Posted on: April 27, 2011
How Anonymous Are You?
Posted by: Brett Bisbe
Read time (bolded) – 5 minutes
Read time (comprehensive) – 9 minutes
Surfing the Internet might feel like about the most anonymous thing you can do. If you aren’t logged into a social network, no one sees your name, your face, anything. It feels as though you’re free to peruse the web alone, with no one reading over your shoulder, no one keeping tabs.
Unfortunately this is far from the truth. Every time you make your way to a website, a certain amount of information is shared with that site. IP addresses, domain names, even recently viewed pages can be collected by websites and used to their advantage…unless you take steps to prevent it.
This is not to say that every website is collecting your information for malicious intent. In fact, it’s usually quite the opposite. Websites are collecting information for demographic studies, to map traffic patterns, or determine their most popular content. Most of the time they are trying to make the website better for you, the user.
There are enough exceptions, though, that anonymous web browsing definitely has its selling points. Phishers, keyloggers, spammers and all of their equally dreadful counterparts represent a real threat, or maybe you just don’t want to be part of any market research. Whatever your reasons, there are a handful of tactics to allow you and your web browsing to fly beneath the radar.
The first, and most basic way of masking your Internet identity is by way of proxy server. By surfing the web through a proxy, you use an IP address other than your own, like making a call from someone else’s phone number. Without the correct IP address, a website cannot determine your physical location. This can be useful for accessing content restricted in a certain region, preventing spyware from installing on your computer, or preventing the collection of certain demographic data.
Accessing a proxy server is usually as simple as finding a host online (there are entire websites dedicated to proxy hosting) and changing a few basic connection settings. All you need is an IP address and a port number from the proxy host you found online. To get set up, check out this quick “how to” list:
Taking a step beyond proxy servers, some browsers are even offering anonymous surfing, like Chrome’s Incognito Mode. When using a browser window in Incognito Mode, the browser itself is preventing websites from collecting sensitive information. Pages you view won’t show up in your browser history or search history. After you close the window, there’s not trace, not even cookies.
Internet Explorer 9 has a similar feature, a tool called “Do-Not-Track.” A pretty straightforward name with a pretty straightforward purpose, Do-Not-Track allows users to create a list of specific sites that they don’t want tracking them.
Firefox and Safari have private browsing modes too, they just aren’t quite as publicized.
Anonymous web surfing will help you defend against various online attackers, but its primary function is a matter of privacy. Advertisers may not be taking your money or hacking into your accounts, but they are surely collecting more information than most people would care for them to.
Browsing the Internet by way of proxy server, combined with your browser’s “private browsing” features, brings your security to the next level and masks your activity from information-farming advertisers.
Using these tactics in conjunction with firewalls, anti-virus software, and the ever-important ‘common sense’ approach to Internet use will create the best defense against the dangers lurking in the murkiest corners of the web.