How To Stay Anonymous Online
PC Magazine|October 2019
Some might argue that the internet was built on anonymity, paving the way for a place where free speech reigns supreme. But after years of learning about who’s snooping into everything we do online, privacy on the web is hardly a given.
Eric Griffith

It’s not just about government spying; it’s also about how much data big companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have collected in order to serve you targeted ads. (Not to mention how much of your personal data gets scooped up in all the breaches and hacks.)

There will always be good reasons for people to go online without being tracked. It may be the only way for a real whistleblower to reveal corruption, considering how some have been treated. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay anonymous, no matter what you’re doing.

Is it even possible to take control of your own personal privacy online? Ultimately, the only way to stay truly anonymous online is not to go online at all. That’s not really an option for most of us these days, though. Here’s a rundown of what you can do to minimize the spying, targeted ads, and ID theft as you explore the world online.

PHONE CALL CONFIDENTIALITY

If you want to be anonymous, forget the smartphone. The big-name OS makers are control freaks (Apple) and ad servers (Google). To remain anonymous when you’re mobile, your best choice is a prepaid phone—a.k.a. a burner.

Even a burner had call records, though, and you can be triangulated via GPS. The upside 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 got an expensive smartphone, you won’t want to throw it away. 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 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 visible only on that network. Direct attacks can sometimes be stopped dead right there. You need the router for sharing the internet connection and Wi-Fi anyway.

Some ISPs’ modems come with a built-in router, so that should keep you covered. You could also use firewall software 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. But as PCMag’s security expert Neil J. Rubenking explains, you don’t really need a firewall if you use the one that ships with Windows.

If you want real anonymity based on your OS, 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) give away about you when you visit websites? At the very least, the site knows your IP address—and that’s necessary, or you’d get no results.

In most cases, it also knows your approximate physical location (by checking where your ISP supplies those IP addresses; see it in action at IPLocation), and probably your time zone and what language you speak—all good info for advertisers. Your browser can also report on your operating system, browser type, and what versions of software you run for browser plug-ins. It even reports on the fonts you have installed. All of this can add up to giving your system a unique fingerprint. And anyone who’s watched Law & Order knows, a unique fingerprint is sometimes all it takes to track you down.

If you don’t believe it, visit MyBrowserInfo or BrowserLeaks.com for a full report. Then check out the EFF’s Panopticlick tool to see how well your browser and VPN are protecting you. They’ll push their worthwhile browser extension called Privacy Badger at you; it monitors sites that monitor you. The Ghostery browser extension, which blocks all sorts of trackers and advertising on almost all browsers, is a lot like Privacy Badger but gives you a little more control.

What’s more, even if you’ve got a VPN (virtual private network) running, as you should, it could be leaking. Here’s how to get yourself back into stealth mode.

SAFE SURFING

Make sure your browser isn’t storing too much personal info. In the 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, though, because you should have a different password for every service you use. The best alternative is to use a password manager, such as PCMag’s 4.5-star Editors’ Choices LastPass and Dashlane.

Browsers store images, your surfing history, and what you’ve downloaded, as well as cookie files, which can remember helpful things like settings and passwords. Obliterate that info occasionally.

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