Your IP address is like your public ID on the internet. Any time you do anything on the internet, your IP address lets servers know where to send back information you’ve requested. Many sites log these addresses, effectively spying on you, usually to deliver you more personalized ads to get you to spend more money. For some people, this is a significant issue, and there are ways to hide your IP address.
One of the big reasons that people hide their IP addresses is so that they can download illegal material without being tracked. But there are a lot of other reasons you might want to hide it.
One reason is geographic restrictions and censorship. Some content is blocked by the government in certain areas, such as in China and the Middle East. If you can hide your real IP address and make it look like you’re browsing from another region, you can get around these restrictions and view blocked websites. Private companies also often geo-lock their content, making it unavailable in certain countries. For example, this happens a lot on YouTube, where some countries, like Germany, block copyrighted content outright, rather than using YouTube’s monetization model.
The other reason to hide your IP address is simply for more privacy and to prevent misuse of your personal information. Whenever you access a website, the server you connect to logs your IP address and attaches it to all the other data the site can learn about you: your browsing habits, what you click on, how long you spend looking at a particular page. They then sell this data to advertising companies who use it to tailor ads straight to you. This is why ads on the internet sometimes feel oddly personal: it’s because they are. Your IP address can also be used to track your location, even when your location services are turned off.
Here I’ve done a basic IP lookup, which returned my location down to the area of the city in which I live. Anyone with your IP address can do this, and while it won’t give out your actual home address or name to everyone, anyone with access to your ISPs customer data can find you fairly easily.
The spying and selling of user data aren’t limited to websites either. Under US law, your Internet Service Provider (Comcast, Verizon, etc.) has the right to collect information about you without your permission, just like any website owner does. While they all claim they don’t sell customer data, it is certainly worth a lot of money to ad companies, and there is nothing legally stopping them. This is a major problem, as half of the people on the internet in the US only have one choice of ISP, so for many, it’s either be spied on or go without internet.
The two primary ways to hide your IP address are using a proxy server or using a virtual private network (VPN). (There’s also Tor, which is great for extreme anonymization, but it’s very slow and for most people isn’t necessary.)
A proxy server is an intermediary server through which your traffic gets routed. The internet servers you visit see only the IP address of that proxy server and not your IP address. When those servers send information back to you, it goes to the proxy server, which then routes it to you. The problem with proxy servers is that many of the services out there are pretty shady, spying on you or inserting ads into your browser.
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VPN is a much better solution. When you connect your computer (or another device, such as a smartphone or tablet) to a VPN, the computer acts as if it’s on the same local network as the VPN. All your network traffic is sent over a secure connection to the VPN. Because your computer behaves as if it’s on the network, this allows you to securely access local network resources even when you’re on the other side of the world. You’ll also be able to use the Internet as if you were present at the VPN’s location, which has some benefits if you’re using public Wi-Fi or want to access geo-blocked websites.
When you browse the web while connected to a VPN, your computer contacts the website through the encrypted VPN connection. The VPN forwards the request for you and forwards the response from the website back through the secure connection. If you’re using a USA-based VPN to access Netflix, Netflix will see your connection as coming from within the USA.
Now that you’ve decided that you need a VPN, it’s time to figure out how to get one. There are lots of options, including setting up your own VPN, which is very complicated, or you can even setup your own home VPN—though that doesn’t work if you’re actually at home.
Your best, and easiest option, is to simply get yourself a VPN service from a solid VPN provider. You can find services that range in price from completely free for limited use, like Tunnelbear, to blazing fast and works on all your devices for a small monthly fee like ExpressVPN. We’ve talked before about how to choose the best VPN service for your needs, and that article gives you a lot more information on the topic.
Installing a VPN is as simple as heading to the signup page, downloading the client app onto your device—Windows, Mac, Linux, iPhone, and Android are all supported by most of the best VPN providers—installing the app, and then logging in. Press the connect button, and you’re magically connected to a VPN on a server somewhere else in the world.
Image Credits: Elaine333/Shutterstock