Browsing the Internet anonymously is virtually impossible, but there are ways to make it much harder for others to track your identity.
Each week a new story comes out about how Internet companies track your data everywhere, so it is no surprise that people want to find ways to be anonymous online. While it is extremely difficult to achieve complete anonymity, privacy is a continuum. By making more informed decisions, you can limit how much of your personal data is collected and shared. This will go a long way to making your browsing more private.
For those of you looking to truly go off the surveillance grid, this New York Times story details the steps one individual took to prevent anyone from being able to access identifying information. For everyone that cannot afford the measures he took (like buying a decoy house), this article will help you find the services and tools you need to maximize your online privacy at the minimum inconvenience.
Anonymous web browser
As the tool that connects to and displays websites, your browser has access to a trove of data, from your browsing history to your IP address to the make and model of your device. Once your browser has your data, it can share it with websites and other online trackers. To see what data your current browser is collecting (and potentially sharing), visit webkay. Given this level of access, your choice of browser can have a massive impact on your online privacy.
The most anonymous web browser is the Tor Browser. It encrypts your traffic three times and then routes it through three separate servers, known as “relays” or “nodes.” Each relay strips the outermost layer of encryption. This way, only the first relay knows your true IP address and only the third relay knows which site you are visiting. Tor can also allow you to access special onion sites that are harder to monitor and shut down than regular websites.
Tor is safe to use and your best choice when privacy is of the utmost importance. However, it is also complicated to set up, doesn’t work with all website features, and is slower than a standard Internet browser. Other, more user-friendly browsers offer privacy protection as well. However, these browsers mostly protect you from the trackers that advertisers and websites use to follow you around the Internet. These browsers are not anonymous and do not hide your IP address the same way Tor does.
Firefox is the world’s second-most popular browser. It has advanced privacy features, like Enhanced Tracking Protection, which makes it more difficult for online trackers to follow your activity across the Internet. Brave is another option. It is an open source browser that automatically blocks all advertisements and trackers by default. You can even access the Tor network using its Private Tab (the Brave version of an Incognito tab). Finally, for iOS and macOS users, the Safari browser has several strong privacy protections as well.
Google Chrome, the world’s most popular browser, is also, unfortunately, the least private. However, by adjusting the Activity settings in your Google Account, you can at least limit the amount of data Chrome can collect.
Browser add-ons that protect your privacy
Choosing a privacy-focused browser is a good start on the path to browsing the Internet more anonymously, but several steps remain. Even browsers that have good data protection, like Firefox, can share information about your location and device with online trackers. That is why browser add-ons are so crucial. They can supplement the browser’s protections and obfuscate some of the information it might be sharing.
One of the easiest privacy add-ons to use is Privacy Badger. Developed by the nonprofit organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy Badger learns over time what services and cookies are trying to track you and blocks them. You simply download it and let it do its thing.
An add-on that does a slightly more thorough job of blocking trackers is uBlock Origin (also available for Chrome). It has several comprehensive lists of trackers and cookies to block. Savvy users can also customize these lists and add new services that they wish to block. Best of all, uBlock Origin is efficient and blocks elements much faster than similar add-ons.
To prevent your browser from sharing data about your location, system, and device, you should use NoScript (also available for Chrome). It only allows trusted sources to run plugins like Java or Flash. While this protects your data, it can take some trial and error to know which plugins to allow to avoid breaking some websites.
(It should be noted that the Tor browser comes with HTTPS Everywhere and NoScript already built-in.)
A VPN routes your online traffic through an encrypted tunnel, preventing your ISP or any attackers from monitoring your online activity. It also redirects your traffic through a VPN server, which masks your IP address and the physical location of your device from websites. While no VPN service will ever be as anonymous as Tor, it also does not have the limitations that come with Tor. A VPN provides fast connection speeds, works with any browser, and allows its users to stream videos and share files over P2P networks.
However, when you connect to a VPN server, the VPN provider can see the same kind of data that your ISP could when not using a VPN. This includes your online activity and your IP address, so it is essential that you only use trustworthy VPN services.
Proton VPN has a strict no logs policy, which means that it does not record any of your online activity. Our no logs policy has been audited by independent experts, and we publish the results on our website. Proton VPN also comes with advanced security features, like Kill Switch, which immediately shuts down your Internet connection if you are disconnected from your VPN server, and Tor over VPN, which allows you to connect to the Tor network with a single click.
Anonymous search engines
Google monitors and records every search query it receives to build up a profile on each of its users. Even if you’re not logged in to your Google account, it can use information about your IP address, your device, and your geographic location to single you out from other users. It uses those profiles to determine which ads to show to whom.
Considering how much people rely on search engines to navigate the Internet, your search history is almost as revealing as your browsing history. While there are steps you can take to prevent Google from linking your searches to your account, like adjusting your Activity settings or logging out of your Google account before typing in your query, it is much easier to use a search engine that protects user privacy by default.
The most popular anonymous search engine is DuckDuckGo. It does not collect any of your personal information or connect your searches to form a profile on you, making it impossible to track your activity. Startpage and Qwant are two other search engines that do not collect personal data.
Your email address is your digital passport. You need an email address to set up just about every online account. By using a different email address for each account, you will make it more difficult for online trackers to assemble a complete picture of your online activity. This only works if your email service is anonymous. Fortunately, Proton Mail does not require any personal information to set up a free email account. It also accepts Bitcoin and cash payments for its premium plans and has an onion site so that you can access it anonymously via Tor.
Once you start going down the rabbit hole of trying to limit access to your personal data, it can be hard to stop. So many organizations have access to the data of the average person. For those looking to go the extra mile to be anonymous online, there are some additional steps you can take.
- Turn off location tracking: Websites can get your location from your laptop or smartphone. Turn off the location tracking on your device, and don’t forget to clear your device’s location history. Here are some guides that can help you turn off location tracking (and other data collection) for Android, iOS, and Windows 10.
- Avoid social networks entirely: Obviously, anything shared over Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter is public and can reveal substantial amounts of information. A photo of the meal you just cooked will show the GPS coordinates of where it was taken unless you have turned off location tracking. Even if you do not post anything, Facebook and Twitter closely monitor your activity on their site to build up their databases.
- Share files anonymously: Avoid using Google Drive and Dropbox. We have already discussed all the privacy issues that come with using a Google service, and Edward Snowden called Dropbox “very hostile to privacy.” If you need to share files with someone, use the open source and anonymous Onion Share.
- Do not use your credit card: Every time you pay for a purchase using your credit card, your purchase is recorded. Even if the data is anonymized, attackers can identify you using the totality of your purchases. Moreover, to make a payment with a credit card online, you must give the website your name and address. To protect your privacy, do not use credit cards on- or offline. While purchasing items with Bitcoin is a more private option online, the most anonymous way to conclude any purchase is with cash.
- Use a privacy-focused operating system: Tails is to operating systems what the Tor browser is to web browsers: it is the most private and anonymous solution currently available. You can use it on any computer without leaving a trace.
- Minimize the personal data you expose offline: To achieve true anonymity, you must also consider which organizations have access to your data offline as well. Most of the steps in the New York Times story mentioned at the top of this article involve removing your information from public databases, like the Department of Motor Vehicles. While this individual went to extremes (not everyone is going to create their own LLC), some of his strategies, like using a basic GPS device (not your smartphone) for directions, making phone calls using temporary phone numbers from a second phone number app, and encrypting your devices, can be used by everyone to protect their private data.
Proton VPN’s mission is to make a private and secure Internet available to all. We believe everyone has the right to access information and content online without handing over reams of personal data to governments or corporations. To protect your online activity with VPN encryption, sign up for a free Proton VPN account today.
With your support, we will continue to develop the tools necessary to evade the mass surveillance that dominates the Internet. Until then, please use this guide to protect your personal data. Just because you can’t be anonymous online doesn’t mean you can’t make a profound improvement in your online privacy.
The Proton VPN Team
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