Just how secure is your privacy? You may think you have a Fort Knox-like setup, but don’t take risks with your personal info. It’s worth confirming that the virtual private network (VPN) software you use is actually doing its job, or if it’s allowing your personal data to go hither and thither without your knowledge.
For the most part, if you pick one of our Best VPN Services, you’ll be well protected, be it on a PC or even a smart device (most of the best services offer software across all operating systems). But it never hurts to check. Things break, new exploits are found, and there’s always a chance your VPN may be leaking more than you like. Here are some steps you can take to see if that’s true.
Check Your IP Address
Your home has an IP address, not just a street address. The IP (internet protocol) address is the unique number assigned to your router by your ISP. Your internal home network also gives each node in your home—PCs, phones, consoles, smart appliances, anything connected to the router—an IP address. But in this case, we’re only concerned with your public-facing IP address.
The IP address is how your computers/router talk to servers on the internet. They don’t actually use names —like PCMag.com—because computers prefer numbers. IP addresses are typically bound not only to the ISPs that assign them but also specific locations. Spectrum or Comcast would have a range of IP addresses for one town and a different range for another town, etc. When someone has your IP address, they get a lot more than just some numbers: they can narrow down where you live.
IP addresses come in several formats, either a IPv4 (internet protocol version 4) version like 172.16.254.1 or and IPv6 type like 2001:0db8:0012:0001:3c5e:7354:0000:5db1.
Let’s keep it simple. Your own public-facing IP address is easy to find. Go to Google and type “what’s my IP address.” Or go to sites like IPLocation, WhatIsMyAddress.com, or WhatIsMyIP.com. That latter three will show more than the IP; they’ll also give you the Geo-IP, as in the location linked to the address.
Take the IP address that comes up and search for it in Google with IP in front, like “IP 172.16.254.1” (sans quotation marks). If it keeps coming up with your city location, your VPN has a big, messy leak.
The leak could be caused by what’s known as the WebRTC bug; WebRTC is a collection of standards that look hard to find your IP address, to make things go faster when you use the internet and services like video chat and streaming. If you’ve got a modern desktop browser, you’re probably likely to have this, as the browsers all enable WebRTC to work better. VPNs that work via an extension in a browser will turn it off, among other things. Or you can disable WebRTC in browsers directly.
- Chrome: requires an extension like WebRTC Network Limiter.
- Edge: You can’t really fix it, but you can hide your local IP address entirely by typing “about:flags” and checking the box next to “Hide my local IP address over WebRTC connections.” Though that probably hurts you with location services, more than it helps protect you.
- Safari: It shouldn’t be an issue, Apple’s browser doesn’t share like the rest.
- Firefox: type “about:config,” click on the “I accept the risk!” button, type “media.peerconnection.enabled” in the search box, then double-click to change to the Value column to say False.
- Opera: Go to View > Show Extensions > WebRTC Leak Prevent > Options. Choose to disable it and save the settings.
Check for DNS Leak
The internet domain name system (DNS) is what makes IP addresses and domain names (like “pcmag.com”) work. You type the domain name in a web browser, the DNS translates all the traffic moving back and forth from your browser to the web server using the IP address numbers, and everyone is happy. ISPs are part of that—they have DNS servers on their networks to help with the translation, and that gives them another avenue to follow you around. This video from ExpressVPN spells it out (and tells you up front why a VPN with DNS services is great).