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. But just as it’s not smart to wear your nametag on the subway, or to post your social security number or driver’s license number online, it’s a good idea to keep your IP address under wraps.
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 provide you with an IP address directly. Instead, they allocate blocks of numbers 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, 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.
Why Hide It?
There are many reasons to hide yourself online. IP addresses can be used to discern your physical location, and can some times do so with remarkable accuracy. 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.
But beyond privacy, hiding an IP can simply be an easier way to use the Web. Spoofing your IP address makes it possible to watch region-locked content, for example. But some companies, like Netflix, have begun working to block VPNs from accessing its content.
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.
How to Change Your IP Address
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’ll be directed towards 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. 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
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, and nosey government agencies.
With a Virtual Private Network (or, VPN), another layer is added to the equation. Instead of contacting a website directly, the VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between you and the 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 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, like TorGuard VPN, 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, as such, slows down your experience. But my extensive hands-on testing has shown that the top-tier VPN providers will slow you only marginally.
Anonymize Me, Bro
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 train harder to follow. Instead of a single request from point A to point B 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.
The best part is that each node only knows the one last previous jump and the next jump. The theory is that an 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 outside of theory, but Tor is very transparent about its limitations and actively works to improve the network.
Tor is probably most often associated with letting you access secret and seedy Dark Web websites, like Facebook. But it’s really one of the best anonymization tools out there, and used every day by people concerned about security and others seeking to avoid the restrictions of oppressive government censorship. And it’s free.
If Tor sounds like the way to go for you, 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 just like using a VPN, using Tor will slow down your Web surfing speeds.
If the Tor Browser isn’t quite your cup of tea, NordVPN 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 of them may seem arcane and scary, they’re quickly becoming simpler, more accessible, and more powerful, as you’ll see if you explore the links in this story. And if you’re curious about more reasons, and means, for staying hidden online, be sure to keep up with all the latest security stories at PCMag’s Security Watch.
Have you ever needed or wanted to hide your IP address? Tell us why and how you went about it in the comments below.