Real Private Browsing: A Beginner’s Guide to Using the Internet Anonymously
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Most web surfers today know about private browsing – you just click to open a new ‘incognito’ tab in your browser and hey presto you can now browse the internet to your heart’s content without anybody being able to see what you have been doing. Right?
If you want your illusions about the ‘private browsing’ feature check out this site: Private Browsing Myths. It looks at exactly what this feature does do and doesn’t do. The conclusion: You can’t see your past activity, but the rest of the internet can. In other words, it is fine if your only goal is to prevent the embarrassment of your partner accidentally seeing which porn websites you’ve been visiting when they borrow your laptop, but it won’t stop advertisers, criminal hackers, government agencies, employers, insurance companies, and god knows who else, from breaching your privacy and spying on everything you do online.
If you want real private browsing, then please read on as this guide will teach you everything you need to learn about browsing the internet anonymously.
What You Need to Know to Use The Internet Anonymously
If you are really serious about your privacy and making sure that you do everything right then it is worth spending a few minutes learning about how it all works. If you just want a quick start guide to get started browsing the internet anonymously as soon as possible then feel free to skip past this section and go straight on to our guide to private browsing tools.
There are three main ways that people can track you on the internet.
The first is using something called ‘cookies’. These are small bits of code that websites can put onto your computer through your browser when you visit them. They stay on your computer after you leave the site and can be used to track and monitor your online behaviour. Stopping these is relatively easy – the private browsing tab will do it, or you can delve into your browser’s settings to do it yourself. You can also enable do not track, but this is not enforceable in any way, so you would be trusting people to respect your wishes, which they often won’t.
The second is through your IP address. An IP address is effectively the internet address of your computer. Everyone on the internet must have an IP address to send information to each other, just like you must have a physical address to communicate by post. This address can be used by observers to connect everything you do on the internet with your computer. To view your IP address and some and the location information it reveals about you visit this website.
A third method is through your device fingerprint. When you visit websites, they are able to access information about the machine you are using. This is often very useful – it tells them whether to display the full webpage or mobile-friendly version, for example. But because there are so many different possible combinations of settings, different apps and extensions installed, and so on, that each computer today is as unique as a fingerprint. This can be used to recognize a machine and associate it with a particular person even if your IP address was concealed.
Another factor worth taking into consideration is encryption. Even without tracking your machine or downloading spy software onto your computer, it is possible for a malicious observer to breach your privacy by spying on data, which may include private or sensitive information, as it travels between your computer and servers of the website or app you are using. Encryption ensures that they can’t do this. Security sensitive sites such as online banking use https encryption so that hackers can’t intercept your bank details and steal your money. Other websites may offer the choice of an encrypted or unencrypted connection, or may not offer encryption at all.
Software Tools for Real Private Browsing
VPN & Proxy Technology
VPN stands for ‘Virtual Private Network’, and can be thought of as the next level up from the private browsing tab. Virtual private networks do exactly what the name suggests – they use software to create the effect of a private network between a set of computers. This has uses beyond private browsing of the web, for example creating a company network that works like a private WAN but operates over the regular internet connection. They do this by creating a ‘tunnel’ across the internet which only members of the network can use.
When used for surfing the net they generally involve a server which acts as a proxy server for your computer. What this means is that when you visit a website, there is a server on VPN, and this server acts as a kind of middleman, relaying information between you and the website.
Because it is the server which directly accesses the website rather than your computer, this will hide your IP address from the website. As the IP address is the main way that observers identify different computers, this makes it harder for people to recognize and track your computer and its internet use.
If you live in a country where there are restrictions on the websites you can visit this has the added benefit of allowing you to bypass any blocks or firewalls. This is because you are only connecting to the VPN server, which may be in a different country with more relaxed laws, and it is this server which accesses the restricted content and provides it to you.
Proxy servers work in a similar way to VPN services, but are less comprehensive. A proxy works purely through your browser, whereas a VPN creates an entire private internet tunnel. Whereas proxy servers may cause some web content to not work correctly, and will not hide your identity when using apps or software beyond the browser, a VPN will generally not suffer from these problems.
Most VPN services include encryption to keep all your communications private, but the strength of this encryption will vary, so this may be an area to look into when selecting which service to use.
Although a VPN service will increase your levels of privacy, it is far from a perfect solution. Firstly, some websites may still be able to use your ‘device fingerprint’ (See above) to recognize and track you. In addition to this, some VPN providers keep logs of all the traffic through their network, and will provide these to government agencies if requested.
For a VPN provider which doesn’t slow down your browsing and which doesn’t keep logs, and which allows you to choose between servers in many different countries (so you can view a page as it would appear to users in your choice of country – useful for things which aren’t available in your country due to anything from different release dates to government censorship) take a look at IPVanish.
The Onion Router (TOR)
TOR is a privacy network that can be used to hide your IP address and device fingerprint. In a similar way to the VPN services described above, an ‘exit node’ will request information from the website you wish to visit, so that you do not need to make a direct request yourself that could be tracked. Unlike a VPN, there are many TOR exit nodes, and rather than connecting directly to the exit node your request is bounced around the network a little before going to its destination, which makes it very difficult to track.
TOR is the most popular tool for anonymous internet use today. It is also free, very easy to use, and offers access to some of the deep web‘s most popular ‘hidden services’ which are inaccessible to non-TOR users. All you need to do is to download a new browser from the TOR website and then use it whenever you want to make yourself anonymous online.
Most people consider TOR to be superior to a VPN, largely because there is no central server whose logs can be passed onto to government agencies who wish to spy on you. But it is still not perfect. It does noticeably slow down your internet connection, for example. It is also possible for an observer to see that you are using Tor, which in some countries may get you put onto a government watchlist as somebody to keep a closer eye on. Using a VPN in combination with Tor solves this issue and provides the highest level of privacy and security.
A personal computer and website server can connect using either a http:// or a https:// connection. The https type of connection includes encryption, which improves your privacy and security. Your computer will generally use http by default, but security sensitive services such as online banking will force you to go through a https connection.
A service called Https Everywhere will try to use this more secure connection by default. Not all websites are set up to allow this, but there are many sites out there which offer https but do not force it, so using this service can improve your levels of privacy and data security.
TOR has integrated Https Everywhere into its browser, but you can also use this service with other browsers.
Device Fingerprint Spoofing
If you really want to take the most vigorous possible measures to protect your anonymity then you may consider some additional methods to stop people tracking your ‘device fingerprint’. These measures can range from the very simple to the the complex and expensive. One simple measure, for example, is to refrain from maximizing your browser window, because when you do so the websites you visit will be able to see your screen size and use this as part of the fingerprinting process. If you have money to spend then you may also be able to find complex and often expensive software such as FraudFox, which will continually make minor adjustments to your computer’s settings, effectively changing the fingerprint enough to prevent anyone from tracking it.
Alternatives to Common Services Which Breach Privacy
Another important consideration is to use online services which respect your privacy. For example, Google is one of the main culprits when it comes to tracking people online and storing huge amounts of information about them. Using an alternative search engine such as DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t spy on its users, can significantly improve your privacy online. This can also help you to break out of the bubble of personalized search results, allowing you to get a more objective view of the internet.
Another big culprit when it comes to breaches of personal privacy is your email provider. They may scan the content of your emails for advertising purposes, and they may also send your emails via an insecure connection allowing third parties to spy on your communications. Encrypted email services offer a good solution to this problem.
And of course privacy is arguably most vital when it comes to your finances, so I would also wholeheartedly recommend that you replace your current online banking, and online payment methods, with the use of a more secure alternative such Bitcoin.
Here’s a nice infographic on using encrypted connections from firstsiteguide.com for those of you who’d like to delve a little deeper into the details:
HTTP vs. HTTPS – Cheat Sheet was created by Firstsiteguide.com