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We trust Google and Facebook with more information than we would give our best friends, but do we really have to live like that? There has to be a way to enjoy everything the internet has to offer while still protecting your privacy.
In this article, I’ll teach you how to remain anonymous on the internet. Whether you are browning the web on your mobile phone or sending an email from your desktop, these tricks will ensure that you can do so safely and securely.
Google, Amazon, your internet service provider (ISP), and many other companies are using your data to improve your online experience, which sounds great at first. However, none of those companies are charities, and they wouldn’t be using your data if it didn’t benefit them. They are monetizing your data in any way that they can, often by serving you ads or bundling your information to resell to other companies.
That’s actually the best-case scenario. In the worst case, they are storing your data in poorly secured servers that are just asking to become the source of the next major data breach. At that point, your information is in the hands of truly nefarious actors who could be using it for blackmail, identity theft, or any number of criminal activities. Once your personal data makes it out into the world, it’s beyond your control, so internet privacy and anonymity are your best forms of protection.
Privacy and anonymity are often used interchangeably, but there is a crucial difference. To explain the difference, let’s use the example of an email. If I send you an email and other people are able to read it, it’s neither private nor anonymous. If other people are prevented from reading the content — but they know that I sent it to you — it’s private but not anonymous. The email is only anonymous if nobody can even tell that I sent it to you.
In other words, the difference is that privacy is about the data (or content) of the email whereas anonymity is about the metadata (who, when, etc.). Throughout this article, I’ll assume that you are looking for both privacy and anonymity, and I’ll clarify when a solution offers only privacy and not anonymity.
Virtual Private Networks are the single most important tool in your fight for anonymity, and we strongly recommend them. If you do only one thing to protect your anonymity, use a VPN!
Remain Anonymous on the Internet with ExpressVPN
VPNs are great at protecting your privacy. When used properly, they can also make you very anonymous online. They encrypt your data and use remote servers to mask your IP address and location from your ISP, the website you are connected to, and anyone else that attempts to track your activity. If you choose a VPN with a good no-logging policy, you don’t even have to worry about them storing your metadata, making them both private and anonymous.
With that said, no one tool is going to solve all of your anonymity concerns. Your IP address isn’t the only piece of information that you should be worried about. Even with a VPN running, you could be giving away your identity through your browsing habits, your emails, your logins, and more. A VPN should definitely be in your privacy arsenal, but they need to be paired with some of the other tools I’ll discuss in this article.
Your web browser is a good place to start in your anonymization efforts. By default, browsers are terrible at privacy and anonymity, but there are several steps that you can take to improve them.
If there’s any piece of information more revealing than your browsing behavior, it’s your search history. We use search to get everywhere on the web. With every search, you are feeding more and more of your personal information to Google. Google’s business model relies on using your data for personalization, so you can’t achieve anonymity with them, no matter how hard you try.
Instead, consider a privacy-centric search engine like DuckDuckGo. They don’t use or store your personalized data. They’ll still serve you ads, but both the ads and search results are based on the words you are currently searching for, not your search history or anything about you as a person.
Cookies are tiny bits of code that websites store on your computer to remember your browsing behavior and preferences. Not surprisingly, this information is not going to help your goals of anonymity. Every browser lets you delete cookies, and you should be doing that at least once a week.
Advertising networks are one of the worst offenders when it comes to tracking consumer behavior. Ad blockers make it less likely that they’ll succeed in tracking your online activities. You can block ads using a browser extension like AdBlock or by using a VPN that has a built-in ad blocker — like Surfshark or Private Internet Access. Some browsers also come with ad-blocking capabilities, one of which I’ll talk about in the next section.
You could spend your days tweaking Chrome or Firefox to make it more anonymous, but there’s an easier way: use a privacy-focused browser. The Tor browser doesn’t offer complete anonymity, but it’s as close as you’ll get. Instead of directly connecting you to a website, the Tor browser connects you through a network of proxy servers to give you an anonymous browsing experience. It even randomizes those proxies periodically to make it virtually impossible for your connection to be followed over time.
The Tor browser is available for Windows, MacOS, Linux, and Android. There isn’t an official version for iOS, but the third-party VPN+Tor browser is endorsed by the Tor project and even comes with an ad blocker. Except for the iOS app, none of these options have VPNs built-in, so you should be using them with the VPN of your choice for maximum anonymity.
Even with the Tor browser, you need to be careful not to connect your anonymous self to a non-anonymous username. This means you shouldn’t log in to most websites you visit. If you do need to log in, don’t use a single sign-on (SSO) service like Google or Facebook. Don’t use a login that you created while not anonymous either as that can give away your connection. Instead, create a new account for each site while anonymous and never access that account outside of the Tor browser.
Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok have made billions of dollars learning all there is to know about you. TikTok has shown that they don’t need your biographic data or even a username to discover your likes and dislikes — their algorithm just needs to follow your interactions with the content. If they can get everything they need based on a few clicks and swipes, imagine what Facebook can do with your entire friends list and status update history.
Remembering all of your passwords isn’t practical. Password managers make it easier to use stronger passwords, change passwords more frequently, and avoid repeating the same password across all of your accounts. Unfortunately, many people store their passwords in their browsers instead of using a secure option like LastPass.
Your passwords are crucial pieces of personal information. Even if you trust your browser to store those passwords securely, think of the metadata you are handing them. They now know what websites you have accounts with, how frequently you visit them, and how often you change your passwords. Worse, you may be handing them logins related to your real-world identity — employee portals, work emails, school accounts, bank accounts, etc.
Incognito mode is a popular browser option that lets you surf the net without adding to your internet history. But is it truly anonymous?
Yes and no — but mostly no. Incognito mode prevents your browser from storing cookies and browsing history. That’s great if your goal is to hide your shopping habits from your significant other, but it will have minimal impact on what your ISP or Google sees. They still have access to your IP address, and that’s all they need to track you.
Gmail, Hotmail, and other common email providers are terrible with privacy. Google has the ability to read even the content of your emails. They claim they don’t use it, but that doesn’t even matter — the fact that they can means that you are a data breach away from some hacker reading all your personal correspondence.
Secure email does exist in the form of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encrypted email providers. Hushmail is one of the most popular PGP email options. Most of these services, including Hushmail, do store some amount of user metadata such as IP addresses. There is no perfectly anonymous email solution, but these are major steps forward from Gmail.
If you need to stick with your current email provider, you can enhance the security of your email service by adding an extension like SecureGmail that encrypts the emails you send through Gmail. Similar extensions are available for most other major email providers.
When anonymity really matters, you can supplement your permanent email address with a Disposable Email Address (DEA). DEAs are made to be created right when you need them and deleted immediately afterward. They are particularly useful if you need to provide an email address to a website that you don’t trust not to send you spam or store or sell your information. By the time they go to use your data, the email address will have disappeared without a trace.
Most messaging apps are not intended to be anonymous. Apps like Telegram and Signal use end-to-end encryption to ensure a high level of privacy, but they still require you to create an account and give them a phone number in the process. For most cases, that is probably fine and certainly better than Facebook Messenger, but they don’t rise to the level of true anonymity.
If you’ve followed the trend so far, you are probably concerned about storing and sharing all of your files and photos in Google drive. That instinct is good, but don’t go running to Dropbox — they aren’t much better. Edward Snowden, the privacy proponent best known for leaking info about NSA data collection, also pointed out the flaws in Dropbox’s privacy standards. His recommended alternative is the privacy-centric One Backup by Spideroak.
Aside from Google and Facebook, few companies know us better than our banks. Your credit card transactions say a lot about who you are and what you like. They also breach the anonymity barrier between the virtual you and the real you. Every time you buy something online, that transaction becomes linked to a credit card number or other identifier which is, in turn, linked to your name.
Until recently, there was no way around that limitation. Cash is anonymous in person, but you can’t easily use it online. Fortunately, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have recently started to fill that void. They serve as a very complicated form of digital cash which can be used to make online payments anonymously. The major downside of cryptocurrency is that it can be hard to find an online seller that will accept them at this point, but that will likely change as their popularity rises.
Neither Androids or iPhones are great options for privacy and anonymity. There are smartphone alternatives — like the Blackphone — designed to offer an extreme privacy alternative, but they just aren’t practical for most users. However, even with a standard smartphone, there are measures you can take to make your mobile browsing more secure.
Most mobile apps ask for several permissions that they don’t need. Several of these — like location data — can easily give away your identity. Never give permissions to an app if you don’t have to. If you come across an app that is asking for too much, look for an alternative. It might seem harmless to just give your sudoku app your phone’s location, but the app is likely passing that on to Google and other advertising networks.
Privacy and anonymity start with a high-quality VPN, but they don’t stop there. You need to be thinking about the data your browser, your email client, your messaging services, and your phone have access to. With the proper apps and a lot of caution, you can keep your online habits secure, private, and anonymous.
You don’t have to be paranoid to care about privacy. Your personal data should be just that: personal. Data breaches are inevitable. Companies will continue to use and resell user data; You can’t control that. You can, however, control how much — or how little — information you let them get their hands on in the first place.
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