Hide Your IP Address: How to Anonymously Surf the Net

Manuela Lenz

Alongside their benefits, the growing digitization and interconnection of the world have a dark side too. When surfing the Internet, computers, smartphones, and devices broadcast a wide variety of data, including your IP address, allowing anyone in the know to determine your location and eventually, identity. Although marketing data that companies collect is more of an annoyance than a threat, hackers, security services, or authoritarian regimes can use such information to far more nefarious purposes.

There are often very banal reasons for the desire to conceal your IP address. One of the most common of these is to bypass geo-blocking, which denotes the restriction of access to certain content or websites on the basis of one's physical location. Streaming services in particular vary their offers, and prices from country to country.

In this article, we'll explain how you can conceal your IP address online, and how much anonymity this actually offers.


Hide Your IP Address Through a VPN

One of the most-favored methods to conceal one's identity online is the usage of virtual private networks (VPNs). This is a closed (private) network, which allows for data to be encrypted and sent anonymously through the net.

This is most easily achieved by agreeing to a subscription with a commercial VPN provider. Through this method, your IP address changes to that of the VPN server, creating a secure tunnel between you and the server in the process. Your destination (a website, for example) will only see the VPN server's IP address, and not that of your device.

The site you're visiting then responds to the VPN server's request, sending it the desired data. During this transmission, all traffic starting with your network map to the VPN server is encrypted. In this way, an additional layer of security is created which protects you from prying eyes.

Apart from this, VPN software often includes additional functions or features which enhance your data and technical security. For this reason, companies, organizations, and even authorities use VPN networks to provide their employees with added security when remotely accessing programs or information.

Since the first commercial services appeared, a number of VPN providers have emerged, some of which offer several thousands of gateways around the world. The server's location can be selected, which creates a number of interesting possibilities, particularly in regards to circumventing attempts to geo-block content. Of course, this allows for content from around the world, such as the BBC, to be streamed in areas where it would otherwise be blocked owing to licensing.

Often, a VPN service can be registered for with little more than an email address. Some services even offer the ability to register without any data at all, and to pay for subscriptions with Bitcoin, or even by cash in an envelope. Without exception, all providers promise not to save logs or to give data to third parties, however, as our review shows, whether this promise is backed up with action is open to interpretation.


Surfing Anonymously With a Browser Plugin

Should you only want to browse the Internet anonymously, and not use other programs or clients that rely on an Internet connection, the browser plugins offered by VPN providers can lend you a hand. These don't only encrypt all of your browser activity, but simultaneously conceal your IP address. A number of useful extensions, such as Hotspot Shield's free VPN proxy, or ZenMate's free VPN are available for both Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome.

Opera comes with an integrated and unlimited VPN service. In contrast to other VPN apps, you don't need to register separately, but can use the VPN function by activating it in the settings. There, you can select a virtual location for your connection, or automatically be designated one. Unfortunately, unlike most VPN apps or providers, you cannot select a specific country, but only a region (Asia, North America, or Europe).

Another drawback: Opera's integrated VPN does not allow for multimedia content to be streamed from abroad, since the IPs are already known to streaming services, and as a result, blocked.

Plugins are not for everyone. Many believe that they are just another means for collecting personal data. If using these methods, you should remember that the secure tunnel you've created only protects your browser. Concretely, this means that while your surfing is anonymous, other applications can still see your "real" IP.

Good to know:

There is a common rumor online that the usage of VPNs throttles your connection speed. In reality, however, there is almost no noticeable difference between VPN and non-VPN connection speeds owing to the extra encryption; in terms of a figure, this equates to less than 5% of the maximum total bandwidth.


Hide Your IP Using a Proxy Server

A proxy server is a kind of intermediary that engages in client-server communication when you request a website. It accepts your requests and forwards them to to the destination using a new IP address. The response is then returned to the proxy server, and back to you. In this manner, the sender of the request remains anonymous, and no direct connection exists between the requester and the destination.

Proxy servers only need to be configured once in the client's network settings, thereafter allowing Internet traffic to always be routed in this manner. By using this approach, regional content restrictions can also be bypassed. In contrast to VPNs, however, your data traffic is not encrypted, creating a much greater security risk. As such, we don't really see proxy servers as lasting solutions for concealing IP addresses.

A special kind of proxy: Tor

For most, "the onion routing project" (TOR) is a byword for the so-called Darknet. Originally, TOR was used by the US Armed Forces to clandestinely communicate with the civilian government, and as such, is not accessible through the regular Internet.

Just like an onion, the TOR network is composed of numerous layers. Access is achieved through an encrypted TOR client, which is little more than a modified version of Mozilla Firefox. The "entry node" can be one of any TOR server from a list which is loaded when accessing the client, and chooses a random connection through the network. To do this, the client sends a request to a selected node, from where the data packet is then forwarded to the next node, and so on until it reaches its destination. Each node only knows the node before and after it, but not the source, or exit node. The exit node never receives the user's IP address, allowing for them to remain completely anonymous.

However, even on the TOR network, you aren't entirely anonymous, since the system, despite all of its security measures, has two weaknesses:

  • Not all connections through which a data packet is transferred are encrypted, particularly on the route from client to entry node. Complete security can only be guaranteed if you manually configure SSL/TLS encryption for your browser, or connect to TOR using a VPN.
  • Alongside private administrators, a number of nodes are overseen by state authorities. Should an exit node be operated by one of these, they will be able to view all of your network traffic.

In addition, TOR only partially conceals the sender's IP address, not protecting the application (client) itself, or the browser's digital signature.

Author: Manuela Lenz
Manuela Lenz is a trained IT specialist and worked for 20 years as a system administrator and project manager for large companies. Since 2017, the IT specialist has been a passionate IT-author. For EXPERTE.com she writes about project management, software and IT security.
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