Can police track VPN users?

Anton P. | September 25, 2020

As surveillance becomes a bitter part of our digital life, you wonder: can police track VPN users’ activities? Rumors and speculations from online communities won’t satisfy the appetites of the curious. VPN tools are front-line warriors against unscrupulous censorship, monitoring, and constraints on human rights. However, the anonymity-first attitude is not an excuse for vicious and unlawful actions. When it comes to data disclosure to law enforcement agencies, VPNs act as potential sources of evidence. So, can police track VPN users suspected of criminal behavior? What data do VPNs retain, and what are their policies regarding court orders? A lot of ground to cover, so let’s jump right into the discussion.

The standard police routine for tracking internet users

Law enforcement has always been reluctant it comes to privacy and anonymity online. With emerging technology such as facial recognition and digital forensics, officers catch criminals more efficiently and inexpensively. However, cybercrime happens in a digital environment, often revamped with proxy servers. Investigators would request for data disclosure from ISPs to get more information about suspects. While not always accurate, IP addresses would give officers some leads. For instance, they reflect users’ ISPs and general whereabouts (city or country).

Therefore, ending an investigation with the culprit caught requires months of intense work. Even if law agencies manage to pinpoint criminals’ locations, they still need warrants to seize devices as evidence. Of course, experienced hackers or con artists usually have in-depth strategies of concealing their activities. For instance, the suspect might delete or encrypt incriminating information. Hence, law enforcement agencies hire entire specialists teams to investigate cybercrime and assess the evidence. So, can police track VPN users that might be behind severe cybercrimes?

VPNs practices for data collection and retention

VPN providers operate according to data retention and collection policies. However, there are three main logging policies VPN services can follow:

  • Usage information. VPN tools monitor clients’ activities, including visited websites.
  • Aggregated connection logs. Such data consists of times of connection and its termination, real IP addresses, and a list of connected servers.
  • No data about your browsing or identity. To reassure transparency, some VPN providers follow a strict no-logs policy. This concept relates to the fact that tools collect only essential information, usually for billing or troubleshooting. Atlas VPN also takes this approach of collecting only the data essential to providing services. Additionally, we do not retain data about your online activities.

Services operating in the EU must comply with the established data retention laws. Companies need to store electronic data for at least six months (but up to 2 years) in the EU. Atlas VPN operates outside the EU jurisdiction and has no obligations to retain data for longer than necessary to provide services.

Can police track VPN services and users?

After clients download VPN tools and connect to servers, they become anonymous (to a degree). Escaping the careful eye of your ISP is rough. Luckily, connecting to a VPN server prevents ISPs from tracking your every move. However, there is one thing that they do know: that you use a VPN.

When collecting evidence, police will find the suspected IP address through forensic investigation. Then, they will determine its owner. It is likely that officials will determine that it belongs to a VPN service. Hence, the law enforcement agencies will contact the VPN provider. How events unfold depends on the services’ policies on data-sharing. Since most providers rely on a privacy-first approach, they hand in limited information, with no personally identifiable details. However, cybercriminals have nothing to celebrate.

Police and other law enforcement agencies cooperate with skilled teams of professionals, ready to pinpoint suspects’ locations. This collaboration between officers and IT experts push cybersecurity in the right direction.

Are there any other reasons for tracking VPN users?

Carefully law-abiding citizens might be skeptical about the legitimacy of VPNs. Luckily, most countries have little to no restrictions on the usage of such tools. Every rule has some exceptions, however. Some governments strictly enforce citizens to employ only state-approved VPNs. Others ban VPNs altogether. Countries such as India, China, Russia, and Iran treat VPNs as highly problematic. In these regions, the original question of “can police track VPN users” is a lot more pessimistic and gloomy.

In 2020, attempts to elude the social media ban with VPNs in Kashmir led to the prosecution. Since Kashmir lost its semi-autonomous status, the Indian government has been cautious about information spreading out of the region. Similar incidents against free users’ speech occur in China as well. In 2017, the Chinese government convicted a man for distributing VPNs as the tool to bypass the “Great Firewall.” In fact, many regions in China might face severe consequences from local authorities for such “crimes.” Hence, in these countries, police can implement rigorous monitoring to track VPN users.

Millions of netizens express the desire to access overseas domains for that international experience. Sadly, governments intensify the crackdowns on VPN services. However, unreasonable censorship and strict surveillance revoke people’s rights from transparency and equal transmission of international news.

Bottom line: can police track VPN users and their activity?

So, can police track VPN users? It might seem that they can but only to an extent. After retrieving the user's in question IP address, officers can contact VPN providers. With a court order, law enforcement agencies can request connection logs or similar pieces of information. Furthermore, a VPN halts IP-bases tracking, which means that other techniques can still apply to you. Hence, cyber criminals should not rely on VPNs to conceal their criminal activities.

Atlas VPN tries to keep a balance between offering anonymity and condemning illegal online actions. We feel pleased to provide users with more opportunities, access options, and overall safer browsing. However, we will not overlook any attempts to exploit our services for mischievous affairs.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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