Is Your VPN Leaking Your IP Address? Better Find Out.
One of the primary reasons people use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is to hide or disguise their true IP address while they're online. For instance, some sports fans can watch a game that's blacked out in their area by tricking a website into thinking the user/viewer, based on their IP address, is in another part of the country or world. (Whether that's fully legal is another matter).
Others who are concerned about their privacy hide their IP address because they don't want advertisers tracking their online behavior and purchases and then matching that information to their IP address.
Oftentimes, websites will deny a person's computer access by "blacklisting" their IP address, if that website feels someone has violated a rule. But by using a VPN, a user can get around the ban on their normal IP address. Better yet, websites have no way of finding out the true IP address.
That is, unless their VPN has a leak. Then they might have something to be concerned about.
Recently, news came out about a security flaw in VPN connections that may allow websites (or investigators) to track down a person's true IP address while they're using a VPN. That's not supposed to happen.
Review: how a VPN works.
Let's review a few basics about going online, browsing the Web and using a Virtual Private Network:
- Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) makes your Internet connection possible. When you go online, your ISP assigns an IP address to your computer or router. Your IP address becomes your Internet "pass"—your behind-the-scenes network ID.
- When you have a VPN account, your Internet connection still comes from your ISP (or whatever network you're connected to while online)—the office, Wi-Fi at the airport, etc.
- By logging in to your VPN and selecting the region or country you want to reroute through, the VPN assigns you a different, temporary working IP address—your real IP address is still working, but in the background, hidden.
- At that point, other networks and computers could see your "VPN" IP address, if they bothered to look for it.
So where's the problem? It happens to be built in to the Web browsers everyone uses.
There is a special interface (program) in most Internet browsers (Chrome, Firefox, etc.) called Web Real Time Communication, or WebRTC, and that's where the so-called flaw is.
However, WebRTC isn't a flaw at all. It's actually a special facet of your Web browser.
WebRTC allows computers on different networks to perform special browser-to-browser applications, such as voice calling, video chats, file sharing and more.
But as it turns out, in the hands of a technically savvy person, WebRTC can be tricked into revealing your actual IP address, even if you're actively using a VPN! That's certainly not what you would expect or want.
IP address revealed!
Here's how websites are fighting back: They have an IT person "write a few lines of code" (in other words, create a mini-program) to initiate or imitate a WebRTC-type connection with your browser. In the process, the program tricks the VPN into revealing the actual IP address. The website can then use the information to block the active connection.
Think of it as having a fake driver's license pasted over your real license. WebRTC is like an x-ray machine: Websites can see through the fake IP address and identify the real one...and then block it.
What happens next?
News travels very fast on the Internet. It's possible that the network administrators at Hulu, Netflix, Spotify, MLB Network—which have issues with people using VPNs illegally to access their sites—will start turning the tables on some people.
If and when they do, you may find that you can no longer get away with streaming movies or watching games or TV shows as you have been.
What can you do? Two things: 1) Check to see if your VPN is leaking your IP address and, if it is, 2) take steps to prevent it.
How to check for leaks.
If you have a VPN account, here's how you can check your account for leaks*:
- Open your browser, go to WhatIsMyIPAddress.com and jot down your IP address.
- Log in to your VPN, choose a remote server (as you regularly do) and verify that you're connected. Wait a few minutes.
- Revisit WhatIsMyIPAddress.com and take note of your IP address once more. You should see a new IP address, provided by your VPN connection.
- Here is the key step: Visit this WebRTC test page and note the IP address displayed on the page.
- If the WebRTC test shows your normal IP address, then your browser is leaking your ISP-provided address to the world.
You can count on WhatIsMyIPAddress.com around the clock to help you verify your Internet connection and determine if your VPN is leaking your IP address.
How to fix the leak.
There's no need to panic. You might be able to fix the VPN leak on your own, either by disabling WebRTC on your browser or installing a browser plug-in that blocks it.
The Chrome, Firefox, and Opera browsers operate with WebRTC active, or enabled, by default; Safari and Internet Explorer do not. (If the WebRTC test showed your true IP address, you have it enabled.) Here's how to disable it:
- For Chrome and Opera: Install the ScriptSafe extension from the Chrome Web Store, which will definitely disable WebRTC. It works for Opera as well, but it may be a cumbersome process to install it.
- For Firefox: There are two options: 1) Disable WebRTC directly by opening a tab and going to "about:config" in the address bar. Find and set the "media.peerconnection.enabled" setting to "false." 2) Install the "Disable WebRTC" add-on from Mozilla Add-ons (go to @YourAnonNews for the link).
Just so you know, disabling WebRTC may disrupt some Web apps and services, such as chat or other services involving your computer's microphone or camera. If that happens, you can always enable WebRTC temporarily to fix that.
* If you want to open a VPN account, visit our VPN comparison page with links to a few popular and reliable VPN providers.