The easy guide to hiding your location online
It’s always been possible to work out roughly where someone is on the planet from their internet connection – it’s done almost universally by web sites and other providers. If you go to Google’s site using their .com address, you’ll see it instantly work out where you are and send you to the .com.au version instead, for example. And we’ve all heard about Netflix’s enforcement of what has become known as “geoblocking” using the same techniques.
There are many reasons to want to get around these geographic walls – to access a US streaming service, for example. But you might also have a more privacy-minded reason for wanting to hide your true location – to get around ISP data retention, or to ensure that sensitive online business activity remains secure and private.
Depending on your needs, there are several options out there that might work for you. Read on!
Sometimes referred to as “smart DNS” services, these ballooned in popularity in recent years thanks to the increasing take-up of the US Netflix service in Australia before it launched here, and while they’re not especially effective for US Netflix any longer (more on that in a moment) they’re still handy to keep around to access the likes of Hulu, BBC iPlayer, and dozens of other geo-restricted international streaming services.
What they won’t do is mask who and where you are to the “regular” internet. If you need to protect your privacy or want to increase your online security, skip to the next section.
A DNS Proxy fools streaming services into thinking you’re in their country via a bit of clever trickery. While it’s long been possible to use a VPN to “tunnel” through to that country and stream, the problem is the huge amount of data bandwidth video streaming uses. Running it through a separate network, encrypting it, then sending it down the line to Australia for you to decrypt and play puts a huge amount of strain on both the VPN network and the connection you make to it. Most VPN services weren’t really built for such uses, after all.
Instead, you set up your computer or device to use a special DNS – the “name server” that knows where the streaming service is located, and connects to it. The streaming service checks where the DNS is located, and once everything checks out, sends back the address of the video stream – which your computer/device can then connect to directly, as no more location checks are done. The result is fast and smooth streaming from as far away as the US or UK.
Because DNS Proxy services are very cheap to subscribe to and easy to use, they’ve become hugely popular – which is why Netflix, at the request of TV and movie studios, changed the way their geo-blocking works so that it checks where you are at every stage of the process. So far, other services haven’t made this extra step.
A far more useful tool than the low-cost proxy, a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a service that you set up on your PC which then sends all internet traffic through a server owned by the VPN provider. Most good VPN services offer a range of locations around the world that you can connect to, and once you’re hooked up, your online location becomes the location of the VPN server itself.
In addition, all traffic both to and from this server is encrypted – making it impossible for anyone else to read or understand even if they were able to intercept it along the way. This has long made VPNs extremely popular for business use, especially when there is sensitive information involved – finance details, legal material, and so on.
In an age where a lot of people are becoming aware of a growing lack of privacy online, though, VPNs have become extremely popular with people that just want to use the internet as they always do, but safe in the knowledge that nobody at any stage of the link can store, read or use their data. Private information stays private, and there’s nothing the data retention laws can do about it.
A good VPN (and the many, many VPN services on offer differ hugely in quality) might also guarantee a certain level of speed for uses that require it, such as streaming. Using a fast VPN, you’re free to stream from any country you like – though before you get too excited about global Netflix, keep in mind that they’ve blocked many known VPN servers around the world as part of their “crackdown”.
Almost all well-respected VPN services offer a free trial period where you can road-test the service to see if it meets your needs; if you’re thinking of going down the VPN route, take advantage of as many of them as possible. Only you can tell if a VPN meets your needs – there is always some kind of trade-off, whether it’s speed, response time, or price. For those concerned with privacy, you’ll also want to verify that the company does not keep server logs on their end. If they don’t (and they shouldn’t!), they’ll usually say so.
If you want your entire home network running through a VPN all the time, there are a range of modems and routers that can do this – the current range from Asus handle VPNs seamlessly, for example.
And finally, if you’re looking for the best of both worlds, DNS proxy service Getflix gives its subscribers access to a full VPN service as well for no extra charge. It’s far from being the fastest VPN out there, but if you fall more into the category of “want to watch Hulu and HBO, but occasionally want to buy something from a store in Mexico” then it’s quite possibly an ideal compromise.
So Which One Do I Need?
- If you want access to overseas streaming sites, get a DNS Proxy
- If you want overall privacy and security, go for a trusted VPN
- Check VPN web sites for assurance they don’t keep logs
- You can bypass most geoblocks with a VPN too, but test them out first
- To unblock US Netflix, a VPN is your best bet – but not all will work
- Always try before you buy – all services have free trials