21 tips, tricks and shortcuts to help you stay anonymous online
1. SECURE WEBMAIL WITH EXTENSIONS
If you’re using a popular webmail service, such as Gmail or Yahoo Mail, and you don’t or can’t make the switch to a more secure service, then consider installing Mailvelope. Mailvelope is a browser extension for Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox that brings OpenPGP encryption to your webmail service. Similar extensions exist, such as SecureGmail, which encrypts and decrypts emails you send through Gmail. Using this extension means the unencrypted text should never reach Google servers. Recipients will need to install the extension in order to decrypt and read the encrypted email.
This is perhaps one of the most basic privacy options that just about anyone can take advantage of. The top four most popular browsers – Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Safari – have a private browsing mode, which can be found in their respective settings menus. With private browsing activated, your browser will not store cookies or internet history on your computer. This has very limited uses and is perhaps really only effective at hiding your browsing history from your significant other, siblings or parents. Private browsing does not securely hide your identity or browsing activities beyond your local machine as your IP address can still be tracked.
3. DON’T USE SOCIAL MEDIA
The amount of personal data that social networking sites like Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter have harvested from their billions of users is shocking. Head to facebook.com/settings and click ‘Download a copy of your Facebook data’ and you might be surprised to see just how much information is on file. Everything from who you have poked, what events you have or have not attended and when and where you have logged into your account is logged and saved. Similar levels of data harvesting occurs on all major social media sites. This is the price you pay for using a ‘free’ service. The only sure-fire way to avoid giving up this information is to delete your accounts entirely. A word of warning, ‘deactivating’ your account is not the same as deleting it. Deactivating your account is sort of like putting it into hibernation – all your information is stored and can be re-activated if you have second thoughts. Always delete rather than deactivate an account if you wish to completely wipe it.
4. BLOCK AND MANAGE TRACKERS
A large amount of websites track and collect the browsing habits of the users that visit them. These trackers are invisible and most people aren’t aware that they’re being tracked. Ghostery is a free browser extension – available on all major web browsers – that will reveal these trackers, also known as web bugs. You can then decide which web bugs you’re comfortable tracking you and which ones you’d like to block. In total, Ghostery keeps track of over 1,900 companies. Each company has a profile in the Ghostery Knowledge Library, allowing you to better understand who and why someone is keeping tabs on you and what action you would like to take.
5. ENCRYPTED EMAIL
Most of the well known and popular email services – Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, Outlook – are not particularly privacy-friendly. For full Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encrypted emails, consider signing up to a more secure provider. Hushmail is currently very popular, it provides a private email account with no ads, built-in encryption and unlimited email aliases. A limited free service is offered, with more features available for a monthly subscription fee. However, Hushmail is not above the law and in the past it has been forced to reveal user data to U.S. authorities following a court order. The company also logs user IP addresses. MyKolab is a similar service that has not revealed any user information in the past, however, they are also obliged to provide access to lawful interception requests so this still remains a possibility.
6. TEMPORARY EMAIL
Disposable Email Addresses (DEAs) are anonymous and temporary. They allow users to quickly create new email addresses as-and-when they’re needed, which can then be disposed of after use. This is particularly useful for avoiding spam when filling in forms on websites that require an email address to proceed. Keeping your real email address away from spammers is crucial to protecting your identity online and DEAs are a great solution. Popular providers of this service include Guerrilla Mail and Mailinator, although there are hundreds out there to choose from. Most DEAs are not particularly secure, so it is not advised to use these services to send sensitive information – rather, use them as a way to avoid giving away your own information in situations where you are obliged to do so.
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are one of the most effective ways to protect your privacy online. A VPN essentially hides your IP address – your unique online identifier – and runs all your online data via a secure and encrypted virtual tunnel, which can keep websites from tracking your online activity or even knowing which country you’re browsing from. These days, there are many VPNs to choose from. Hotspot Shield, TorGuard, CyberGhost and HideMyAss are some more popular ones that are currently available. Most of them require a small monthly subscription fee and they don’t all provide the same list of features, so it’s worth shopping around for a VPN that suits you.
Originally developed with the U.S. Navy in mind as a way to protect government communications, Tor is a network of “virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet.” Tor’s anonymity network allows access to the ‘deep’ or ‘hidden’ web, where websites can be created anonymously and individuals can communicate privately with each other. When using the Tor browser – which can be downloaded for free from torproject.org – it is very difficult for websites or individuals to track your online activity and location. However, while Tor is quite effective at protecting your online anonymity, it can be slow, complicated and restricting. It’s also worth noting that while the network can and has been used for good, it has also been used for illicit purposes, such as selling drugs and distributing images of child abuse.
9. PROXY SERVER
A proxy server is a computer through which your online activity can be processed, essentially acting as an intermediary between your computer and the internet. As such, this can be a great way to maintain your online anonymity as the proxy basically masks your IP address with its own. If the proxy is based in a different country than your own, you can fool websites and trackers into thinking you’re browsing from a completely different continent. There are many ways to use proxies and there are various free and paid services on offer. HideMyAss.com/proxy has a limited free web proxy service that you can start using immediately if you’d like try it out.
10. HTTPS EVERYWHERE
Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) is the encrypted version of HTTP, the technology protocol which determines how web servers and browsers respond to commands and how messages are sent and received. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF) HTTPS Everywhere is a neat little extension – available on Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Opera – that forces websites to use HTTPS, even when they default to the less secure and unencrypted HTTP. By EFF’s own admission it’s still feasible for “some attackers to break HTTPS,” but it’s certainly not a bad idea to install their extension as HTTPS is still far more secure than HTTP and will certainly help to protect your privacy and consequently maintain your anonymity. EFF is a nonprofit organisation that seeks to defend civil liberties in the digital world.