When connecting to the Internet, your home computer (or network router) is assigned a public IP address. As you visit Web sites or other Internet servers, that public IP address is transmitted and recorded in log files kept on those servers. Access logs leave behind a trail of your Internet activity. If it were possible to somehow hide your public IP address, your Internet activity would become much more difficult to trace.
Unfortunately, it is not technically possible to always hide the public IP address of a home network. An IP address enables devices to locate and communicate with each other on the Internet. Completely hiding the IP address of a device would render it invisible but also unusable online.On the other hand, it is possible to hide public IP addreseses from most Internet servers in most situations. This method involves an Internet service called an anonymous proxy server.
This way, Web sites will see the proxy’s IP address, not your home IP address.
Using an anonymous proxy server requires a simple configuration of the Web browser (or other Internet client software that supports proxies). Proxies are identified by a combination of URL and TCP port number.
Numerous free anonymous proxy servers exist on the Internet, open for anyone to use. These servers may have bandwidth traffic limits, may suffer from reliability or speed problems, or might permanently disappear from the Internet without notice. Such servers are most useful for temporary or experimental purposes.
Anonymous proxy services that charge fees in return for better quality of service also exist. These services are designed for regular use by households.
Hiding Your IP Address – Related Tools
Several related software tools (both free and paid versions) support anonymizing proxies. The Firefox extension called “switchproxy,” for example, supports defining a pool of proxy servers in the Web browser and automatically switching between them at regular time intervals. In general, these tools help you both find proxies and also simplify the process of configuring and using them.
The ability to hide an IP address increases your privacy on the Internet. Other approaches to improving Internet privacy also exist and complement each other. Managing Web browser cookies, using encryption when sending personal information, running a firewall and other techniques all contribute toward a greater feeling of safety and security when going online.
Anonymous Proxy Servers
An anonymous proxy server (“proxy”) is a special type of server that acts as an intermediary between a home network and the rest of the Internet. An anonymous proxy server makes requests for Internet information on your behalf, using its own IP address instead of yours. Your computer only accesses Web sites indirectly, through the proxy server.
If you are worried that someone may be looking over your shoulder–in the virtual sense–as you browse the Web, you don’t have to be an online agoraphobe any longer: New tools from old hands in Web privacy will let you surf with complete anonymity.
A certain degree of paranoia about the Web is justified. Advertisers track Web surfers all the time, planting cookies that track you as you surf from site to site so they can see what you want and where you go.
Proxy servers, such as the CGIProxy, have been around for years. These sites open another site, say, Amazon.com, in a pane of the proxy. That way, Amazon won’t see your IP address and the proxy can block ads and some cookies.
But proxy sites still allow destination sites to implant some ad cookies and Web bugs–the two most common tracking devices–on your system. Worse, many proxies are just too slow.
The plug-ins work only with Internet Explorer versions 5 and higher. Anonymizer’s plug-in is compatible with versions of Windows from 98 through XP; a Zero-Knowledge spokesperson tells me that its tool can’t run on some installations of Windows 98 and Me, but that it works well with Windows 2000 or XP.
The two plug-ins behave similarly: After a short download, each service adds a small button to Internet Explorer’s toolbar that toggles the application on and off. Private Surfing and Freedom WebSecure both generate a toolbar at the top of your Web browser window. Once you log in with your user name and password, the software becomes active and you can surf anonymously to your heart’s content.
Related services from these companies in the past offered anonymous surfing, but at a snail’s pace. The new versions are dramatically faster. Freedom WebSecure seemed positively peppy, while Anonymizer still was a bit slower than unprotected surfing because of its encryption.
If you’re concerned about the bread-crumb trail you leave across the Internet as you browse the Web, either of these tools can sweep those crumbs away and keep profilers off your back.