Online privacy was once an issue that didn’t seem to be of much interest outside of cybersecurity circles. However, the landscape has shifted rapidly since the propagation of high-speed broadband networks. Since the early days of the internet, users have known to be wary of people who are not who they say they are. However, there is now a growing understanding that, even if you are careful about who you share data with, businesses are constantly finding new ways of getting data from and about us.
The good news is that you can keep your identity protected online with relative ease, you only need to follow a few relatively simple tips and practices in order to prevent your identity and data from falling into the wrong hands. One of the easiest ways to stay private is hiding your IP (internet protocol) address.
All About IP Addresses
Every device that connects to the internet has an IP address, which is assigned to them by their ISP (internet service provider). You can think of IP addresses as being like digital license plates. Whenever you connect to a website or online service, your computer is connecting to a physical server somewhere.
The server that your computer connects to will gather information about your connection, including your IP address. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for doing this. Websites need to be able to block malicious IP addresses, for example.
The problem is that it is often difficult to work out exactly who is going to have access to your personal data and what they might want to do with it.
Your IP address contains more information than you might realize. Significantly, an IP address tells you the general geographic region that a connection is coming from, as well as the ISP that address belongs to. It is possible to ultimately trace IP addresses back to a specific physical location.
In fact, you can try this out for yourself by heading on over to tracemyip.org or dozens of other ‘ip detection’ sites. The website will show you your IP address and will trace it to a general area. Once you know your IP address, you can put it into a few different tracking services to see what the results are.
Hiding Your IP Address
The difference between an IP address and a license plate is that you are legally required to have a license plate. On the other hand, you need an IP address because of how the internet works. However, you can obscure your IP address without breaking any laws.
There are a number of techniques that you can use to obscure your IP address, or at least the IP address of the machine you are physically using, but the most common methods are VPNs and proxies, both of which are accessible and don’t require any advanced knowledge to use.
Virtual Private Networks
VPNs (virtual private networks) are a popular method for improving online privacy and anonymity. A VPN consists of a program or app that is installed on your device – or sometimes on your router itself – and a network of VPN servers that are operated by the VPN provider.
Usually, when you connect to the internet, your device will contact the relevant server directly. Larger businesses and websites use multiple servers and automatically direct new connections to ensure that no individual server becomes overloaded. When you connect to a server, that server can see and log your IP address.
With a VPN installed, your device will no longer directly communicate with online servers. Instead, the app will create an encrypted communication tunnel between your device and the VPN server. When you want to access a website, rather than contacting it directly, your device will send an encrypted request to the VPN server. The VPN then passes your request onto the website server, encrypts the result and sends it back to you to be decrypted.
This means that internet servers don’t see the IP address of your device, they see the IP address of the VPN server instead. Another benefit of a VPN is that you can use it to change your apparent location. Let’s say that you want to access BBC iPlayer from the US. Normally, the service would detect that your IP address is not a UK one and will refuse to serve the content.
But if you connect to a VPN server that is in the UK, iPlayer will think that you are connecting from within the UK – because technically you are.
VPNs are great, but they have some drawbacks. The biggest drawback of using a VPN is that you will have to share the server with other users. Every user of a particular server will have the same publicly-facing IP address. This means that if one user misbehaves and the IP address is blocked by a particular service, all the other users will pay the price as well.
Proxy servers are an alternative to VPNs that are much better suited for some applications. The principle of a proxy server is the same as a VPN – the proxy server acts as a buffer between you and the internet, interfacing with servers on your behalf. However, a big advantage of using proxies is that you can use residential IP addresses.
A residential IP address has several features that other proxies and VPNs lack. Residential IP addresses are associated with internet service providers, not data centers. That means a connection coming through a residential proxy will look like a real user’s device, not some data center.
VPN servers are hosted in data centers. These data centers are unlikely to be in residential areas and their IP addresses will reflect this. If you want the websites you interface with to think that you are just another normal person connecting from a residential area, a residential proxy is a better choice.
In fact, if you are concerned that the services you connect to will block the IP address of a proxy or VPN if they think you are using one, a residential proxy offers the best level of IP protection. Unlike a VPN server, a residential proxy will appear indistinguishable from a regular user, whereas a VPN can be identified as a suspicious connection.
Protecting your identity online is easier than you might think. If you would like to improve your online anonymity, consider whether a residential proxy or a VPN might be the answer for you.