Dissidents and whistleblowers; journalists who value their sources; entrepreneurs, but also regular civilians: everyone benefits from online anonymity and anonymous browsing. But how do you achieve that, and how safe are ‘safe’ methods of protecting your online surfing? Most browsers offer a privacy mode, for instance but how anonymous do they make you?
Anonymous browsing, at home or in the workplace, is no rocket science. There are many options for being online incognito, and it doesn’t make much of a difference if you use Mac, Windows, Linux, or Android. As long as you choose the right solution for your device.
The easiest step is using the special ‘incognito mode’ or ‘private browsing mode’ that most browsers feature as standard option. When engaged, this mode makes sure your computer doesn’t log your browsing history.
This simple tool comes in handy when you’ve googled a present for someone with access to your computer. And you don’t want to spoil the surprise. You should also use this tool on public computers. The next person to use the computer won’t be able to see the websites you visited.
Most of these incognito modes block ‘cookies’ as well. These small files install themselves on your computer (after asking your permission) and store information about your visits to the website in question, password settings, et cetera. Later, cookies help you accessing the site on a new visit. But also match advertising to your surfing habits.
Not many people realise how websites you visit in incognito mode, still store a lot of information about you. Which means websites (or rather, website owners) still know your physical location, your IP-address, your surfing behaviour, and which website you visit after you left theirs. This also means external parties like your internet provider, government institutions, or hackers who piggyback on your connection, are able to see what you do online.
True anonymity while in incognito mode, is a rarity, but it does exist. The Opera browser uniquely offers a standard option to browse through a secure VPN connection. Your data will be encrypted and routed through a VPN-server, blocking any peeping Tom from your surfing.
Anonymous browsing: proxy servers
Another easy way for anonymous browsing is using so-called proxy servers. When you set up a proxy server in your browser, your computer connects to a website through a substitute server, instead of through your own. The ‘proxy’ serves as filter, sending you the data you need from the website. But sending the website data about the proxy only, thus playing the system to your advantage. The people behind the website will only be able to determine someone was on browsing their site, but not who it was. Nor will they be able to track your IP-address, which makes it relatively hard to track your online identity.
Many browsers give the option to enter a proxy server’s address as an option. Be advised a proxy doesn’t use any extra encryption. Using a proxy doesn’t fully protect your data, making it a relatively easy option to enhance your online anonymity. But one less safe then the next options: TOR, and VPN.
Privacy through TOR
TOR (brief for ‘The Onion Router’) could well be the best method for anonymous internetting. The only downside to it are its peculiarities. The first of which is the way it operates. TOR is an international network of interconnected computers, run by volunteers. After you log in using a special TOR-browser, your internet traffic is automatically routed through several computers, and encrypted anew at every new station. Hence the name of the network: its encryption is layered like an onion.
The downside of this excellent security method is TOR operates very slow. Processing the many steps your data need to go through hampers internet speeds considerably. This makes leisurely surfing, streaming, or downloading nigh impossible. In the end, this leaves TOR as an excellent option for those who really need anonymity, who can afford waiting. And who know exactly what they want to see or download online. For most users, this isn’t the case, leaving VPN as the best possible option for regular internet users who value their online privacy.
Anonymity through VPN
To be truly anonymous online, it’s imperative no-one has access to the data you send over the internet, and to your location. Currently, VPN offers the best possible option to check those boxes. With VPN, like TOR, your data is re-routed, from your internet provider to a VPN-provider.
The difference is that VPN does not use a TOR-like network of several computers that have to digest information independently. It only uses one access point to the internet, and thus operates much quicker.
One important aspect of VPN is you don’t rely on a browser that offers a VPN function. VPN replaces your regular internet connection, and in doing so requires no special software or devices to get things up and running. In fact, it’s rather easy to download Bittorrents, play games, stream video, through the apps you’re used to use for these activities. Online programs or services are no longer able to see where you are from, so you can circumvent geoblocks. And can’t link activities to your online presence. Websites and services only see the IP-address of your VPN-server. Effectively keeping you safe while browsing, streaming, and downloading.
Since a VPN-provider in theory is capable of retrieving your IP and other details, most providers make it absolutely clear they will abstain from that through a ‘no-log policy’ statement. Some will log absolutely no data about you whatsoever, while others keep a limited log (‘limited’ of course compared to regular services and websites).
In short, no VPN is the same, and it is important to compare their services. Also because VPN companies each have their own type of server network, geographical spread of countries you can select servers from, and different internet speeds – there’s a lot to choose from. To help you out, we reviewed the best VPN servers for you, detailing the benefits and downsides of each service.