You are not paranoid.
Are you worried about people finding out what you have been viewing on the internet? Do you fear the government is using the NSA to monitor what sites you have been visiting? I certainly try to stay as safe as possible when I am online and you should too. This article will discuss ways to limit these intrusions based upon my personal experience. Some of these methods are more intrusive than others and you will have to weigh how much effort you want to put into being anonymous while online.
At this point we all know about Edward Snowden and the documents he released. You can think what you want about Snowden, but there is no denying the revelations that came from his document dump, the key takeaway being the government wants to know what you are doing online. This information coupled with a few books (The Bracken Anthology and Future Crimes: Inside the Digital Underground and the Battle for Our Connected World) I have read recently made me realize that the government might not care what I am doing now, but they might in the future and they will have years of data on me by that point. This is the reason I want to limit the amount of information they can collect.
The simplest way to be more anonymous is to use the private browsing function on your browser, also known as incognito mode in Chrome and InPrivate Browsing in Explorer. This feature online limits what information your browser stores, it does nothing to stop someone from monitoring your traffic or spyware from reporting on you. One of the times that private browsing is more important is when you are browsing on a public computer. A great article on the limitations of private browsing is at How To Geek.
Masking your IP
Another unobtrusive way to be more anonymous is to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network). I personally use Hot Spot Shield VPN on my computers, phones, and tablets. A VPN connects to the internet through a server run by the VPN provider, this can be in your home country or anywhere on earth. What does a VPN do? A VPN provides an elevated level of privacy by hiding your internet activity from your Internet Service Provider (ISP). A VPN can also allow you to access content that is being blocked. When I lived in China, Facebook and Google were blocked by the Great Firewall of China, but I was able to still access these sites because I had a VPN and I could connect to a server in the United States where the websites were not censored. Another benefit of using a VPN is the greater security that is provided when you are on a public WiFi connection. Public WiFi connections are notorious for evil twin hotspots and packet sniffing attacks from hackers. The biggest weakness to the VPN is that the VPN provider can see your browsing history, just as your ISP could if you didn’t use a VPN. We know that the U.S. government has strong armed many large companies into turning over vast amounts of personal data and that is a possibility when using a VPN provider. A VPN connection is also slower than directly connecting to the internet because your data must travel a greater distance than normal. A good introduction to VPN is at BestVPN.
TOR (the onion router) is another way to hiding your IP address from prying eyes. TOR is very similar to a VPN in that it connects to different nodes before accessing the internet and keeps your data wrapped in layers of encryption, like an onion.
TOR connects to number of different nodes that are run by volunteers in most countries on earth. The biggest weakness of TOR is the last connection from a node to the internet because this is the only connection that is not encrypted. In addition to hiding your IP address, TOR also allows you to access .onion sites. These sites are also known as the “deep web” or the “dark net”. The deep web contains sites that will not be found on any search engine and typically are sites that are less than legal. The most famous of the sites is Silk Road, which is on its third iteration at this point. The Silk Road is a site where you can buy all types of illegal objects from drugs to stolen gold. Now by no means am I recommending that you visit the Silk Road, I was just using it as the most famous example.
Browser Extensions and Settings
There are many browser extensions that you can install and settings you can change that will aid in keeping you more anonymous online. This section will be based upon Google Chrome as it is the browser, other than TOR, that I use most frequently. Changing the following settings will help keep you more anonymous.
I have mine set to as when a site wants to track my location, but the safest setting is to not allow any site to track your physical location.
This simply tracks the location of your machine, if you are using a VPN or TOR, your location will be the location of the server or last node.
Unsandboxed plugin access
I have mine set to ask when a site wants to use a plugin to access my computer, but once again the safest setting is to not allow any sites to use a plugin.
This just ensures that none of your plugins are leaking any personal or private data online.
Turn on Block third-party cookies and site data.
These are used by advertisers to determine your browsing habits.
Turn on “Do Not Track” setting.
This is a setting that sends a message to web servers not to track you, but not all servers will honor or follow this. It is still worth using.
The following are extensions that I have enabled in Chrome and use religiously.
This plugin blocks trackers and also displays who or what is tracking you on each page. This is more powerful plugin than the “Do Not Track” setting in Chrome.
This plugin monitors when sites try to track your browsing habits, and automatically thwarts future tracking attempts. It is based upon the AdBlock Plus code.
HTTPS Everywhere is an extension created by EFF and the Tor Project which automatically switches thousands of sites from insecure “http” to secure “https”. It will protect you against many forms of surveillance and account hijacking and some forms of censorship.
Now this is the toughest part of being more anonymous online. As humans changing our behavior is never an easy thing to do, thus you will have to weigh all of these options based upon the trade off of more anonymity but less functionality.
The first thing to do is to stop using Google. Yes I said it. Stop using Google. Google knows so much about every one of us and we know of the relationship they have with the government. I know this sounds drastic, but there is a way you can ease into it, don’t use Google search anymore but instead use DuckDuckGo. This search is very good and it does not track or collect any data about you.
The next thing to do is to stop using social media. Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, and LinkedIn all know so much about every one of their customers. I was away from ALL social media for over a year and it wasn’t a big deal, I actually became more productive and happier.
Stop online shopping and stop using credit cards online. When you buy something at Amazon and use your credit card it doesn’t matter how well you have hidden your data to that point, they know where you live and what you just bought. Now this is something that I don’t think I could ever do because Amazon and online shopping are a way of life for me. This ties back in to what I said earlier about weighing privacy and convenience. I have come to grips with the fact that Amazon and anyone that hacks Amazon or strong arms them will know everything that I have purchased from them in the past 11 years.
Use secure email such as ProtonMail. ProtonMail is has End-to-End Encryption when sending between different ProtonMail accounts and is based in Switzerland, a country that values Privacy.
Use Tails. Tails is a live system that aims to preserve your privacy and anonymity. It helps you to use the Internet anonymously and circumvent censorship almost anywhere you go and on any computer but leaving no trace unless you ask it to explicitly. It is a complete operating system designed to be used from a DVD, USB stick, or SD card independently of the computer’s original operating system. All connections to the internet are forced to go through the Tor network.
I hope that you will use some of these tips to stay more anonymous online and if nothing else, make it harder for the government and hackers to steal our personal information. As always, Happy Prepping.