scams, or other social engineering tactics. Remain vigilant and exercise caution when sharing personal information, or online accounts regardless of whether you are using a VPN or not.

Physical Security and Device Theft (duh…?)

It may seem obvious that a VPN does not protect you from theft: duh. But it is important to understand that VPNs do not protect your data from unauthorized access. If your device is stolen or lost, an attacker may gain access to your data, regardless of whether you were using a VPN.

To mitigate this risk, it is advisable to use strong device passwords, enable biometric authentication on other devices, and consider device encryption to protect your data even if physical access to the device is compromised.

VPN Provider Security

While VPNs aim to provide security and privacy, the security of private networks and the VPN provider itself is a critical factor to consider. If a VPN provider's systems are compromised, it could potentially expose user data and compromise user privacy. Therefore, choose a reputable VPN provider that has implemented robust security measures, such as strong encryption, regular security audits, and a commitment to user privacy.

The reliability and uptime of VPN services can vary depending on the provider. While VPNs aim to provide uninterrupted service, there may be instances of downtime or connectivity issues due to technical problems or server maintenance. It is advisable to choose a VPN provider with a reliable track record and good customer support to minimize service disruptions.

(Potential) Dangers of Using Free VPNs

While many VPN services are available for free, it is important to be cautious about their quality and reliability. Free VPN providers may monetize your data, compromise your privacy, or offer limited server options and slower speeds.

Paid VPN services generally offer better security, privacy, and performance. So choose a VPN provider that aligns with your needs and offers a balance between cost and quality.

Evolving Threat Landscape

The cybersecurity landscape is constantly evolving, with new threats and vulnerabilities emerging regularly. VPNs need to adapt and address these evolving challenges to provide effective protection. 

Stay informed about the latest security trends and vulnerabilities to make informed decisions when choosing and using VPN services.


While VPNs offer valuable privacy and security benefits to internet users, they have limitations that users should be aware of. VPNs do not protect against all online threats, have restrictions on anonymity, may face compatibility or blocking issues, and may have privacy practices that vary among providers.

Understanding these limitations will allow you to  make informed decisions and take additional measures to level up your online security and privacy.

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