Everybody is facing a battle these days.
Though it may not be immediately apparent, it is already affecting a majority of the global population. This battle is not fought with bombs, planes, or tanks or with any physical weapons for that matter.
This battle is for our online privacy.
A survey made last year discovered 69% of data breaches were related to identity theft. Another survey shows the number of cases of data breaches related to identity theft has steadily risen over the last 4 years worldwide. And it is likely to increase as hackers are gaining easy access more advanced tools.
The EU’s GDPR may curb this trend by imposing stricter data protection standards on data controllers and processors. These entities have been collecting and storing our data for years through ads that track our online habits– another reason to protect our online anonymity.
However, this new regulation has only been in force for over a month and only within the EU. So, it’s going to take some time before we feel its long-term effects.
The question is, what should we do when hackers out there try to steal and maliciously use our personal information?
We defend ourselves with tools at our disposal to keep ourselves completely anonymous online.
So, here’s a list you may find useful.
A VPN helps you maintain anonymity by hiding your real IP and internet activity from prying eyes.
Normally, your browser sends a query tagged with your IP every time you make an online search. Your ISP takes this query and sends it to a DNS server which then points you to the correct website.
Of course, your ISP (and all the servers your query had to go through) can, and will likely, view and monitor all the data you course through them— including your personal information and IP address. This allows them to keep a tab on all your internet activity.
A VPN protects your identity by assigning you an anonymous IP and encrypting your data. This means that any query you send to your ISP will be encrypted and no longer display your real IP.
This is why using a VPN is one of the best ways to keeping anonymous online.
However, not all VPNs are created equal. You have to choose the best one if you want airtight security. Also, beware of free VPNs. Most of them make money by selling your data to advertisers.
You’ll want to compare and contrast several VPNs to find the best one for you. But, that’s sooner said than done with so many different VPNs out there.
Look for reviews on trustworthy sites to find the best vpn for your needs.
2. TOR Browser
The Onion Router (TOR) is a browser that strengthens your online anonymity even more by using different layers of encryption– thereby protecting your internet activity which includes “visits to Web sites, online posts, instant messages, and other communication forms”.
It works by first encasing your data in three layers of encryption. Your data is then bounced three times– each bounce taking off one layer of encryption. Once your data gets to the right server, it “puts back on” each layer it has shed as it successively bounces back to your device.
You can even improve TOR by using it in combination with a compatible VPN.
It is important to note, though, that using TOR won’t hide the fact that you’re using it. Some sites may restrict allowances made through TOR.
3. Virtual machine
A Virtual machine is basically a second computer within your computer. It lets you emulate another device through an application. This emulated computer can then be set according to your preferences.
The best use for this tool, however, is for tasks that don’t involve an internet connection. It is best used for when you want to open a file and want to make sure no one is watching over your shoulder. After opening the file, you then simply delete the virtual machine.
4. Proxy servers
A proxy server is an intermediary between your device and the internet. It’s basically another computer that you use to process internet requests. It’s similar to a virtual machine in concept but it’s an entirely separate physical machine.
It protects your anonymity in a similar way a VPN does (by hiding your IP) but it can also send a different user agent to keep your browser unidentifiable and block or accept cookies but keep them from passing to your device.
Most VPN companies also offer proxy servers so they’re a good place to look for a reliable one.
5. Fake emails
A fake email is exactly what the name suggests: an email that isn’t linked to your real identity.
Making a fake email can be as easy as signing up for an email without using your real information or by using a fake email service.
6. Incognito mode
“Going incognito” is the easiest anonymity tool to come by.
Your device will not store any data at all while in this mode including: your browsing history, cookies, site data, and information entered in forms.
Most browsers have a privacy mode that you can easily use to hide your online activity from other users of the same device.
7. Ad blockers
Ads are everywhere these days. Advertising has and always will be a lucrative business.
That said, there is a difference between good ads and bad ads.
Good ads are those that target a population as a whole. Bad ads (interest-based advertising, as their companies like to call it) target each of us individually by tracking our online activity and location– which compromises our online privacy. Tracking algorithms aren’t illegal, though, and have even been considered “clever”.
But, the worst ads are those that contain malware that can infect your device and prevent you from using it.
You can use ad blockers to combat these threats to your anonymity and security. Ad blockers usually come in the form of browser extensions which instantly work with no additional configuration needed.
8. Secure messaging apps
If you need to use an online messaging app, you should know that the popular ones aren’t as secure as you’d like them to be.
True, Facebook messenger does have a “secret conversation” feature but Facebook hasn’t exactly been the most secure social network to begin with.
9. File shredder
The right to be forgotten has surfaced in mainstream media with the onset of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. This right basically requires data collecting or processing entities to completely remove a data subject’s PII from their records.
You can practice this same right on your own device by using a “file shredding” tool.
But the the thing is:
Completely removing sensitive files from your device is hard.
Simply deleting it and emptying your device’s recycle bin doesn’t actually remove the file– your device just treats the space it filled up as empty and available space. These “dead” files can still haunt you when they are found by someone who knows where to look.
DuckDuckGo is a search engine that doesn’t track your behaviour (like Google and Bing that use behavioural trackers to target you with ads). It emphasizes your privacy and avoids the filter bubble of personalized search results.
It offers useful features like region-specific searching, Safe Search (to protect against explicit content), and an instant answer feature which shows an answer across the top of the screen apart from the search results.
To sum it up:
Our online privacy is being attacked from all sides. Ads legally track our online activities and hackers steal our personal information.
The GDPR may help in the long run but that remains to be seen. What’s important is what we do now.
These tools will set you on the path to a more secure and private internet experience today.
About the Author
Dana Jackson, an U.S. expat living in Germany and the founder of PrivacyHub. She loves all things related to security and privacy. She holds a degree in Political Science, and loves to call herself a scientist. Dana also loves morning coffee and her dog Paw.