When you’re surfing on the net, keeping your information private quickly becomes a battle. Everyone wants to know where you are located, what you’re buying, and more. A VPN, or a virtual private network, can help mask major details like your IP address—but it’s not always easy to keep things legal when using one.
Is VPN legal? Overall, using a VPN is legal in the United States as long as it is being done with lawful intentions and isn’t being used to commit a crime. Many online sites also make using a VPN against their terms of service.
Choosing to use a VPN can be considered sketchy on its own, but it is your right to use it. Are you worried about keeping things legal? Here is what you need to know about VPNs and your right to use them.
Is VPN Legal?
In the United States, using a VPN is a legal right. However, the nature of VPN use means that people use it for illegal activities. Using a VPN for illegal activities doesn’t negate the fact that you are doing something illegal. In some jurisdictions, this actually can compound the amount of trouble you’re in.
If you decide to use a VPN, there are certain things you should know before you use it. Using a VPN is not going to be a panacea for privacy, and you should not rely on it if you think you may be in trouble with the law (check out my review of the best VPN choices here).
Want to stay in the clear? Here’s what you should know…
Why Do Cybercriminals Use A VPN?
Cybercriminals do their deeds with the hope that they will not be caught, and the only way to ensure that they won’t be tracked by the authorities is to anonymize as much of their data as possible.
VPNs are used to help mask your IP address and encrypt your traffic. This makes it difficult for officials to trace cybercriminals and reveal who they are. Many cybercriminals, especially those who prefer to do illicit transactions online, use VPNs as a quick way to thwart attention.
Are VPNs Foolproof?
There is absolutely no such thing as a foolproof way to anonymize yourself on the internet—and that is true for VPNs, torrents, as well as using items like the TOR Project. It is always possible to trace the movement of data on the net, even when it’s been encrypted and “scrambled.”
If you were hoping to do something criminal and use VPNs as a way to ensure you never get caught, think again. There is always a chance that you may get caught, even if you use one of the more secretive VPNs on the net.
Do VPN Services Track Your Activities?
The biggest question that people have about VPNs deals with what they do. Most people want to know if VPNs track your activity, or if it is truly anonymous. The answer to this all depends on the VPN provider’s policies.
Though VPN companies regularly tout their privacy policies, many still keep track of what their users are doing through their service to reduce the liability they have in criminal or civil cases. Depending on what you are doing, they may report your activity to the authorities as part of their company policy.
Is Going Against Company Use Policies Illegal?
While you may get sued for it, most companies will just bar you from using their services or products if they catch you using a VPN. Some companies, such as Netflix, take VPN use to be a nuisance that should be discouraged rather than a hardline issue that needs to be enforced.
How Can I Tell If My VPN Provider Tracks My Data?
For the most part, the best way to tell what your VPN service provider does is to read their Terms of Service or to ask their customer service reps. Though most VPNs are transparent, there is always the chance that they may have internal policies customers are not made aware of when it comes to tracking potentially illegal activity.
The best rule to live by with VPN use is to avoid doing anything illegal with them. You can never really know what is going on behind the scenes, which means that you should not trust your VPN company to keep you anonymous if you’re doing something illegal.
Are There VPN Services That Don’t Track Any Data Whatsoever?
Technically, there are. NordVPN is one of the most well-known to have a zero-tracking policy. Most zero-track VPN services will advertise themselves as such, so just ask about their policy before you sign up.
Do You Need to Use Your Real Name and Credit Card to Buy A Service?
Most VPN services will require a real name and credit card account in order to use their services, but that does not mean all will. Some will accept users with a fake name and a disposable gift card.
If VPNs Still Track My Data, Do They Really Keep Me Private?
Though VPNs do some cursory data tracking, the truth is that they are still a highly encouraged method of keeping things secure. VPNs still keep your personal data safe from many kinds of data scrapers, spoofers, and cybercriminals.
If you were to ask any cybersecurity professional, they would tell you that using a VPN to protect your personal data will never hurt you. That is why many cybersecurity specialists use them while they browse the net.
What Kind of Data Do VPNs Track?
The data that VPNs track will vary greatly from service to service, so there are no exact set of universal data points we can point to. However, there are certain things that most VPN companies can determine based on your use, company records, and other similar activities. These include:
- Your Name and Address. In order to use a VPN, companies will require you to pay for the service. This means that you will need to give them a credit card (or another payment method) that features your name and an address linked with you.
- Bandwidth Usage. While many VPN companies try to avoid logging bandwidth usage, the truth is that most services will notice if excessive bandwidth is being used. Depending on the illegal activity you are partaking in, the bandwidth data they have could help land you in court.
- Torrenting. Not all VPNs allow torrenting on their network. If you are using a no-torrent VPN, they will flag you for it and possibly cut off your service.
- Metadata. Metadata is an umbrella term for data that doesn’t reveal totally identifying information but can still link your VPN account to usage on certain days, the area where you’re using your VPN from, as well as other similar details.
- Your Real IP Address. It’s true. Some VPNs will take note of your real IP address.
- Your Traffic. If you were hoping to go to sites or areas that are banned by law, you might want to think twice. Many VPNs will still track where you go online.
How Long Do VPNs Keep Data For?
This can vary as well, depending on the VPN’s policy. Some do not track any data whatsoever, making their information collection time nil. Others, however, will delete it after a day, a week, or even a month of use.
How Likely Is It That My VPN Will Report My Usage?
If you are not doing anything illegal on the net, then you shouldn’t worry about this. If you are engaged in illegal activity, the news is not going to be reassuring. There is no way to know how high the likelihood is of having a VPN service report you to the police.
The best way to avoid getting arrested for the things you do on a VPN is to avoid doing anything illegal while using it. VPNs are meant to be used as an additional way to beef up your internet security during casual use. Trying to use them as an infallible barrier between you and everyone else just is not realistic.
Avoid Using A VPN Outside of The United States
Just because the United States allows VPNs does not mean the rest of the world takes kindly to it. Most countries view VPNs as a security risk and treat them as such. If you are going abroad, you are still expected to follow local laws.
Many major countries have now banned the use of VPNs within their borders, including:
- Saudi Arabia
For the most part, countries won’t care if foreigners use VPNs. However, you shouldn’t rely on the general trend of law enforcement, as exceptions can always happen. If you are unsure whether or not the country you are visiting allows it, err on the side of caution.
How Bad Can the Penalties Be?
This depends on whether you have dual citizenship, the country you are using a VPN in, as well as the reason why you are using a VPN. Most countries with anti-VPN laws won’t penalize foreigners for VPN use, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
If you are a citizen abroad, you might get anything from a small fine (like in China) to an actual arrest with jail time (like in Iran). Before you run the risk of getting a penalty you don’t want to deal with, check with the country you intend on visiting before you log on.
It is worth noting that the penalties can also vary depending on what you’re using the VPN service for. For example, if you are in Iran and using a VPN service for checking Facebook, you won’t get penalized. On the other hand, using a VPN to criticize the government can get you locked up.
Understanding Other Countries’ VPN Laws
Many countries do not have an outright ban on VPNs, but still keep restrictions on what they can and cannot be used for. Some of the more common changes include:
- Allowing VPN use as long as it does not involve accessing illegal content or doing illegal things. Many countries, including Afghanistan and Algeria, use this style of law to prevent cultural strife and cybercrime. This is also the “American” model of law, too.
- VPNs may be legal but can be required to hand over data. Many countries have started to push for VPN companies to report use as a way to crack down on illegal net activity or to curb political activism.
- Both VPNs and Tor are banned, but there are exceptions to the rules. Belarus is a good example of this concept. The country illegalized all anonymizing technology but still offers limited VPN use.
Don’t Torrent Media Using A VPN
If you remember the old days of Napster, then you probably recall how many people were sued or fined as a result of illegally downloading music. This is technically an illegal act that falls under the umbrella of copyright infringement.
Most people illegally download movies, books, and music without a VPN, knowing that the risk of being caught is always there. VPN use can potentially help curb the chances of getting caught, but that doesn’t make it legal. Depending on the courts, using a VPN could be evidence of doing this in a premeditated manner.
How Bad Can the Penalties Be?
If you are caught torrenting software or products that you do not have the legal license to use, there are a number of things that can happen. These include:
- Having your internet throttled. Many internet providers will throttle your internet if you are caught infringing on copyrights. However, this practice has fallen by the wayside in recent years.
- Receiving Cease and Desist letters. In many cases, media companies won’t immediately pursue charges based on copyright infringement or torrenting. Instead, they will get their lawyers to send a “C and D” letter that will warn you of legal action that could follow if you choose to continue your activity.
- Being sued. Companies that see their software being illegally used have the right to bring you to court to recover lost profits. This is usually considered to be a civil matter rather than a criminal matter, but it’s still a very costly penalty for people who get caught.
- Having your business sued or shuttered. If you torrented software for your business, then you technically will not be held liable for it. Your business will be held liable for it instead. This means that companies will hold the right to sue you or even close your business, depending on the severity of the breach.
- Arrests. In extremely rare cases, being caught torrenting copyrighted software can get you arrested. It is worth noting that people who have been arrested for illegally downloading software usually have been warned about copyright infringement repeatedly prior to their arrest.
Don’t Use A VPN To Distribute Malware
Cybercrime is quickly being pushed to the forefront of investigations as well as the tech dialogue. One of the biggest issues that are affecting netizens these days is the spread and creation of malware and viruses. Malware and viruses cost
Unsurprisingly, cybercriminals have been using VPNs to thwart cyber forensics groups and security teams from catching them in the act. This is one of the primary reasons why so many countries are debating the value of keeping virtual private networks legal at all.
Obvious as it may be, distributing malware is illegal. Using a VPN to do it falls squarely in the “illegal usage of a VPN” category. VPN services that notice suspicious activity relating to malware or exploitative software use will typically report you to the authorities as part of their company policy.
How Bad Can the Penalties Be?
Since the creation and use of malware is a felony offense, you can expect it to land you in jail if you are caught. Distribution of Malware is considered to be a federal offense, with fines of up to $250,000 and jail time up to 20 years per sentencing.
Depending on what your virus or malware targeted, this action can also lead to cyberterrorism charges. These charges are extremely serious and may make it virtually impossible for you to get a job.
Don’t Use A VPN To Hack into Other Computers or Networks
Another major cybercrime that has become linked to heavy VPN use is hacking—or just illegally gaining access to other peoples’ computers and networks. Hacking rails against the general standards of privacy and is viewed as a serious security threat by most government entities.
Unless you have the expressed, written permission of a computer or network owner, hacking is deemed to be illegal. Using a VPN for hacking purposes can cause you to face more legal consequences. Professional VPN service providers may also bar you from using their services if they catch you hacking, even if you are doing so ethically and legally.
How Bad Can the Penalties Be?
Hacking into a computer or network is a criminal offense rather than a civil one in most cases. The penalties you get can range from a misdemeanor to a felony, depending on what you get charged with.
Some of the more common charges include:
- Unauthorized Use of a Computer. This is a misdemeanor in most states today and involves the undesired use of computing. Depending on the state and severity, this can lead to small amounts of jail time and fines.
- Computer Trespass. This is a more severe form of the prior charge and is a felony in most states. This can lead to jail time.
- Computer Tampering. This is a common charge that can range from a misdemeanor to a felony, with variable fines and jail time.
- Intentionally Damaging by Knowing Transmission. This can be a charge for both malware distribution and hacking.
- Obtaining National Security Information. This is a federal charge that can result in anywhere between 10 and 20 years in prison.
- Accessing A Computer and Obtaining Information. If you are not accessing a government system, the penalties max out at ten years.
Don’t Try to Spoof Another Computer’s ID
Spoofing is the act of using a VPN to pretend to be another computer, in the hopes of getting illicit information. This is slightly different from traditional hacking methods since it involves the use of another person’s IP address to incriminate them in the act or lie about your authorization.
VPN companies regularly have to deal with people who use their services to spoof other peoples’ IP addresses. Since this happens to be so common, it’s easy to see why many companies have stepped up their involvement with law enforcement to help curb this illegal usage.
How Bad Can the Penalties Be?
Most of the penalties that are given to standard hackers can also be given to people who choose to spoof other computers’ IP addresses. Since most charges that involve hacking require a minimum of one year in jail, it is safe to say that this isn’t something that you might want to try.
Don’t Use A VPN To Stalk Someone Online
In the online world, block buttons are a huge part of keeping things civil and also maintaining a healthy amount of privacy. When a person blocks you or upsets you, it’s best just to keep things moving. Unfortunately, people tend to stalk others—and use VPNs to circumvent geo-blocking.
Stalking is considered a punishable form of harassment in every state. Using a VPN gives the victim evidence to press charges against you, especially if the VPN service you use has a policy that involves tracking your activity as part of their security measures.
How Bad Can the Penalties Be?
Using a VPN to circumvent geo-blocking or account blocking measures can potentially be considered evidence in harassment cases. It also can be used as evidence of ignoring restraining orders or as a part of an aggravated stalking suit, depending on the state you live in.
The most common charge that is involved with this kind of illegal VPN use is cyberstalking. It can be punishable by a year in prison, plus civil penalties. Depending on the severity of the charges, you can expect either a misdemeanor or felony charge.
Don’t Use A VPN To Download Illegal Content
Though America has laws that protect your freedom of speech, there are still certain forms of media that are considered to be an obscenity or harmful for protected individuals. This includes content that involves minors, rape, or extremely violent acts carried out on camera.
The most common type of content that people associate with being illegal is child pornography. Due to the extremely harmful nature of this content, there are large-scale government task forces and laws in place to prevent the spread of this material.
In the past, people have used VPNs to try to anonymize their downloads in hopes of avoiding attention from law enforcement. Should you get caught downloading this type of content, you can expect law enforcement to act almost immediately.
How Bad Can the Penalties Be?
The most significant laws that deal with this include state obscenity laws and federal child pornography laws. Charges can lead you to get a felony offense, with up to 10 years in prison for obscene material use. If you get a federal child pornography charge, you can get up to 20 years in prison.
People who are charged with the transfer of obscene pornography also must register as sex offenders. This can make things like getting employment, living arrangements, or child custody difficult.
Should you be caught producing this material and disseminating it on the net, you can expect penalties to be even harsher. It’s not unheard of for child pornographers to get life sentences in states like New York.
While VPNs have gained a reputation for being sketchy and “legal grey area,” the fact is that the United States legal system has nothing against their use. When used legally and responsibly, a VPN is nothing more than an additional security method that people can use to prevent identity theft or data mining.
The only time when VPN use stops being legal occurs when the user is doing illegal activity on the net. Things such as hacking, distributing child pornography, and torrenting copyrighted works are all illegal regardless of whether you are using a VPN or not.
Using a VPN while you do it will not do anything to negate the laws. If anything, it can be used as evidence that you may have known that what you were doing was illegal. So, if you’re thinking of doing something illegal on the net with a VPN, just don’t do it. It’s not worth the risk.