There are always going to be good reasons for people to be invisible online, beyond a wish for personal privacy. For instance, it may be the only way for a whistleblower to reveal corruption without being harassed and punished. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay anonymous, no matter who you are or what you’re doing.
But the key question is this: Is it even possible to disappear completely from the internet? Ultimately, the only way to stay truly anonymous is not to go online at all. That’s no longer a realistic option for most of us, though.
Here’s a rundown of what you can do to minimize spying, targeted ads, and ID theft as you explore the world online.
CHECK YOUR SYSTEM
PHONE CALL CONFIDENTIALITY
If you want to be invisible online, forget about using a smartphone. The big-name mobile OS makers are control freaks (Apple) and ad servers (Google). To stay anonymous, use a prepaid phone, also called a burner.
Even when you use a burner, though, call records to exist, and your location can be triangulated via cell phone towers and GPS. The advantage of a burner is not having your real name associated with the device. As you see in the movies, you can always throw the phone into a passing truck and lead whoever might be tracking you on a wild goose chase.
But when you’ve already purchased an expensive smartphone, buying more hardware is painful. Thankfully, there are apps aplenty to get you temporary, anonymous numbers you can use with Android or iOS. (One of those apps is named, aptly, Burner.)
LIGHT THAT FIREWALL
Is your desktop or laptop computer connected directly to a broadband modem? That’s a very bad idea. Hackers are constantly bombarding IP addresses to see if they can get onto a system.
You should always have a router on your home network that can protect against attempted hacks with its built-in firewall. A router uses network address translation (NAT) to assign an IP address to every device on your home network: Those are then only visible on that network. Direct attacks can sometimes be stopped right there. You need the router anyway, for sharing the internet connection and Wi-Fi. Even a router that comes integrated into the modem—the kind you get from your ISP—is better than no router at all.
You could also use firewall software that’s installed on your PC. Windows 10 comes with a pretty decent solution called—you guessed it—Windows Firewall. You can also find firewalls as part of security suites.
For real OS invisibility, stop using Windows or macOS on the desktop and move to a Linux distro that specializes in all forms of keeping you secret. Your best bet is Tails: The Amnesic Incognito Live System.
SLEUTH YOUR OWN STEALTH
What does your computer (or tablet or smartphone, for that matter) give away about you when you visit websites? At the very least, a site knows your IP address (and that’s necessary; otherwise you’d get no results).
In most cases, it also knows your approximate physical location (by checking where your ISP supplies those IP addresses) and probably your time zone and which language you speak—all good info for advertisers. Your browser can also offer up which operating system you use, your browser type, and which versions of software you run for browser plug-ins. It even reports on the fonts you’ve installed. All this gives your system a unique fingerprint. And as anyone who’s watched Law & Order knows, a unique fingerprint is sometimes all it takes to track you.
If you don’t believe it, visit MyBrowserInfo or BrowserLeaks.com for a full report. Then check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Cover Your Tracks tool (https://coveryourtracks.eff.org) to see how well your browser and VPN are protecting you.
You can use browser extensions in Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Edge to enhance your privacy. The EFF offers its own Privacy Badger to monitor sites that monitor you. The Ghostery browser extension blocks all sorts of trackers and advertising on almost all browsers. And the DuckDuckGo search engine has a similar extension, called Privacy Essentials.
Make sure your browser isn’t storing too much personal info. In its settings menu, turn off the ability for the browser to store the passwords you use to access websites and services. That can be a pain since you should have a different password for every service you use. A better alternative is to use a dedicated password manager that works across all your devices.
Browsers store images, surfing history, and what you’ve downloaded, as well as cookie files, which can remember helpful things such as settings and passwords. But you should obliterate that info occasionally by clearing your cache.
Major browsers have anonymous surfing modes. Chrome is called Incognito (hit Ctrl+Shift+N to access); in Firefox, it’s Private Browsing (Ctrl+Shift+P); and in Microsoft Edge, it’s In Private browsing (also Ctrl+Shift+P). Surfing in anonymous mode prevents the browser from saving passwords, cookies, downloads, and cached content such as images.
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