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How to Browse the Web Anonymously

by on April 24, 2012
in Computers and Software, Internet & Networking, Computer Safety & Support, Tips & How-Tos, Privacy, Tech 101 :: 25 comments

Internet spyingLooking for a job, searching for a divorce lawyer, researching a medical condition or commenting on sensitive political issues that you don’t want anyone to know about? Or maybe you're using a public network in a hotel or coffee shop. How do you keep others from seeing your browsing history or tracking what you’re doing on the Web?

When considering web "privacy," there are two pieces that matter. The first is anonymity: how to keep people from knowing what sites you're visiting. The second is privacy: how to keep people from accessing the information you send. Depending on your circumstances, you may care about protecting one or both of these pieces.

Private Browsing FirefoxProtecting your browsing history on your personal computer is easy. Each of the major browsers has a "private browsing" mode that deletes cookies, temporary Internet files and browsing history after you close the window so others with access to your PC won't be able to see what sites you visited.

  • Chrome – Click on the wrench in the far upper right of your screen, then “New Incognito Window.”
  • Firefox – Click on "Tools" then “Start Private Browsing.”
  • Internet Explorer –Click on the tools cog in the far upper right of your screen, then “Safety” and “InPrivate Browsing.”
  • Safari – Click on the settings cog in the upper right corner of your screen "Safari", then “Private Browsing.”

Someone with particularly nefarious purposes could install a key-logger program on your PC to track everything you type, which private browsing wouldn't protect. Security software on your PC should remove any key-loggers and is a must on any PC.

While these features will keep your history clean on your PC, they won’t stop your Internet Service Provider, your employer or the government from keeping track of where you go online. And the websites you visit can track your IP address, providing this information to others or using it for their own tracking purposes to serve up advertising. And if you're outside the U.S., certain countries may prevent you from visiting certain websites entirely.

In situations like this you need a more stealthy way to manage your browsing. And there are solutions that offer various levels of security.

Web Proxies

Free anonymous Web proxies, such as Anonymouse.org or HideMyAss.com, act as intermediaries between you and the sites you visit so your IP address stays hidden from the sites you’re visiting. However, the proxy itself does know your IP address, where you’re going online and when; this data can be turned over to others. And unless you're using secure connections to the proxy server (look for the "https" in the url), others on your network (your employer or your ISP) can see where you're going and what you're sending. Also, some free proxies are actually set up by hackers looking to steal your personal data, so stick with my recommendations.

Tor

For more anonymity protection, you can use Tor, a free open network originally developed to protect government communications. Recommended by the privacy advocacy organization the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Tor browser works with Firefox and lets you turn it on or off depending on when you need anonymity.

Tor https explanation from EFF

Click for interactive graphic from the EFF

Tor works by routing your traffic through a series of servers, operated by volunteers around the world, before sending it to your destination. This makes it very effective at hiding your IP address.

However, it has limitations. First, because of the number of servers your data passes through, Tor can be quite slow. And while data is encrypted between the servers, it is unencrypted when it leaves the last (exit) server and is passed to the website you're visiting. So anyone operating an exit server can see IDs, passwords and any other data you send unless you have a secure connection with the website you're visiting (look for the "https" in the url). It is widely speculated that various government agencies and hacker groups operate exit servers to collect information.

VPNs

For the most secure connection, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is the way to go. It creates an encrypted connection for all traffic (including VoIP and movie streaming) between your PC and the VPN server for privacy, and protects your IP address from being transmitted to the sites you visit for anonymity. VPNs will also protect your information while on public networks in hotels and coffee shops. And unlike free services like Tor, VPNs charge a fee that allows them to provide much higher bandwidth. Witopia and StrongVPN have packages starting at $55 per year.

VPNs still share some of the same drawbacks as other services. If your VPN keeps traffic logs, those logs could still be turned over to others based on a court order, showing what sites you visited and when. And the data you send to external sites won't be encrypted unless you're using a secure connection (look for the "https" in the url).

Seth Schoen, Senior Staff Technologist at the EFF, warns that you can lose many of the privacy benefits of the proxies and VPNs by using the same browser for secure and non-secure activities. According to Mr. Schoen, "If you're using the same web browser, sites could recognize your cookies from non-private sessions." For this reason, he recommends having one browser dedicated to private browsing. The Tor browser, he says, offers this protection.

Using any of these solutions may be difficult if you’re employed by a large enterprise that’s using sophisticated IT tools.

An IT administrator at a large corporation, who didn't wish to be identified, shared his company's security measures. “We remove Administrator privileges to install software, and use an enterprise software distribution package (Marimba) to both install and monitor workstations." He also told me his company blocks employees from using anonymous Web proxies.

If you work for a smaller company with limited IT resources you can probably fly under the radar when it comes to private browsing at work, but if you’re at a Fortune 500 your best bet is to either wait until you get home or use your own laptop and MiFi hotspot that doesn’t make use of your employer’s resources at all.

Accomplishing true anonymity and privacy on the Web is not as easy process. If you would like more information, we highly recommend the EFF's Surveillance Self Defense Project.

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Discussion loading

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Brings up another question

From Louise on April 24, 2012 :: 2:13 pm

When asked if I want my login info to be remembered “for this site”,  will private browsing prevent this from happening.

It also begs another question.  Is someone picking up my login and password when I agree to this query?

Thanks.

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Yes, private browsing will prevent

From Josh Kirschner on April 25, 2012 :: 12:53 am

Yes, private browsing will prevent storing of usernames and passwords. Though it’s possible certain third party id/password vaults may not recognize the private browsing function on certain browsers and ask to store usernames and passwords.

When you agree to the query, the username and password are stored on your computer. The information won’t be transmitted to anyone else, but other people who use your computer with the same login will have access to those usernames and passwords.

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What do you think about

From Bordo on April 29, 2012 :: 2:18 pm

What do you think about this tool?
http://www.stayinvisible.com
A couple of times it detected my real IP even when I used proxy.

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What proxy are you using?

From Josh Kirschner on April 29, 2012 :: 10:53 pm

What proxy are you using? It couldn’t detect my info using the two proxy services we recommend above.

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Even Without VPN Logs

From Rod @ Anonymous Browsing on April 30, 2012 :: 2:17 am

It should be noted that even without activity logs, your online activity can still be pinned to you with a court order.  Any legitimate VPN service is going to keep “time logs” or “time stamps” to keep track of time you sign in and which IP addresses you use to locate abusive users (Spam, Cyber Crime, etc).

If an IP is associated with an activity that catches someones eye, and they contact your VPN service saying that X IP was doing Y activity, with a court order they can get your real IP and other personal information.  Happened with Lulzsec last year.  That was an example of catching a hacker, but with SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA, we might all be accused of some sort of cyber crime in the near future.

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CISPA is next to remove all your privacy.

From AB on May 13, 2012 :: 12:39 am

CISPA is the new Patriot Act of the internet. All this privacy talk will be moot once providers are able to share your private and personal information freely without fear of repercussions. CISPA was fast tracked through the House of Representatives a week ago and all the big companies, especially the ones with your private info, are supporting it.

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I've tried a few things

From JT on June 15, 2012 :: 4:05 pm

I’ve tried a few things to keep myself anonymous. TOR is hard to use or at least would be for most people. Web Proxies are easy but maybe only good for one off things, which should be good for post people. To keep the snoops off my stuff at home I just use private browsing with Firefox or Chrome. Easy. This is the age of over sharing so I guess its only a few of us trying to protect ourselves.

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proxy+SSH encrypted connections

From Mia Pray on June 21, 2012 :: 1:50 am

I use PirateRay to be anonymous and secure in the web.
The servers are protected and located in different countries of the world. This way I may unblock the sites if needed, hide my IP and privacy, download anything anonymously and be safe.

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Hotspot Shield hides your IP

From Mark Ackleys on September 17, 2012 :: 5:39 am

Hotspot Shield hides your IP address from snoopers and blocks any possible security threats from reaching your computer.
Check it out here: http://www.hotspotshield.com/secure-browsing

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To Christina

From Genevieve Fontana on September 19, 2012 :: 5:25 am

I find it really funny that Christina admits Tor can be used by Government and hackers to steal your data and yet still recommends it. Tor and all of it’s flavors have been shown to have bad security many times over.. just do a google search. Tor is popular but has a lot of Hype with it.

There are now some good Free VPNs that offer unlimited bandwidth, fast speeds and keeps no logs, such as VPNDirect Lite or Spotflux. VPNDirect will even let you download torrents. These coupled with only using Https encrypted sites or using Https Everywhere, is the way to go IMO.

JT

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will it help not to

From sojan on September 25, 2012 :: 5:19 am

will it help not to save it to my wired network, i mean the urls i accessed?

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It depends.

From Josh Kirschner on September 25, 2012 :: 8:08 am

If you’re just using the private browsing setting on your browser, the URL would still be visible through your local network. However, using one of the other services (web proxy, Tor, or VPN) will also make your destination invisible to your local network. People sniffing your local network would be able to see that you’re using one of those services, but not the URL you’re visiting.

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Doubt

From Ilaya on December 29, 2012 :: 4:44 am

how to save automatic my browsing website address to computer?

1. i am browsing for http://www.google.com

2. this address automatically save my computer in any location.

its possible my computer settings or i am using any one technology.

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Hi Ilaya,I'm not clear on

From Josh Kirschner on January 02, 2013 :: 2:30 am

Hi Ilaya,

I’m not clear on what question you’re asking. Do you want to save a website to your computer? That is, bookmark it? Or are you asking how your computer saves the addresses of which sites you visit and how to prevent that?

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Firefox annonymous browsing

From CJ on January 23, 2013 :: 1:26 pm

Update: just click on Firefox and select Start Private Browsing.

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ye sure, look at this

From lexa on March 09, 2013 :: 9:17 pm

ye sure, look at this security tests https://www.browserleaks.com/ and this https://www.torproject.org/projects/torbrowser/design/, many of described things can leak even many of described things can leak in private browsing mode.

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I am wondering if you

From Beth on July 04, 2013 :: 8:37 pm

I am wondering if you can tell me if there is anyway to block anonymous browsers from visiting my website? I am not especially tech savvy. Thank you

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So, how do we access our "permanent file...?"

From PhootThaiMaiDai on July 23, 2013 :: 5:01 am

If our personal data, searches, purchases, etc are being stored by government agencies or third parties, I would think there should be some protocol to accessing your own file? How would we go about that? Any ideas? 

Curious what the they have compiled with my name on it, and who they’ve constructed me to be…

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What I'm most interested to

From Diane Dauphinee 150 on August 01, 2013 :: 10:28 am

What I’m most interested to discover about my DNA.  Health answers to pass on to 6 grandchildren.

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Not much tools worked in my current location

From Michael Maher on October 15, 2013 :: 6:23 am

Due to SPI firewall here in oman, I wasn’t able to use most of the VPN services until i bumped into this https://www.waselpro.com/en/ the SSH over OpenVPN one click thing worked for me perfect.

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With anonymous https://www.waselpro.com/en/ account you can bypass

From dinaafifi on October 31, 2013 :: 10:37 am

With anonymous https://www.waselpro.com/en/ account you can bypass with your PC or mobile all blocked web sites, watch TV online or listen radio.

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anonymous web surfing

From GenevieveBPrice on December 22, 2013 :: 8:25 pm

http://www.eanonymouswebsurfing.com

anonymous web surfing is a free proxy server,  allows you to hide your IP address, surf anonymously online & secure your internet connection. and also bypass any network from your government, school or workplace network. So you can unblock most popular social networking sites such as Youtube, Bebo, Facebook, Orkut and many other sites. it give you ability to surf the Web without being tracked.

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Simple Fast Web proxy

From Dave on February 27, 2014 :: 2:16 pm

Thought I would recommend http://googlewarriors.com

Hard in this day and age to find a fast free web proxy not plastered in ads or part of some other traffic funnel scheme.

Google Warriors is simple, fast, and completely ad free. Running on Nginx + PHP5 FPM + Varnish + APC it is always fast and unblocks all social sites and Youtube.

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Anonymous Private Bookmarking

From Tony on April 13, 2014 :: 5:06 pm

To go along with anonymous browsing there’s also anonymous private bookmarks with Unbookmark.com which doesn’t leave any trace on your machine and doesn’t require you to give out any information (no email, nothing) or installing any software.  It’s free and your bookmarks are accessible from all your devices simultaneously.

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The best way to stay Anonymous

From Anonymous on October 23, 2014 :: 9:51 am

TWO rules to succeed with it :

1. Never tell everythings

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