We are all individuals worthy of love, but we are also numbers. Consider: When you were born, you were given a name and a social security number. When you got a car, you earned a driver’s license number. And when you get online, you receive an IP address. Most of us try to keep these numbers private to protect our privacy, but your IP address is distressingly public, by default. There are many ways to hide or change this number, such as using a VPN, and it’s much easier to do than you might think.
What’s an IP Address?
Simply put, an IP address is the identifier that allows information to be sent between devices on a network. Like your home address, it contains location information and makes devices accessible for communication.
These aren’t random addresses; they’re mathematically produced and allocated by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), a division of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). These are the same people responsible for sorting out domain names and other factors critical to internet communication.
The allocation of these addresses isn’t random either. IANA doesn’t directly provide you with an IP address. Instead, they allocate blocks of numbers(Opens in a new window) to different regions. For example, the United States has a reported 1,541,605,760 addresses allocated to it, which is about 36 percent of all the IP addresses available (at least, under IPv4, as opposed to IPv6, but that’s a story for another time). Meanwhile, the Vatican has a mere 17,920 addresses. This is probably more than you will ever need to know about IP addresses, but you can now impress your friends with these handy factoids about Papal networks.
Keep It Secret, Keep It Safe
Because there’s a finite number of IP addresses (4,294,967,296, under IPv4) and only so many available by location, mere mortals like you and me generally don’t have to worry about our IP addresses. Our ISPs assign them to us (and sometimes revoke and recycle them), our routers use them, and we continue happily along—until we need to change something.
Although very few of us are actually in charge of our own IP addresses, there are some ways to force a change. Search the internet and you find all sorts of arcane command-line magic words that will, allegedly, get you a new address. There are even some websites that can do the same.(Opens in a new window) You can also disconnect your modem for a period of time, and see if your ISP assigns you a new address when you come back online. Or you can call your ISP directly and ask for a new address, but that might lead to some tedious questions.
Instead of changing your IP, it’s probably easier to simply hide it.
Hide in Plain Sight, Use a VPN
When you point your browser to a website, a request leaves your computer, heads off to the server where the website lives, and returns with the information you’ve requested. Along the way, location and identifying information is exchanged and, sometimes, intercepted by attackers, snoopers, advertisers, and nosey government agencies.
With a virtual private network, or VPN, another layer is added to the equation. Instead of contacting a website’s servers directly, the VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between you and the VPN service’s server, which in turn connects to the public internet and retrieves the information you requested as normal. This passes back through the tunnel to your computer, ensuring that no one can intercept your web traffic, and that an observer will see the IP address of the VPN and not yours.
The best VPN services go even further, providing bonuses like ad blocking, malware protection, and extra protection for other devices. Some VPNs, such as TorGuard , even offer static IP addresses for sale. Unlike the address assigned by your ISP or acquired by your VPN connection, this is a permanent address, but usually restricted to certain countries.
Using VPNs does add an extra step to your web surfing and that generally means a slower experience. But my extensive hands-on testing has shown that the top-tier VPN providers will slow you only marginally. If you have good enough connection, you might not even notice the difference. Indeed, the fastest VPN I’ve tested actually improved upload and download speeds.
And let’s not forget your mobile devices! They have IP addresses, too. And you’re probably using them in a wider variety of locations than your home computer, including on shifty public Wi-Fi hotspots. While using a VPN on a mobile device can be a little annoying, it’s good to at least use one when connecting to a network you don’t completely trust. All the major VPN companies have VPN apps for Android and for iPhone, too.
In general, VPN apps are identical regardless of the platform. There are a few differences with iPhone VPN apps, however. Apple makes it slightly more difficult to use certain VPN protocols on iOS devices. Thankfully, developers are meeting that challenge and providing the best and most secure options for everyone.
While most of the VPN services I’ve reviewed have a subscription fee, some do not. There are many free VPNs available, although many operate with restrictions on data and other features.
Why the Secrecy?
There are many reasons to hide yourself online. IP addresses can be used to discern your physical location, and can sometimes do so with remarkable accuracy(Opens in a new window). These addresses also act like personal identifiers, a little like a phone number, letting advertisers and adversaries track you online. They can also be used to launch targeted attacks against you.
You may even be hiding from a watchful or oppressive government. Journalists are especially likely to hide their IP addresses when they’re reporting in dangerous areas or on sensitive subjects. Of course, I’m not encouraging anyone to break local laws, but I do want people to know how to keep themselves safe, should the need arise.
Hiding your IP address via VPN also makes it possible to watch region-locked content. The BBC, for example, provides free streaming if you live in the UK. If you want to watch from another country, just connect to a VPN server in London and your traffic will appear to be British. The same is true for streaming services like Netflix, which have different content offerings depending on your country. Because of this, Netflix blocks VPNs and VPNS try to keep working to keep Netflix accessible.
Encrypting your traffic with a VPN will also make it harder for your ISP to block certain kinds of traffic. BitTorrent users, for example, may want to use a VPN to prevent their downloads from being blocked. Most VPN services allow BitTorrent traffic, and file-sharing in general, but it’s not universal. Make sure you’re not breaking the VPN’s terms of service when you start leeching seeds.
Tor and Beyond
Even with a VPN, your data moves in a more-or-less straight line between your computer and the stuff on the Internet. But when you make your path more circuitous, you not only hide your IP address but make yourself much harder to find, too.
Tor, which is short for The Onion Router, uses a series of computers distributed across the globe to hide your IP address and make your digital trail harder to follow. Instead of a single request from point A (your home) to point B (the website’s server) and back again, your computer sends out layered requests, each one encrypted individually. You’re then relayed from Tor node to Tor node (A to C to R to Z and finally to B) before finally exiting the network and reaching your destination.
Even if someone intercepted your traffic between nodes, the layers of encryption ensure they could only discern the previous and next jumps, and still wouldn’t know where the chain began or where it ended. The theory is that the attacker would have to map your entire path through the Tor network in order to figure out who you are. Of course, not everything works perfectly in the real world, but Tor is very transparent about its limitations and actively works to improve the network.
Tor is most often associated with secret and seedy Dark Web websites, like Facebook. But it’s also one of the best anonymization tools out there, and it’s used every day by people concerned about security and others seeking to avoid the restrictions of oppressive government censorship. It’s also free.
If Tor sounds like the way to go, but you don’t want to muck around with relays and onion requests, just download the Tor Browser. This is a special customized version of Firefox that makes getting on Tor a snap. But although using a VPN may impact your browsing speeds, using Tor will definitely slow down your web surfing speeds.
If the Tor Browser isn’t quite your cup of tea, NordVPN (Get NordVPN With up to 68% off + 3 Months Free at NordVPN)(Opens in a new window) also offers Tor over VPN, for extra protection. With these kind of specialized features, it’s easy to see why it’s an Editors’ Choice winner.
There are many reasons you might want to hide your IP address. Fortunately there are also many techniques, apps, and services that can help you do it. While some of them may seem arcane and scary, they’re quickly becoming easier to use and more powerful, as you’ll see if you explore the links in this story.