You know how women’s magazines are always testing and reviewing products like skin cream, hair straighteners and shampoo? And the results probably depend on which corporation paid them to say their product is the best? Well, for all you anonymous bloggers and subversive tweeters (as well as anyone else who’s sick of getting viruses all the time) here’s a product test/trial and review of software for anonymous browsing.
There aren’t a lot of free tools out there for anonymous browsing or anonymous blogging, unless you know how to set up your own VPN (Virtual Private Network) or are willing to pay to use proxy servers and other anonymizing tools. I’ve tested Tor, Firefox, Ghostery and a VPN (Hotspot Shield) for a week each, and I’ve also tried using them together.
Tor product review
(Get Tor here: https://www.torproject.org/download/download)
Tor is a browser based on the Firefox browser which allows you to browse the web anonymously by onion routing – that is, by switching to a different IP address every 10 minutes so nobody can figure out your IP address. If all you want to do is hide your IP address, Tor is a good choice.
The good bits about Tor is that it doesn’t run much more slowly than my regular browser (Firefox) or Internet Explorer (which is slower than Firefox). Because it’s a browser, you can browse anonymously using Tor while browsing normally using your usual browser at the same time. So the slowness isn’t really an issue because you only need to use Tor for the sites you want to stay anonymous on.
Tor can also be downloaded onto a flash drive so you can take your anonymity with you and use Tor on any computer in your university or internet cafe. (I didn’t try this).
There are also versions of Tor for android phones.
You have a lot of control with Tor, because you can change your identity (IP address) any time to make people who are looking for you think you’re someone else. Say you run a fetish site and are managing that site, but now you want to check your LinkedIn page that is under your real identity as a social worker. You just click on the Tor/Vidalia onion icon, click the ‘new identity’ button and now anyone tracking you won’t think that the fetish woman and the social worker are the same person.
Tor has an added benefit of allowing you to access sites which are censored by your government. When you’re using Tor you will automatically be able to access prohibited sites (though obviously I’ve not been able to test this feature).
Tor was quick and easy to install.
While using Tor or any other anonymizing browser, it may be tempting to go on two website accounts or social media accounts at the same time (one in Tor and one in your usual browser), and that’s dangerous because you can accidentally post to the wrong account. (This is why I’m not anonymous; I would totally mess that up).
Tor can be a little slow to start; you have to click on the shortcut, then open the Tor file so the Vidalia program can start Tor.
When sending emails, it’s best to type and send an email within 10 minutes or it might not send. (This information is from the Tor site; I’ve never emailed in Tor so I don’t know how it affects emails).
While Tor protects your anonymity, it doesn’t stop people from knowing that you are using Tor. Obviously even if journalists or your boss know you’re using Tor, there isn’t a lot they can do or infer from that. But if you’re in a region with few internet users, the fact that you’re using Tor can, ironically, make you stick out even more to anyone watching internet traffic (for example the police or government).
RESULTS: It’s the answer to all your anonymous needs on all your devices and wherever in the world you go. You can literally take anonymity anywhere. Just don’t forget to turn it on!
Ghostery product review
(Get it here: http://www.ghostery.com/download)
Ghostery is a browser add-on that just runs in your usual browser. It stops websites from tracking you. Most websites have programs which track your movements when you navigate to or away from the site. This is for marketing purposes, but it can be used to put viruses into your computer so Ghostery is good for virus protection in a way that Tor isn’t. (Because Tor just hides your IP address by routing your browsing through different computers to produce false IP addresses). So if you want to protect your computer from viruses, Ghostery is good virus protection. Police may also use this kind of tracking to catch you if free speech is not protected where you are.
Ghostery is very quick to install and you can see all the tracking stuff it is protecting you from, which is fun. It appears as a little blue cute ghost icon in your browser.
Ghostery can also be used together with Hotspot Shield. Because the Firefox browser is already a much more secure option against viruses and spying/tracking than the Internet Explorer browser, with Ghostery added to Firefox you will be really protected.
Because Ghostery is a browser add-on, you don’t need to start it up every time you go online (unlike Hotspot Shield and Tor) so it is simpler and there’s no risk of forgetting to turn it on.It’s supposed to make your computer run aster, but I didn’t notice this at all. However I don’t think it makes my laptop run slower.
You can fiddle with the settings in Ghostery but the default settings allow some trackers in. There are “4 trackers found on this page, 0 blocked” as I type this.
Unlike Tor you can’t download it and take it everywhere and there isn’t a mobile version.
Ghostery also doesn’t work with the Tor browser, though it can be added to most other browsers.
RESULTS: Great if you want privacy and antivirus protection, I’m keeping this on my computer! It’s the fast and easy solution, but if your life quite literally depends on being anonymous online, it’s probably not as safe a bet as Tor.
Hotspot Shield VPN review
(Get it here: http://www.hotspotshield.com/en )
Hotspot Shield is a downloadable virtual private network which protects your IP address and protects you from trackers. VPNs also can protect you from viruses and ID theft. I haven’t tried putting Hotspot Shield on a flash drive and using it on a public computer, so I don’t know if you can do that. There are versions for other devices too.
This was relatively quick to install.
VPNs are supposed to be the safest way to stay anonymous online, so this is a must-have if you’re really serious about your anonymity. It also saves you the bother of creating your own VPN, which can be complex, or of paying to use a VPN service. Hacktivists, hackers and criminals such as identity thieves and paedophile rings use VPNs, and they’re usually only caught when police trick them into thinking they’re operating in a safe space. So you can guarantee you’ll be hard to find with a VPN.
Hotspot Shield is very easy to use – you just click a button and wait for it to connect to the internet; then you’re protected. The icon in your browser tells you if you’re protected or not.
A great thing about Hotspot Shield is the fact that once downloaded, it downloads into all your browsers – including Tor. This is great because it gives you double protection – even if your VPN fails and ‘They’ find your IP address, it’s the wrong one, because you’ve got Tor.
Hotspot Shield also works with a Firefox browser which has Ghostery installed, for those who don’t want to use Tor.
It’s faster than Tor but is still a little slower than regular browsing.
The cons of Hotspot Shield are the ads. There are lots of ads – new ads every time you navigate to a new page, and they force the page a little lower down your screen. So it’s really annoying. You can upgrade to the elite version – which you pay a subscription fee for – if you don’t want the ads.
Another con is the fact that, like Tor, you aren’t protected until you turn Hotspot Shield on. And it’s easy to forget to turn it on because it doesn’t have its own browser window like Tor. However sometimes it does show a warning message that privacy is turned off, which helps.
Hotspot can suddenly switch itself off, and it didn’t tell me when that happened. I noticed that the icon was yellow instead of green so I clicked on it. However I was able to fix it by clicking on the icon, which directed me to the Hotspot site and downloaded something into the computer. After that, Hotspot Shield worked again.
RESULTS: A great go-to if you only want anonymity for particular sites. For those more serious about being anonymous, if the ads hurt your eyes then make Ghostery or Tor your staple and turn on Hotspot Shield for that extra protection when you need it (like blogging about what an idiot your president is or uploading photos of the fun you had in your BDSM dungeon, whatever floats your boat).
These magazine product trials usually announce a winner, and I’d probably say Tor is the winner for being an all-rounder. But please don’t take these results too seriously because I’m not really an anonymous blogger (I define ‘anonymous’ as ‘not revealing your identity to anyone’ but this blog is on my Facebook) so was never in danger of being doxed/hacked/having my identity revealed while doing this product testing. And anyway this blog certainly isn’t newsworthy so it’s very unlikely that someone would try to reveal my identity. Also, I wasn’t able to test how these tools help you avoid state/police surveillance.
When using anonymity tools that slow down your browsing, try using Firefox if you want to balance out the slowing-down effect with a faster browser, and/or disable all the browser add-ons you don’t need. A lot of these add-ons make your internet browsing slower because they send information about your browsing habits back to the corporations. (This also compromises your privacy). If you’re using a dongle or other wireless connection, this can eat up a lot of your data allowance, meaning that you buy lots of data that just gets thrown away without being used.
Articles on how to blog anonymously
A great guide by Dr Brooke Magnanti (Belle de Jour) with info about anonymizing technologies and tops on what not to do: http://sexonomics-uk.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/how-to-blog-anonymously-and-how-not-to.html
Tips (including anonymously registering domains and avoiding search engines) by the EFF organisation: https://www.eff.org/wp/blog-safely
Guide to blogging with WordPress and Tor by Global Voices Advocacy – Tor isn’t compatible with WordPress any more, but it’s still a useful guide to blogging with Tor: http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/projects/guide/
Get an anonymous blog here, on a platform designed for anonymous blogging (no signup needed): http://fearlessblogging.com/