You don’t have to have anything to hide to want internet privacy – you might just be sick of having tracking ads popping up and dislike the idea of Google knowing your every thought. But really, in this internet age, we all have something to hide--for example, our address, online banking information, and medical records.
Surfing the net smartly and with some strategic security enforcements helps keep your private internet searches private and stops anyone, from the government to the bored teenage hacker next door, from snooping into your interests. Read on for 10 ways to keep yourself and your information safe and anonymous online.
1. Use a VPN
The best and safest way to surf the web anonymously is to use a VPN, or Virtual Private Network server. A VPN is different to a web-based proxy server because you download the proxy and it operates only on your device. You still need to choose a reliable and trustworthy VPN provider.
A VPN works to keep you anonymous online in a few different ways. The first aspect is that it hides your IP address. When you browse online, your computer’s IP address sends a request for data to the website that you’re visiting. Normally, your IP address is completely visible for everyone to see and it locates you just like your street address. A VPN hides the request from your IP, sending it through a virtual tunnel (which is why using a VPN is also called tunneling) to one of its many secure servers
You can choose which server you want to use, so anyone seeing your internet activity will think you’re located in a different city or country and won’t be able to trace it back to you.
2. Use the Settings on Your Browser
If you're using a shared or public computer, use Private Browsing mode by choosing this option on your browser settings.
You should also go to the settings on your browser to opt out of tracking. This asks websites not to access your location information, but you’re going to have to hope that they honor your request. Installing an anti-tracker browser plugin blocks tracking cookies so that your location stays hidden. While you’re there, check that you don’t have some Java or Adobe Flash plugins enabled which leak your details to snoopers.
3. Use an Encrypted Messaging App
Internet surveillance should be a real concern to anyone who communicates over the web. You don’t have to be sharing government secrets to demand that your conversations be private--indeed all of us deserve more than a modicum of privacy online, even if all we’re doing is sharing recipes.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Large tech companies have repeatedly appeared in the news for privacy infractions that leave us vulnerable to hackers, government officials, or even our bosses. To avoid the risk of having your communications made available to third parties, consider using an encrypted messaging app. The level of encryption varies from one to the next, with some offering modest privacy while others have advanced features like self-destructing messages. Consider what level of privacy you want and need and seek out a messaging app that takes pains to make sure your conversations stay private.
4. Update Your Cybersecurity Game
Still coasting on that antivirus program that came with your computer? Now may be a good time to tighten up your security game. Hackers, after all, aren’t sitting on their laurels--new malware and ransomware threats are being introduced at a rapid pace. The good news is that the top antivirus providers are constantly rolling out new software and technologies that stymy these new forms of cyber attacks. Though you may be content with the software you have, or feel that you’re too savvy to fall prey to malware, it’s a good idea to constantly check in with your computer’s antivirus software and, if need be, consider swapping it out for a program that’s more suitable for the times.
5. Consider an Identity Theft Program
A recent report from the Federal Trade Commission revealed some eye-opening data about the prevalence of identity theft in the US. In 2019, there were more than 650,000 reports of identity theft made, including credit card fraud, phone or utilities fraud, banking fraud, and tax-related fraud. As hackers continue to find more sophisticated ways to extract information from people, this number is hardly likely to decrease in the years to come--especially when you consider that online banking, shopping, and medical services are only growing in popularity.
Identity theft programs offer round-the-clock protection that could benefit anyone who shares information online. ID theft can monitor your credit card transactions, detect changes in your credit score, and track the deep web to notify you if any of your information is being sold or used for nefarious purposes. As more and more of our personal lives are being conducted online, ID theft is worthy of consideration.
6. Invest in a Password Manager
Your dog’s name, mother’s birthday, or favorite song just aren’t going to cut it anymore (if they ever really did). Coming up with a safe password these days can feel like getting an advanced degree in alphanumerics. And when you realize just how many passwords we need for the myriad social media accounts, emails, banks, streaming platforms, subscriptions, and shopping sites we have--which, we’re told, should never be repeated--then yeah, it gets a little overwhelming.
You couldn’t be judged too harshly for using the same password on more than one account. But yes, it’s a bad idea. Which is why password managers are actually critical for this day and age, when we use our passwords more than we use phone numbers. They can store, retrieve, and even create advanced and completely secure passwords for you, saving you the trouble of memorizing, reusing, or resorting to notes stuck to your computer desk.
7. Use TOR
One of the safest ways to use the internet anonymously is by using a TOR browser. This redirects your internet activity through a deeply nested series of TOR servers so that anyone trying to connect your internet activity to your personal details will only be able to see the IP address of the final node. TOR browsing is very secure, which is why it’s often associated with the dark web that houses illegal sites. The downside to using the TOR is that it is likely to slow down your browsing speed quite a lot.
8. Use a Proxy Server
There are many proxy servers out there that let you browse the internet anonymously and often for free. If you use a web-based proxy server, you don't need to download anything. You just visit the web proxy site and then type in the URL you want to visit on the site. Essentially, the proxy site retrieves the data from the website you want to visit and then sends it to you so that anyone trying to track your activity will see the IP address of the proxy site instead of your own.
Proxy sites are easy to use and usually free, but they are not always effective. Many websites detect web-based proxy servers and block access to them. There’s also the danger that you’ll be taken in by a honeypot site that pretends to be a secure proxy server but actually steals your data, instead.
9. Delete Cookies
You should also set your browser to delete all cookies at the end of every session so that someone using the computer after you won't discover your personal details through autofill. Deleting cookies also stops websites from sending you those annoying tracking ads.
10. Read the Fine Print
No, you’re not expected to read every single line. But it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the fine print on your go-to online platforms, and to note whenever an update is announced. This can help you make better decisions and protect yourself from regrettable breaches further down the road.
Stay Anonymous, Stay Safe
All Internet connections have an IP address that is associated with information like your Internet service provider and your physical location. This means that the typical user is alarmingly easy to monitor and track online. Furthermore, the online platforms we’re using at a higher frequency than ever--from online banks to social media and messaging apps--which require sensitive information--make us even more vulnerable to security breaches if we’re not careful.
That’s why using VPNs, ID theft programs, and oftentimes, just added vigilance, can be the difference between a fluid online experience and a security nightmare. If you want even more anonymity, check out our guide to deleting yourself from the internet.