You don’t have to be a secret agent or a notorious hacktivist to care about anonymity. Even regular Joes like you and I have plenty of good reasons to care about the privacy and security of our online activity. Pretty soon, just about everything we do on the Web will be logged, analyzed, and used for things outside of our control. In a lot of ways, it’s already happening – but that’s not to say there’s nothing you can do about it.
This guide will help you learn ways to anonymize the majority of your Internet-based communications and activities. But before we get started, it should go without saying that if you’re trying to stay anonymous online, you shouldn’t use your real name when creating any account and shouldn’t sign in with any profile that has your personal information connected to it (ie, Google, Facebook, Twitter). We’ve left out the obvious stuff here and instead focused on offering a quick summary of ways that you can keep your identity and location hidden while browsing, communicating, and downloading and transferring files.
LEVEL 1: Anonymous Web browsing
The best thing you can do to stay anonymous online is to hide your IP address. This is the easiest way to trace your online activity back to you. If someone knows your IP address, they can easily determine the geographic location of the server that hosts that address and get a rough idea of where you’re located. Broadly speaking, there are three ways to obscure your IP address and hide your location:
- Use a proxy server. If you want all of your online activity to be anonymized, the best way to do it is to pretend to be someone else. This is basically what a proxy server does: it routes your connection through a different server so your IP address isn’t so easy to track down. There are hundreds of free proxies out there, and finding a good one is just a matter of searching. Most major browsers offer proxy server extensions that can be activated in just one click
- Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). For most intents and purposes, a VPN obscures your IP address just as well as a proxy does – and in some cases even better. They work differently, but achieve the same result. Essentially, a VPN is a private network that uses a public network (usually the Internet) to connect remote sites or users together. So, if I were to log into Digital Trends’ VPN, anyone looking at my IP address would think I’m in New York when I’m actually on the West Coast. Here’s a list of good VPN services to get you started.
- Use TOR. Short for The Onion Router, TOR is a network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. Browsing with TOR is a lot like simultaneously using hundreds of different proxies that are randomized periodically. But it’s a lot more than just a secure browser. We won’t get into the details here, but you should definitely check out its site if you’re concerned about anonymity.
LEVEL 2: Anonymous email and communication
Using proxies, VPNs, and TOR will obscure your IP address from prying eyes, but sending emails presents a different anonymity challenge. Let’s say you want to send somebody an email, but you don’t want them to know your email address. Generally speaking, there are two ways to go about this:
- Use an alias. An alias is essentially a forwarding address. When you send mail through an alias, the recipient will only see your forwarding address, and not your real email. Since all mail is forwarded to your regular inbox, this method will keep your real email address secret, but it will not, however, keep you from being spammed like crazy.
- Use a disposable email account. This can be done in two ways: either you can just create a new email account with a fake name and use it for the duration of your needs, or you can use a disposable email service. These services work by creating a temporary forwarding address that is deleted after a certain amount of time, so they’re great for signing up for stuff on sites you don’t trust and keeping your inbox from being flooded with spam.
Also, using a VPN and communicating through an anonymized email address will keep your identity hidden, but it still leaves open the possibility of your emails being intercepted through a man-in-the-middle scheme. To avoid this, you can encrypt your emails before you send them. Here’s how:
- Use HTTPS in your Web-based email client. This will add SSL/TLS encryption to all of your Web-based communications. It’s not bulletproof, but it definitely helps. Just make sure the URL of your webmail has an S (for Secure) after the HTTP. Gmail users, for example could use https://mail.google.com. We also recommend using the HTTPS Everywhere extension.
- Use PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) software. We won’t go into great detail on how to install/use PGP, but you might want to consider looking into it. While using HTTPS will encrypt your data on a network level , PGP software will encrypt the actual files themselves. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it.
In addition to email, you might want to encrypt any instant messaging you do for the same reasons. We recommend the following two chat clients:
- TOR chat: a lightweight and easy-to-use chat client that uses TOR’s location hiding services. It uses SSL/TLS encryption.
- Cryptocat: a Web-based chat client that uses the AES-256 encryption standard, which is extremely hard to break. It also supports group chats, so its perfect for all those top-secret world domination meetings you have with your buddies.
LEVEL 3: Anonymous file transfers and sharing
Getting files from the Internet is easy, but the sender has access to your IP address when you download files. In the case of BitTorrent, there are thousands of different peers that can see your IP address at any given moment, which means downloading is one of the least anonymous things you can do on the Web. However, if done correctly, it is possible to download and share files while keeping your IP address and identity concealed.
- If you’re downloading directly form a file hosting site like MediaFire or Mega, you can just use a proxy or VPN to obscure your IP.
- If you’re using BitTorrent to download stuff, using a proxy or VPN will keep your identity hidden, but rather than just using any old service, we recommend using BT Guard. At its core, BT Guard is exactly the same as any other VPN or proxy service with the one difference being that the site is designed specifically for heavy BitTorrent users. Don’t worry about DMCA violation notices you might elicit – BT Guard just ignores them for you.
This tutorial touches on a lot but is by no means comprehensive. If you have any good tips or tricks for staying anonymous online, we encourage you to share them in the comments.