Your IP (Internet Protocol) address is a unique identifier that every device needs to have to connect to the internet. It is provided to you by your ISP (Internet Service Provider) from a pool of IP addresses that the organisations regulating the internet have given them.
Your ISP, who is either your broadband or mobile network provider, not only knows which IP address is linked to you at any given time, but is also able to access your web traffic.
ISPs make many promises about not touching web traffic and not divulging the identities of customers linked to their IP addresses, at least to anyone else other than law enforcement. However, service providers have a spotty track record on this. Many monitor their customer’s data for certain types of activity, such as torrenting traffic, and can even sell browsing history details to advertisers.
Even if you trust your ISP, there are a number of other ways in which revealing your real IP address can leave your online privacy vulnerable. Here are a few key reasons why you might want to hide your IP address.
1. Keep your browsing private
Your IP address can potentially reveal a lot of information about you. Any website can track and record your IP address when you visit them, and will often save it together with other data they gather on your interactions and preferences.
If you post on online forums, for example, your posts will likely have your IP address associated with them. When you log into email and shopping accounts, they will also know which IP you’re using. You can see how quickly this can leave your online activity exposed if someone starts putting data from two sites together.
While most websites won’t publicly release their users’ IP addresses, hacks where user information is stolen and released are very common, with even large companies being regularly affected by them. Once someone knows which IP address is linked to you, they can start following your online activity incredibly easily.
In order to not leave a trail of your activity online, it’s important to keep your IP address private. You are never truly anonymous if it’s being exposed.
2. Stop advertisers
Advertisements on the web are not only used to sell you things – they can also track your activity. Even if you regularly clear your browser cookies, intrusive advertisers can use your IP address to follow you around any website that loads their ad. As well as adverts, most social media plugins and buttons will do the same.
Some people are fine with this, as it allows advertisers to promote products to you that you are more likely to be interested in. Not everyone is happy to have their every step followed for the purposes of targeted advertising however, and keeping your IP private will allow you to stop exposing your online activity to unwanted third parties.
3. Accessing streaming content
Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime have different catalogues of movies and television shows available in every country they operate in, due to local laws and licensing restrictions.
The US and Japan have by far the largest content catalogues on Netflix, which are normally blocked off to users from other countries. Many Netflix users outside the US will want to access this catalogue, for example, or content that is only available in a specific region.
Accessing the Netflix US catalogue from outside America is possible by masking your real IP address behind a US one using a proxy server or Virtual Private Network (VPN). Connecting to the internet via a VPN server would also allow you to access streaming services that only operate in the US, like Hulu. Equally, if you wanted to access French services, you could use a server based in France.
Many YouTube videos are geo-blocked from certain regions too, especially when they include licensed music. If you’ve run into a geo-blocked YouTube video before, you’ll know how annoying this can be. A VPN or proxy will allow you to access this content with just a couple of clicks.
4. Stay safe on public WiFi
Using public WiFi networks is convenient when you’re away from home, but can leave your online security vulnerable if you don’t take steps to protect it. These kinds of networks are generally unsecured, which means it’s all too easy for a malicious third party to snoop on your browsing activities and even capture your login credentials.
The main problem is more to do with encryption than hiding your IP; malicious hackers love to prowl public WiFi networks for easy targets. Man-in-The-Middle (MiTM) attacks can be used to intercept data travelling between your device and the router, giving a potential hacker access to any unencrypted information. But while these kinds of attacks rely on a lack of encryption, they also need your IP address to be successful.
VPNs are invaluable if you need to use free public WiFi for any reason. They simultaneously hide your IP and heavily encrypt your data, allowing you to use public WiFi without worrying about MITM attacks.
5. Bypass censorship
Keeping your real IP address private can be a lifesaver if you live under an oppressive regime. By hiding it you will not only be able to access blocked websites and content, but can also stop anyone tracking you or finding your real identity.
Even if you are lucky enough to not have to worry about the government following your online activity, hiding your IP will also allow you to get through blocks at your school or workplace. Sites such as YouTube and Reddit are among the most commonly blocked, and even when they aren’t, your employer can track your online activity through your IP address if you use the workplace WiFi. Keeping your IP private will allow you to browse the sites you want from where you want, without anyone else snooping.
How to hide your IP address
The best way to keep your IP private is by using a VPN. Most major VPN providers have lots of servers around the world, allowing you to easily mask your IP address and choose which country you would like your replacement IP to be from. This allows easy access around geo-blocking to streaming services. Unlike proxy servers, VPNs also encrypt all of your traffic, securing you against Man-in-The-Middle attacks.
If you are using a VPN and you’re concerned that your real IP address might be getting leaked, use a free IP address checker like HMA!’s to see whether your visible IP changes before and after connecting.