Does VPN really hide your location? How?

Ok, I’ll preface that I am a newbie, and when I receive my L14 it will be my first linux machine of any kind, and trying to learn about privacy/security in all things, and so this is probably very newbie stuff, but I have a question.

When using a VPN, in my case NordVPN, how exactly, in laymen’s terms, does it hide your location while apparently utilizing the local towers for your cellular signal, or even while using a wifi? Seems like by using either, your location can be established? Or am I (likely) missing more obvious things about how a VPN works, and what it can and cannot do?

Thanks in advance!

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If you are talking about Librem 14, the cellular towers have nothing to do with it (unless you also connect an LTE card).

VPN makes all your Internet trafic go via an additional hop, so that every website will see your requests as if your VPN provider does them, not you. In other words, every website will not see your IP address but the address of your VPN, which is used by many people. Your Wi-Fi network should not be visible to the websites (unless you are hacked).

VPN makes tracking of you harder, but it does not prevent it, see https://coveryourtracks.eff.org/.

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No, currently using it on apple spyphone.Sorry, should have mentioned that.

Websites or apps should also not know your cell towers or location unless you explicitly tell it to them.

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Ok, I just always see how the phone, or provider, etc can always know your location because of triangulation using the cellular towers, so I wondered how a VPN prevented that?

VPN does not prevent tracking your location by the cellular towers themselves (i.e. cellular provider) or by the Wi-Fi routers with which you connect. For the first problem you could consider Librem AweSIM and for the second one, you can randomize mac address of your Wi-Fi card.

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And then the same issues exist with the L5 correct?

Yes, Librem 5 is just a small personal computer in your pocket.

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as @fsflover noted

VPN makes tracking of you harder, but it does not prevent it,

The vpn affects most directly your internet provider by preventing the provider from seeing your requests, email headers, etc. Of course the vpn provider might be able to see that so you have to trust them.

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VPN’s protect the contents of the network traffic as it goes between you and the network on the other end, from snooping by anyone who has access to the networks between you and the other end of the VPN. They are not designed to provide anonymity. In many respects TLS (HTTPS and other services wrapped in TLS) serves a similar purpose and provides similar protection these days, since it’s more ubiquitous than it used to be.

Most people use VPNs today to protect their network traffic from snooping when they are on an untrusted network (whether it’s coffee shop WiFi or they don’t trust their own ISP), or to bypass some regional restriction (like with streaming services) by having their network traffic appear to be coming from a different part of the world. When you use a VPN they essentially become your new trusted ISP. They know you are a customer so they know all the traffic that comes from you belongs to you. Also any traffic that goes to them is encrypted, but they (and anyone down stream from them) can still view the contents of your traffic if it isn’t using something like HTTPS to protect it.

You might think that you could encapsulate one VPN inside another to help with anonymity. For instance, you could set up one VPN account then access a second VPN through that (hiding your location, and only revealing the location of your first VPN), and then use the second VPN account to access a third VPN that you use to access the Internet (thereby preventing VPN3 from being able to link outgoing internet traffic with which VPN it entered through). Congratulations, you just reinvented a poor man’s Tor!

If you want anonymity, don’t use a VPN, use Tor. It was designed specifically for anonymity.

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Thanks Kyle, I did wonder about that, stacking VPN’s.
Sounds like then, for phones, most of that goes out the window, and there is only so much you can do, so more secure options like Signal, etc for messaging/calls is the only option. Doesn’t sound like a VPN does a whole lot for basic phone usage, other than web browsing, like with a desktop or laptop.

That’s correct. A VPN does nothing at all for phone calls, SMSs etc. A VPN only deals with data that you send and receive on the internet, such as for email, web browsing, instant messaging services, VoIP.

To the more general question of whether VPN hides your location … you need to first answer “from whom?”.

A VPN most definitely hides your location from your peer on the internet e.g. a web server that you connect to. You can easily see that by visiting http://whatismyip.com and looking at the “Location:” information, firstly when you visit that web site without a VPN and secondly when you visit it with a VPN, particularly if you choose a VPN server (endpoint) that is in another country.

(However that experiment probably won’t work quite so well if you are using a cellular service to connect to the internet. In my case, with my phone, I can get three different location answers depending on whether WiFi is off, so it is using the cellular network, or WiFi is on and not using a VPN, or using a VPN.)

If you are accessing the internet via a cellular service then a VPN most definitely does not hide your location from the cell tower, from the operator of the cellular service or from the government.

One way of looking at a VPN service, ignoring all the encryption angle, is that a VPN is like a relay. You are relaying all your internet traffic through the VPN server. That extra step puts extra ‘distance’ between you and the peer on the internet, making it more difficult for the peer to track you down but it certainly doesn’t make it impossible.

A VPN is not used solely to hide or obscure location. A VPN may also reduce the value of the extensive surveillance and logging that goes on over the internet i.e. improves your privacy. A VPN may also bypass any local restrictions (including geoblocking as Kyle mentions above but also any nuisance imposed by your own government).

Of course a VPN service is only as good as the trustworthiness of the operator of the VPN service.

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As far as being tracked goes, if you have a signal.on your cell phone, the service provider knows where you are, period. The internet knows where you are if you tell it (ie, have location services on or have a device where you can’t turn them all the way off while somehow connected to the internet, either via WiFi or cellular data). The internet can be lied to (right now I’m telling the internet I’m on the Isle of Man), but the internet has ways of figuring out if you’re telling the truth or not (my IP address is not on the Isle of Man, so my location can be deduced, and that is just one of many methods).

Then there’s the question of whether your cellular service provider is selling your location (and the sad answer is “quite likely”), but that’s a bit of a digression. The moral.of the story is: things like tower triangulation and IP logging are two different methods used by two different entities to achieve the same thing; namely, where you are at a given moment.

Hopefully that’s helpful and not just me beating a horse that’s already died.

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That depends upon whether your ISP blocks VOIP. I have found that when I am in Europe our ISP often blocks VOIP and using a VPN is a way of getting around it.

From my perspective, I have my own vpn that goes through a cloud machine that I control and that I destroy and create every month (and so get a different IP address). My goal is not anonymity but to protect my private data from being exploited by commercial organizations. When necessary I will use TOR to exit my vpn server if I think the added anonymity is worthwhile.

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What comes to my mind spontanously as advantages of a VPN:

  1. ingoing - eg. from your smartphone to your home-network; homeoffice to office:
    The VPN provides a secure tunnel from one trusted device/network to another trusted device/network
  2. outgoing - from your trusted device in an untrusted environment/country to another more trusted (but not fully trusted) environment/county

The rest of it falls under disadvantages:

  1. outgoing - from your trusted device/network to an external VPN-provider
    It might only be a question of time till this single pinhole becomes a disadvantage - that single point of failure is much easier to be targetted and more interesting than your traffic within the traffic of millions of other users
  2. slower than direct access
  3. requires more ressources than direct access
  4. provides no anonymity at all (better use something like tor)
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one global VPN to rule them all ? beware ! now entering Mordor :upside_down_face: :mask: :smiling_imp:

More like a rich man’s TOR, as you have to pay for each hop. And that is the fundamental problem with using a VPN (for security or privacy). You are counting on the VPN not “rolling over” and not getting compromised. They have your payment information, which is generally a direct link to your identity. One of those VPNs is going to be able to see your connection metadata (even if it’s just what domain names you’re hitting). You could potentially obfuscate it more by getting a service like privacy.com to hide your payment details, but at the end of the day a determined attacker is likely able to de-anonymize you, especially if they can get a court order.

In theory, the VPN helps, as they don’t keep more records than absolutely necessary, and won’t roll over easily, but by the very nature of the company, proving that is rather difficult.

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Sounds like at the end of the day, once my year of VPN expires, that my best bet is simply using the Tor browser, and of course in a month or so when I have my L 14 that’s what I can use immediately on there when I wish.

From all the responses, I suspect a VPN for your phone really isn’t doing all that much other than helping with maybe your browser trail.

Which is all interesting because on so many other forums that are non-computer specific everyone raves about getting a VPN to remain anonymous when in reality that’s not the case in many instances.

It’s not quite that black and white. You are changing from “trusting” your phone carrier (AT&T, Verizon, or similar) to not keep records of your activities (which we know they do), to trusting your VPN provider. Most VPN providers are at least slightly more trustworthy than your cellular carrier. it’s just important not to overestimate how trustworthy they are. Also, most phones are dumb, keeping it from using the rogue DNS at the local coffee-shop wifi is a good thing.

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how many ‘hops’ if you use TOR ?