There are plenty of reasons why users want to retain their online privacy—some are legitimate and legal, and others, well, others, not so much. But for anyone who’s interested in how much of their data is available to those who want it and know how to get their hands on it, how do they protect themselves?
A good place to start is by protecting your IP address. We’re going to answer a lot of your questions on the topic, including, ‘Can VPN hide my IP address?’ ‘What is Tor, and how does it work?’ and what ‘using a proxy server’ means.
What is an IP address?
Every device that connects to the Internet has an IP address. This lengthy array of numbers (or with IPv6, numbers and letters) can provide anyone with the right know-how to track:
- Where you’ve been
- Where you are
- The websites you visit
- Your online habits
- And a whole lot more.
For many, IP tracking has some useful kickbacks:
- Targeted advertising – promoting items we’re interested in instead of things we’re not.
- In business, companies can see where they can improve sales and who their ideal audience are.
But for others, it can be a real nuisance, and in some situations, dangerous.
- Journalists and military workers, requiring location privacy.
- Torrent and file-sharing system users, protecting critical information and documents.
For most of us, we’ve been encouraged to keep our data safe and our privacy under our control. So, how do we do it?
Hide your IP address with VPN
If I’m honest, if I’m going travelling or expect to be in the public domain, I’d hide my IP address using a VPN. It’s the most reliable and secure way of protecting data, using high-level encryption, and it provides a replacement IP address that’s almost impossible to trace back to the end-user.
A VPN service passes your data and Internet history through one of its many local servers networks. Your device adopts an IP from that network, so wherever the network is, that’s where the receiving website believes you are too.
It’s simple to turn on and off once installed (and as long as you remember to). Most allow you to choose a geographical location that provides access to any blocked services (international Netflix catalogues or protected web-streams from other countries) and also feature a kill switch for maximum protection.
Advantages of using a VPN to hide your IP
- Privacy is secured with a new virtual IP address.
- Data is encrypted, providing high-level security.
- In some instances, you could even achieve faster downloads.
- Perfect for torrent sites and file sharing.
- Your online history remains unlogged.
Disadvantages of using a VPN to hide your IP
- Quality and trustworthy VPN services require a subscription fee.
- More servers are spotting VPN services and blocking access to their associated IPs.
Hide your IP using a proxy
Proxy servers are a good option if you want to access geo-blocked content, but don’t offer anything like the security a VPN does.
A proxy can hide your IP from websites, but they will still leave you vulnerable if the connection with your proxy drops or someone tries to access your information between the two end-points.
Without encryption, your ISP (or other authorities such as your government) can still potentially track and monitor your online behaviour.
Advantages of using a proxy to hide your IP
- Suitable for bypassing geo-blocked servers.
- Provides an alternative virtual IP address.
Disadvantages of using a proxy to hide your IP
- Utilizing a proxy will often deliver slower Internet speeds.
- Proxy servers can be compromised, so aren’t always as secure as you’d like.
- Proxy servers will log your activity, even if the sites you visit can’t.
- They don’t encrypt your data.
How to hide your IP address with Tor
Tor stands for The Onion Router. This web browser provides some heavy-duty encryption and then routes your Internet traffic through a selection of randomly selected nodes. Each time you visit a website, the sequence of your nodes is different, making tracking almost impossible. The nodes are a type of proxy server, where only the final one, the exit node, delivers an IP.
While anonymity is excellent, speed and performance aren’t.
Advantages of using Tor to hide your IP
- Unblocks all websites, eliminating Internet censorship.
- Provides access to dark websites.
Disadvantages of using Tor to hide your IP
- No encryption.
- Can still be monitored by certain authorities.
- Much slower network performance.
If you want a different IP address, joining a different network will replace your IP while you’re using it.
Log onto a public or private free network, and that will deliver their IP instead of yours. While this might be helpful in some situations, it won’t do much to protect you or provide the workarounds you’re looking for in others.
Open WiFi networks are one of the least protected areas for hackers and data snoops, so even if you join one, you’d be wise to protect yourself with a VPN.
Advantages of using public WiFi to hide your IP
- Free to access and readily available in many outlets.
Disadvantages of using public WiFi to hide your IP
- Your device and data could be at risk on an open network.
- Slow connections due to large numbers of users.
Hiding your IP doesn’t necessarily mean hiding your history
Depending on what I want to do online, it doesn’t always send me spiralling towards how to hide my IP address in the most appropriate way.
Whatever you’re doing, your ISP will always be able to see your IP address, even if the end-user websites can’t. VPNs, proxies and any other methods simply mask your IP with another.
If you need to hide your data and your online activity, then VPN is your best option. If you work for the military, the government, are a journalist, or a spy, you should already have this covered.
For those who need to mask their location for much less tactical or underhand means—to watch the cup final, the boxing, or to binge some Mexican drama shows you can’t get from your country’s Netflix catalogue—you’ll do just as well by choosing a method that is designed for the job you need it to do.