Dissidents and whistleblowers; journalists who value their sources; entrepreneurs, and also regular civilians: everyone benefits from online anonymity and anonymous browsing. In today’s world, when every government and every app is tracking you every more, anonymity has become not just a craze of the paranoid, but an imperative.
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 staying incognito online, 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.
Incognito Mode: anonymity for beginners
The easiest step is using the special ‘Incognito Mode’ or ‘Private Browsing Mode’ that most browsers feature as a 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 mode 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… for the most part) and store information about your visits to the website in question, password settings, et cetera. Later, cookies make it easier for you to access the sites on your following visits. But they also match advertising to your surfing habits.
However useful, not many people realize how websites you visit in incognito mode, still store a lot of information about you. This means websites (or rather, website owners) still know your physical location, your IP-address, your surfing behavior, and even which website you visit after you left theirs.
This also means external parties such as your internet provider, government institutions, or hackers who piggyback on your connection, are able to see what you do online.
True anonymity in incognito mode is hard to come by, 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 Toms from your private surfing.
Proxy Servers: a step towards anonymity
Another easy way to browse the web (somewhat) anonymously is using the 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 your own. The ‘proxy’ serves as a filter, sending you the data you need from the website. But at the same time, it sends the website data about the proxy itself, thus playing the system to your advantage. The people behind the website will only be able to determine that someone has been browsing their site, but not who it was. Nor will they be able to find out your IP-address, which makes it relatively hard to track you.
Many browsers give the option to enter a proxy server’s address and browse through it.
Be advised a proxy doesn’t use any extra encryption so it doesn’t do much to protect your online data. Sure, proxies may help you access websites that are blocked in your country or region, but they are way less safe, secure, and reliable than the next options on our list: Tor, and VPN.
But one less safe than the next options: TOR, and VPN.
TOR: Anonymous browsing reinvented
TOR (brief for ‘The Onion Router’) could well be the best method for anonymous internetting. The only downside to it is 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 (nodes), 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 slowly. Processing the many steps your data needs 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, and who can afford waiting. And who knows exactly what they want to see or download online. For most, however, this isn’t the case, leaving VPN as the best possible option for regular Internet users who value their online privacy.
VPN: the ultimate tool for online privacy
To be truly anonymous online, it’s imperative no one has access to the data you send over the Internet. And currently, VPNs are the only tool to offer you true anonymity.
With a VPN, just 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.
With a VPN at your disposal, no online program or service will be able to see where you are from. And this doesn’t just help you mask your identity and activities but also bypass geoblocks. All thanks to websites and services not being able to determine your real location — only the VPN servers’.
All of this will keep you safe and anonymous while browsing, streaming, or downloading.
Since a VPN-provider in theory is capable of retrieving your IP and other details, most providers adhere to a ‘no-log policy’. Some log absolutely no data about you whatsoever, while others keep limited logs (compared to regular services and websites).
In short, no VPN is the same so it is important to compare their services. To help you out, we reviewed the best VPN providers for you, detailing the benefits and downsides of each service.
And there you have it!
In today’s high-tech reality everything is constantly tracking and monitoring you. And if you feel that’s a bit too Black Mirror, well… it’s because it is.
We’ve taken a close look at all of the options at your immediate disposal to keep some of your precious information safe, secure, and private. From the baby-step that is Incognito Mode, to the godlike VPNs.
Now it’s up to you to choose, how much of your information you want to protect online.