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4 min read

Playing Hide-and-Seek: IP Masking, Proxies, and Anonymity

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Let’s face it, most of the time craving anonymity in cyberspace is an indication of nefarious intent. We’ve discussed the impact of IP Masking and the use of a Residential Proxy Server, and both are tools typically used to hide activity on a grand scale by internet scammers and ad fraud perpetrators. These tools can be accessed and deployed by the most casual internet user as well as users with advanced knowledge and grand designs.

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Sneaker Proxies: Exposing These Techniques

IP Masking

The practice of hiding your IP address from others and replacing it with a different IP address. For both legitimate and malicious intent, it is often used to preserve your anonymity on the internet and make it harder to identify your true location or associate certain web activities with you.

Residential proxy

A technique that obscures the IP address of someone (or something, like a bot) using the internet. Consider it like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. The invisibility works by routing traffic through an “intermediary server,” i.e., any device capable of accepting web traffic that passes it along to another device or website. This is typically done by simply linking internet gateways (think your cable modem or internet router devices) that exist in most homes, in any city or country, through software. This is sometimes done with the consent of the gateway’s owner and sometimes through malware without their consent.

Since the activity is being stopped and rerouted through a different device, that device’s IP address is relayed to the destination website instead of the actual origin device. This conceals or “masks” the real website visitor’s IP address from the website—thus, hiding who is friend or foe (security admins, hackers, and others). Sneaker proxies make it difficult to spot a user’s true or even any verified details about them–including if it’s a true human or bot user. 

For a deeper understanding, read our answer to What Are Residential Proxies?

Why Does Masking Continue to Exist? 

Why would internet service providers (ISPs) and the major players facilitating web traffic not do more to disrupt this behavior?

The simple answer is that there’s no way they could police this type of activity. The reality is internet anonymity is a luxury in some parts of the world, but it can be a necessity in others. 

Anonymity is a privilege, not a right.

Think about the white paper protests in China that happened in November 2022. These student demonstrators are prohibited from spreading their message on the internet by the central government in Beijing. One way these students can get the word out is via internet anonymity through IP masking and using proxy servers. If they hide their identity online, they can disseminate information about what’s really happening on the ground and not face reprisals from authorities.

Or consider the recent protests in Iran, where people have taken to the streets to protest the death of a young woman at the hands of religious authorities. The government in Iran holds a tight grip on information coming in or going out of the country. News of this struggle would have been contained if not for the ability to have internet anonymity and share what’s happening with the world.

So, yes, while these technologies can be used for fraudulent purposes, they do have some positive, legitimate applications. This tech is valuable, which is why this technology is ubiquitous, and why the major providers can only do so much. The net result is it’s your responsibility to find solutions to identify potential fraud instigated by scammers who use these tools.

The Value of a Proxy Lies in Intent

Why can’t Internet Service Providers police this sort of thing?

Residential proxies are just one way users can mask their identity, so there would still be considerable vulnerabilities even with the assistance of ISPs. You can ensure that you’re not losing out on real revenue-producing ad traffic when you use an ad fraud solution like Anura, which can differentiate fraudulent traffic from real traffic using more than just the traffic’s IP address. Anura’s ad fraud solution pulls data from hundreds of datapoints and can let clients know exactly how their data should look and how it interacts. Anura can then give our clients definitive direction on how they should differentiate real from bot traffic using one of our solution-based offerings.

While everyone loves free stuff, there is always a cost to “free” residential proxy servers. Many users get involved with residential proxies on the provider side, lured by the promise of using their home network or idle computing time to generate revenue. Ever download a free VPN client? When you install that free VPN client, that developer gets to use your internet for other purposes, which can include bouncing traffic off your connection making it look like other clients are coming from your IP address.Consumers don’t always realize they are hosting foreign traffic through their network, often surrendering any of their rights to prohibit this sort of access in the terms and conditions upon installation. In the end, they help provide a gateway and network that can be used for good or evil, depending on the operator at the other end. 

Time to Play Hide-and-Seek with Proxies 

Recently, there has been an explosion of activity around a new, specific type of proxy; Sneaker Proxies. There’s no denying the popularity of apparel and footwear among millennials and Gen Z consumers. The popularity of celebrity-endorsed sneaker designs has created a renewed demand that requires creative solutions. In order to acquire these “limited edition” releases, some consumers are learning to create residential proxies to help them bombard providers with requests in the hopes that they will get access to purchase the shoes. That’s right—people are learning to use this tech just for the privilege of buying celebrity-created shoes.

Purchasing products that are high in demand has produced some intricate and creative solutions. Unfortunately, this ingenuity has turned casual internet users into masters of anonymity. Ultimately, these techniques could be turned to nefarious purposes. Time will tell how these skills are adapted outside of the sneaker-proxy environment. The newest generation of internet users, Gen Z has already started changing the way we look at our physical landscape using new perspectives. Their aptitude with 3D modeling has led to a new and creative approach to building design that is rooted in their digital nativism. Could the same be said about developing anonymity and proxies? It’s already happening. 

Can Gen Z and Millennials help us find new and creative ways to apply proxy technology? Absolutely.

Will it be used to create fraud or develop new scams? Possibly. Yet, the goal is for it to produce more positive internet experiences and information sharing than malicious. 

Seeing Behind the Mask — Don’t Rely on Blocking IP Addresses Alone

Technology and creativity create a nexus of innovation that can be used for both positive and negative applications. If we rely on blunt solutions that can’t accurately differentiate between real and bot traffic, we risk losing real opportunities. A more nuanced solution is required to keep fake traffic out and let the good traffic in.

This is where an ad fraud solution can help.

Anura captures hundreds of data points about every website visitor you get—not just their IP address—to positively identify fraudulent traffic. With Anura, you won’t be throwing out good leads with the bad, and you’ll be able to stop fraudsters even when they try to hide behind IP masking techniques!

When Anura spots fraudulent activity in your ad campaigns, you aren’t just notified of the fraud. A report is assembled with all the information you need to confront the fraudster. This helps you protect your company, saves you valuable money, and lets you know exactly why a given interaction was flagged as fraud.

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