There are many reasons why you might need anonymity online. Journalists, whistleblowers, bloggers and activists benefit from staying anonymous. So do people who might be discriminated against for expressing themselves, such as certain communities, religious groups and sex bloggers. Even if none of that applies to you, the NSA’s global reach means that it’s wise to protect your privacy even if you don’t live in the USA (and we Brits have GCHQ to worry about too). We can’t trust security companies to protect us, as they have secret deals with the NSA to keep security weak. Here are five ways to protect your privacy and anonymity online – operating systems, privacy while communicating, browsers and VPNs/proxies.
The Tor Project has released the operating system Tails– the “Amnesiac Incognito Live System”- which helps you use the internet anonymously and access censored sites. Tails can be downloaded onto flash drives, DVDs and SD cards and is designed to be used independently of the computer’s built-in operating system (i.e. Windows 8). It leaves no trace.
Linux is said to be more secure than Windows or Mac, though as it doesn’t have a GUI, you’ll have to manually type commands. Which means us non-techie folks will struggle to use it. Debian and other Linux-based but non-manual operating systems might be better alternatives. The hacktivist group Anonymous has released its own operating system which is based on Linux. It’s called Anonymous-OS.
The Tor browser has just been updated to the 3.5 Tor browser bundle, which is faster. It’s basically the Mozilla Firefox browser, but with an important difference: Tor is an onion routing service designed for the US Navy and it routes your internet traffic through several relays. The EFF explains how Tor and HTTPS encryption works here. This means that if a hacker/journalist/the NSA is surveillancing you, they can’t see which sites you’re looking at or know your physical location. This is invaluable if you’re accessing sites which are prohibited in your country- which Tor also lets you do! Yes, you can see censored sites while using Tor. It’s also really handy because the Tor browser can be downloaded onto a flash drive for anonymity on the go- there’s also a version for android phones. Tor is used by police in sting operations, individuals and companies, and was recently used by the US military. A year ago I product-tested Tor and reviewed its pros and cons, and how to use it.
The Pirate Bay released an anti-censorship browser in August 2013 which proved very popular. It is also based on the Firefox browser and uses the Tor network. This browser allows you to view censored sites but as it’s only intended to circumvent blockades, it shouldn’t be used to protect your anonymity without any other protection.
Browser add-ons can protect you, too. The Firefox browser is safer than Internet Explorer and most other browsers. You can download the Ghostery add-on which protects against trackers and shows you which websites are 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. Police may also use this kind of tracking to catch you if free speech is not protected where you are. Lifehacker claims that Disconnect works better than Ghostery. I’ve tried Disconnect in the Google Chrome browser and it doesn’t have the list of trackers that Ghostery has an option to have, though it shows how many trackers are being blocked. Disconnect automatically blocks Facebook, Twitter and Google from tracking you. Disconnect seems to be faster and less “invasive” than Ghostery, so it’s my personal preference.
Communicating privately (email, blogging, social media)
If you’re trying to communicate securely, dropping information into pastebins is much safer than blogging. IRC chatrooms can protect your identity and are sometimes used by journalists and their anonymous sources for this reason. Alternatively, Hushmail is an encrypted email service which is free, though the storage space is very limited if you don’t want to pay for an upgrade. Microsoft’s email service and Gmail are more secure than other email services. The EFF has a guide on anonymous blogging and Global Voices Advocacy has one on how to blog with WordPress and Tor (though things may have changed since it was published). Fearless Blogging is a blogging platform designed for anonymity. As for social media, changing your Facebook settings to ‘private’ is very simple but posts could still show up elsewhere on Facebook. An anonymous Twitter account that you only access while using a VPN or Tor might be a better bet.
VPNS and proxy servers
Virtual Private Networks will protect your identity. You can set up one yourself or pay to use proxy servers or a VPN, but these companies could hand over your data to the government if requested. There are free VPN services available; this article lists the VPN services which take anonymity seriously (will not log user data or give information to the government). Tunnelbear has a kitschy, cute interface and according to Lifehacker it’s one of the best free VPNs. Lifehacker lists Hotspot Shield is another great free VPN; lately when you download Hotspot it claims to be a free trial, but my trial version is still going without any means of taking my money. The downside to Hotspot Shield is the ads, which are now pop-ups (still preferable to the previous eye-scorching self promoting banners). Hotspot Shield used to suddenly stop its protection and require me to reconnect, but it’s much less glitchy now. I’ve been using it for over a year (uninstalled it at one point, only to have the NSA scandal break and be on the search for a good VPN once again).
However no free VPN will ever be as secure as a commercial VPN- though there are some rubbish VPNs out there that take your money and claim to be quality. If you want a free VPN that might- no guarantees, though, I’m no techie and am only going by what I’ve read- give you good protection, the free VPN Komodo was developed for commercial use and allows you to control any of your computers from anywhere, though I’ve not tested this.
Remember you’re the one most likely to expose yourself
This is why I’m not properly anonymous. I’d mess it up. I’ve seen people plan to start anonymous blogs on public forums. I’ve seen anonymous bloggers reveal too many personal details or post to the wrong account. If you’re anonymous, don’t register for domains under your own name or Google Analytics could reveal your location and even your name. Never use the same photos or pieces of text for both identities if you’re serious about your anonymity, as your identities could be linked by looking up photos or putting text through programs designed to catch plagiarism. Google indexes comments, tweets, Facebook posts, wishlists, online purchases and public forum messages. There’s often a percieved mystery around doxing (finding an anonymous person’s real identity) but all a ‘dox’ is, is a quick Google, maybe a visit to a directory (such as Pipl).I know of one anonymous blogger and sex predator who was (rightfully) outed partly because of his purchase of certain books. So I’m choosing pseudonymity over anonymity- it’s less work. Even if it’s less secret and fun.