The revelations by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 about the mass surveillance programmes organised by the US and other governments still cast a long shadow.
Many people feel that anonymity is no longer possible online, and that anything that they say or do is being monitored – not just by governments but by big companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft, which collect data in order to serve up targeted advertising.
But there are some measures that web users can take to protect their anonymity, and minimise the risk of spying and targeted advertising. While none of these are a silver bullet, they can go some way to making online surveillance more difficult.
A VPN (virtual private network) acts as an intermediary between your device and the internet server, routing all your activity through your own little loop of the internet that is encrypted, meaning an intruder would find it very difficult to sniff out your information or know what you’re doing, whether this is on a mobile, tablet or computer.
Proxy servers are tools that have their own IP addresses, so instead of your IP address showing up when you go to a website, the proxy server’s IP address will appear instead. However, this isn’t a foolproof method for staying anonymous online. If you commit illegal or immoral acts, the proxy server will surrender your real IP address.
If you are worried about hackers or government entities seeing what you’re reading online, one option is to download your files onto a virtual machine and then shut off that machine’s access to the internet. You can then open the the files, read them and make notes in private, safe in the knowledge that no one is peeking over your virtual shoulder.
Most people use Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome or Apple Safari to browse the web, but if anonymity is what you’re after, The Onion Router (Tor) is what you need. It uses a vast network of computers to route your web traffic through a number of encrypted layers to obscure the origin of the traffic.
There are some programs that block other IP addresses from accessing your computer. These won’t keep your IP address anonymous per se, but it will prevent people from tracing you by looking into your internet activities. The disadvantage to this approach is that blocking IP addresses limits your ability to access the internet.
Third-party cookies are one of the most common methods that advertisers use to track people’s browsing habits. However, every major web browser now offers the ability to block cookies, and all websites in the EU allow users to opt out, making it much harder for advertisers to monitor which pages you visit.
It can be tempting to use the same password for multiple sites, but this is a massive security risk, because if one website is hacked, every site that you use is also in jeopardy. A password manager will remember the passwords for each site you visit so you don’t have to, allowing you to create strong and even random passwords for each one. Read more…