How to Anonymously Surf Online

Carsten Podszun

The European Union's (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is seen by many as the first effort in favor of greater data security and anonymity online, however, this has been fueled by years and even decades of encroachments by the private and state sectors. The fact is, people provide more data than ever for those willing to harvest it, allowing for their digital fingerprints to be relatively easily discerned. But what does deleting browser cookies or encrypting emails actually do? Are these measures enough to stay safe and anonymous online?

The answer is simple: no. This is because ISPs, websites, and authorities track your IP address, activity, and even the hardware of your devices, all with relative ease. This information allows for your digital fingerprint to be more recognizable than you could imagine. Deleting browser data or history is a band-aid approach, and does little to stymie the flow of potentially sensitive information from you to those you have not knowingly shared it with. Below, we've summarized what possibilities there are for surfing the net anonymously, and which advantages and disadvantages each method possesses.

Why Surf Anonymously?

Internet anonymity does not only provide you with greater security, but it also makes your life easier. Most websites use geo-blocking to limit access to content which is available only to particular, geographically-defined audiences. With an anonymous IP address based in a particular country, you can circumvent this restriction and access the content as if you were physically in that location. In addition, remaining anonymous online allows for your to protect sensitive and personal data, since many services also encrypt your activity. This makes it difficult for hackers, ISPs, and others to follow, or retrace your activity.

When you aren't actively engaged in preserving your anonymity online, you risk exposing a lot more than just your IP address. Website operators can see what browser you are using, which specifications your device has, and even which fonts you have installed. This unique combination allows for your device to be precisely identified, like a digital fingerprint. Combined with your activity times, a complete profile can be created about you: When you wake up, when you work, and when you are at home. With additional plugins and tracking tools, such as those used by Google or Facebook, your IP address can even be used to determine your real identity. Scared yet?

Browser Privacy Check

EXPERTE.com's browser privacy check reveals which spurs you and your browser leave when surfing. The test should create awareness about which data websites and advertisers can use to create a profile of you, or follow your activity online.

How Can I Surf Anonymously?

So, you don't like the idea that someone (or some people) are monitoring your Internet activity? The good news is that you can do something about it, right now! Below, we've summarized a few of the most common methods for gaining or preserving online anonymity.

Proxy Websites
The easiest way to conceal your IP address is through use of a proxy website. These sites can be accessed via your browser, and connect you to the URL you input, albeit, through different servers. One of the oldest proxy website is anonymouse.org. This helpful rodent does not support SSL or URL encryption, however, it is free to use (with ads) and reliable.

Proxy websites are good solutions in case you need to do something quickly, however, compared to paid services, the connection speed is much slower, and you need to be wary of whether the proxy site is bona fide.

Proxy Server Services

A proxy server service functions similarly to a proxy website. Your traffic is routed through a server which replaces your IP address with that of the service.

For example, when using JonDo, you only need to input the local address of the JonDo client as your proxy server's address. The client then encrypts your connection, and executes a cascade mix, protecting your personal data and concealing your IP address. The developer relies solely on licensed mix-drivers, to ensure that the service remains secure and independent. JonDo is basically free, whereby, its performance is markedly better in its premium (paid) version.

TOR Browser
TOR (short for "The Onion Router") is a free browser that allows you to surf completely anonymously, concealing your IP address and encrypting your data in the process. Your connection is routed through multiple servers, making the connection particularly secure. In contrast to proxy services, which only use single connections, the TOR browser's method is far more complex, albeit coming at the cost of speed.

Since the TOR browser is often used for rather dubious activity in the Darknet owing to its high degree of security, it has a somewhat poor reputation in most circles. However, you shouldn't let this stop you, since for Windows, Android, and Linux, the browser is relatively user-friendly, even for regular surfing.

Public WLAN
A simple and fast method to do something anonymously online is to use a public WLAN. Using the new IP address which you receive when connecting, you can surf completely independently of your home or work network. However, we advise caution here, since on public networks, the threat posed by data thieves is much greater than private networks. Additionally, public WLAN does not allow for the regional or jurisdictional components of your IP address to be changed, meaning that you cannot circumvent geo-blocking.

VPNs
Virtual private networks (VPNs) have grown significantly in popularity over recent years, with a wide range of providers offering users the ability to anonymously and safely surf the web. Free and paid services exist, whereby among the former, the so-called "freemium" services are the most reputable.

VPN software runs either directly on your router, PC, smartphone, or device. As an added layer of security, it ensures that all of your Internet traffic is routed through a different server. Large providers enable access to a wide variety of servers around the world, allowing you to change your virtual location at the click of a button. When travelling to countries with restrictive Internet laws, such as China, this can be particularly helpful.

While free VPN solutions almost always throttle your speed, limit your data volume, or only provide access to a few server locations, paid subscriptions don't place any of these restrictions, making the choice between the two a matter of determining how much, or how little functionality you need.

The Best Way to Safely and Anonymously Surf Online?

The perfect balance of speed and flexibility is offered by a VPN. Paid subscriptions allow for streaming services from around the world to be used, providing you with the ability to surf from "anywhere" at anytime, all with a stable connection, and an anonymous IP address.

We unconditionally recommend the following 3 VPN providers:

ExpressVPN Test
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Should you need a free alternative, and don't have to transfer large amounts of data, the TOR browser is a simple and convenient solution. Proxy servers or the usage of public WLANs are far less secure, albeit, in a pinch, can have their uses. Web anonymizers, which are set up as proxy services, are also highly secure, but far less user-friendly than VPN providers.

Ultimately, the choice depends on what your requirements and safety standards are. However, you should always bear in mind that even the best providers or services only offer a relative degree of protection against hacker attacks from large organizations or groups.

Conclusion

Even with a VPN or TOR, total security does not exist. With enough resources, time, and technical know-how, the most concealed and seemingly secure connections can also be traced and followed. Apart from this, the intelligence and security services of the Five Eyes signatories are obliged to share user data and activity with one another. Court orders for such data are only ignored by VPN providers based in regions outside of the jurisdictions of the signatories or their allies, such as the British Virgin Islands (ExpressVPN) or Panama (NordVPN).

Data security starts with you!

All the anonymity and care in the world go down the drain if you don't handle sensitive data such as your passwords or accessibility rights properly. Companies and organizations in particular should pay close attention to which employees have access to which data. Apart from that, it is also important to note where and how passwords and personal data are saved. A post-it note on the corner of a monitor is definitely not a safe location for a password. 

Accordingly, this article ends by going back to basics, namely, local weaknesses, as these pose the greatest threat to online anonymity. For example, when using public PCs, you should activate anonymous surfing when starting to browse, and clear all browser data before and after use. Public networks should be used as sparingly as possible, and you should pay attention to who might be able to see your screen. It's also advisable to provide as little information as possible to websites. These are some of the first steps to take in ensuring that your privacy is protected online, and that your surfing is as anonymous as possible. 

Only when all of these aspects are taken into account, does it make sense to look into additional security measures such as the TOR browser or VPN providers.

Author: Carsten Podszun
Carsten Podszun studied computer science and business administration and was self-employed in the retail industry for 15 years. Since 2014 he is a consultant for startups, freelance author and writes at EXPERTE.com about homepage, hosting & IT security.
Other languages:
Deutsch Italiano 
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