The web is a tricky place, getting trickier. If you are worried about leaking your identity online, then you are not alone. Millions of users share these concerns and take steps to stay anonymous on the Internet.
A little common sense and a few good tools go a long way here!
Online surveillance is not just a reality these days, it is a constant threat. Secret agents that track all your online activities, even in private mode on the latest web browsers can be an absolute menace. Besides that, there are still plenty of other legitimate reasons to hide your identity on the web.
We take a look at what you can do to accomplish this.
Go with a VPN
Without doubt, the first thing anyone would recommend to stay anonymous is to sign up with a VPN provider — a reputable one that is, preferably, located overseas. This is a solution that acts as an encrypted conduit for your online activities and ensures that your ISP and other snoopy organizations can’t monitor and trace what you are doing on the Internet.
When it comes to virtual private network providers, it pays to go with a paid premium solution. There are plenty of free ones available, and they are by no means illegitimate, but there have been horror stories of user data either accidentally leaking or deliberately sold to fund operations.
Yes, some VPN providers are known to do that, hence the importance of a reputable company.
To add to that, free providers have also been found to insert their own content into your traffic. For example, they may replace third-party ads with their own. And the worst part is that this is not always transparent.
You need a VPN service that is 100% on your side, always.
Do a little research, read up on user reviews and then choose to go with the most reliable and feature-rich option that is available. As long as you do your due diligence, a VPN will offer you a nice peace of mind by encrypting your network traffic, making it impossible to spy on you.
Of course, this also comes with an added benefit. Choosing a VPN provider in another country opens up the possibility of accessing content that may not be available in your location. Can’t go wrong with this!
The Tor affair
Tor is a multilayered approach to online privacy, and one of the best paths you can take to hide your online identity. The word itself stands for “The Onion Router”, appropriate because this is a service that routes your Internet traffic through multiple servers before it reaches its destination.
Nothing new here, of course, as that is how the Internet actually works. But what sets Tor apart is that it adds an encryption element to the deal, where each node that your data passes through decrypting a little more of the packet. This means that anyone that tries to intercept your data while in transit will not have a complete record of your activity.
If you want to give Tor a go, you can do so by visiting its website.
You can download a browser based on Firefox that will route all your traffic through the Tor network. If Chrome is more your thing, then you can also find several extensions in the Chrome Web Store. The only major downside to Tor, for the general user, is that its performance is understandably not very good. It is almost like going back to the dialup days of the 90s.
But on the whole, Tor, just like a VPN, does a good job of concealing your location.
That said, it is not exactly foolproof in the sense that researchers have found a way to tear through the obfuscation and discovered ways to work out the origin of Tor packets. However, if you simply want to prevent your Internet activity from being reliably tracked, and can live with the dip in speed, its convoluted routing is worth a look.
Hide the fingerprints
Staying anonymous is more than just making sure your traffic is not intercepted. The websites you visit can also build an alarmingly detailed profile of your visits, interests and activities — this is particularly true for social networks like Facebook that follow you around.
It happens even when using supposedly private web browsers that don’t store cookies.
This is done by recognizing the device you use to connect, and recording the combination of your browser, memory, graphics hardware, screen resolution and all these minute system details. In other words, the distinctive hardware and configuration of your computer acts like a fingerprint, which these sites use to identify you every time you come back.
Unfortunately, there is not much you can do here, short of swapping out your hardware repeatedly to show these websites that you are a different person.
Worse yet, this fingerprinting data is usually not limited to a single website. It is shared and sold, meaning even the sites that you have never visited before can identify and track you as you move around the web. Ever seen a sneaky ad following you from one website to another? Even when you are not accepting cookies? You are not alone.
You can also try and look for browser extensions that help with blocking specific fingerprint techniques. Online tracking is serious business, and unfortunately not anything that is going away anytime soon, what with all the players involved in this space.
But every small step helps.
Tips to stay anonymous online
It may sound like the quest for online privacy is hopeless. And by some metrics it is. But the average user, if he wants to stay away from snoopy eyes, can put in some effort and maintain a degree of privacy and protect himself online.
This involves not just technical measures and using services like Tor or a VPN, but also good usage habits that make it difficult for others to pinpoint you.
For starters, sign up for a reputable, paid VPN and use that all the time. For added peace of mind, get a router that has VPN capabilities built in. This way you can protect your entire home. Of course, this protection will go away when you use a mobile connection.
Install the Tor browser as well, and keep it handy for when you want to pad up your protection.
It’s a good idea to set up a small computer purely for browsing — an inexpensive Raspberry Pi is ideal for this casual use. You can wipe it off and start fresh whenever you want, all it will take is a few minutes and all tracking data from the device will be removed.
Be wary of installing extensions, as they can easily compromise your anonymity. Since they run locally, these browser addons and plugins can pass information about your computer to other parties. That said, the HTTPS Everywhere extension is a great way to ensure that your device always connect securely to servers. It is available for Chrome, Firefox and Opera, on Windows and Android.
Goes without saying, you should never follow web links in your email client or in PDF files that you downloaded off the web.
If you are a cloud user, and want to protect your privacy, look into a service that lets you upload your data and secure it by encrypting it. This obviously means that you will need to keep your key someplace secure and never lose it, because otherwise there will be no way to recover your backed-up data.
And finally, switching to and using a search engine like DuckDuckGo as opposed to Google and Bing is also a sensible way of protecting your privacy. That is because it neither stores nor shares any information about you at all.