Navigating the internet? You are almost certainly being tracked, tagged, or monitored by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), advertisers, or your government – if not by all three. How? And why would the use of a VPN help?
Blame your IP address. It identifies the location of your device and gives your online browsing activity away to anyone who knows that IP address.
With this information, ISPs and the government can target ads at you, block you from accessing overseas content, put you under surveillance or censor you. As we say, there's a simple way to hide or mask your IP address from prying eyes, and we’ll take you through that shortly. But first, let’s look at some basics.
What is an IP address?
Every device you own that is online has an Internet Protocol (IP) address assigned to it, a unique identifying number used to connect your device to the internet.
It’s impossible to connect to the internet without an IP address. When you search for “cats” on Google for example, your IP address indicates to Google servers where the request for cats came from, and where it should send the results for the search to. Just as you have to share your home address with someone sending you a letter via the postal service, you must also share your IP address with the person or website you wish to receive data from online. Otherwise that data can’t be delivered.
Your IP address can also be used to physically locate you. When you register with your ISP, it assigns you an IP address, which indicates the physical location from which you accessed the internet. Your IP address can then essentially act as a ‘geolocator’ for anyone who wants to know where you’re browsing from and what you’re browsing.
Why should I hide my IP address?
Just as with your home address, anyone with your IP address can pinpoint your physical location. But unlike your home address, people, companies and governments can also track the things you search for and the sites you visit with your IP address, which can have far-reaching consequences for you.
Companies: Firms cram their websites with cookies that track every time you visit their page and what buttons you click on. This sort of information is useful not just to the company, which wants to tailor and customize your experience on its site, but to third-party advertisers and marketers who want to target ads at you based on your searches. These ads are annoying to say the least, and are only possible because organizations can trace searches to your IP address.
Companies can also block people from accessing content if they see users are based in another country. Geoblocking, as it’s called, is practiced by companies that, for instance, don’t want people outside the US accessing their websites. Watching Netflix and Amazon Prime are the biggest examples of this, with access to specific shows varying widely from country to country.
ISPs: Your IP address is registered with an ISP, which means as a customer, your ISP knows all the personal information you gave them when you registered. As you use an ISP to access the internet, the ISP also sees all of your internet traffic too, which, as of 2017, can be sold to third-party advertisers who will use this information to target ads at you.
ISPs are also obliged to keep logs of this traffic if the country’s government requires them to. Countries like the US, UK, and Australia force ISPs to keep logs of their customers’ browsing activity, ready to be handed over without a warrant if needed.
Governments: Aside from requiring ISPs to keep logs of all their customers’ browsing activity, some governments go to great lengths to monitor and censor users inside their country. Nations such as China, which owns all ISPs in the country, can block IP addresses en masse and prevent users from accessing content overseas (the most prominent example of this that springs to mind is the country's ‘Great Firewall’ blocking Google and WhatsApp in China completely - hence the popularity of using VPNS in China).
Government surveillance and censorship is now practiced in dozens of countries to varying extents behind the guise of national security, resulting in the erosion of the digital privacy of their citizens. On top of requiring ISPs to log all traffic on domestic servers, the UK’s GCHQ’s formerly secret TEMPORA program tracks and stores all forms of communication for up to 30 days for analysis, and since 2013, any customer wishing to register with an IP address will automatically be unable to access certain websites.
How do I hide my IP address?
While you must have an IP address to use the internet, there are ways you can mask or hide it. Proxies can be used to divert your online traffic through their own servers before it’s sent to the wider network, hiding your real IP address behind the proxy’s IP address. Your internet activity is not hidden, however, making it possible for anyone to look at what you’re doing online.
A safer and more secure option would be to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). The best VPNs act as an encrypted tunnel around all the information that is sent from your device to your ISP’s server, and it hides not only your true IP address, but also all your online activity from ISPs, companies, and governments.
As you are essentially entrusting your traffic to a third-party, it’s crucial that you use a VPN service that will not only encrypt your internet traffic, but will also do so without logging it. A free VPN provider can give you some privacy, but these sort of services are often limited. Furthermore, you put yourself at risk of having your information sold to third-parties so the provider can turn a profit (it must make money somehow).
Your best chance of hiding your IP address is by choosing the overall best VPN that stands by its word of not keeping any logs. With a good service like these, you can browse the internet without worrying about your IP address or your online activity being tracked or monitored by your ISP or government.
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Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.