April 28, 2012 at 1:39 PM ET
Looking for a job, searching for a divorce lawyer, researching a medical condition or commenting on sensitive political issues that you don’t want anyone to know about? Or maybe you're using a public network in a hotel or coffee shop. How do you keep others from seeing your browsing history or tracking what you're doing on the Web?
When considering Web "privacy," there are two pieces that matter. The first is anonymity: how to keep people from knowing what sites you're visiting. The second is privacy: how to keep people from accessing the information you send. Depending on your circumstances, you may care about protecting one or both of these pieces.
Protecting your browsing history on your personal computer is easy. Each of the major browsers has a "private browsing" mode that deletes cookies, temporary Internet files and browsing history after you close the window so others with access to your PC won't be able to see what sites you visited.
Someone with particularly nefarious purposes could install a key-logger program on your PC to track everything you type, which private browsing wouldn't protect. Security software on your PC should remove any key-loggers and is a must on any PC.
While these features will keep your history clean on your PC, they won't stop your Internet Service Provider, your employer or the government from keeping track of where you go online. And the websites you visit can track your IP address, providing this information to others or using it for their own tracking purposes to serve up advertising. And if you're outside the U.S., certain countries may prevent you from visiting certain websites entirely.
In situations like this you need a more stealthy way to manage your browsing. And there are solutions that offer various levels of security.
Free anonymous Web proxies, such as Anonymouse.org or HideMyAss.com, act as intermediaries between you and the sites you visit so your IP address stays hidden from the sites you're visiting. However, the proxy itself does know your IP address, where you're going online and when; this data can be turned over to others. And unless you're using secure connections to the proxy server (look for the "https" in the URL), others on your network (your employer or your ISP) can see where you're going and what you're sending. Also, some free proxies are actually set up by hackers looking to steal your personal data, so stick with my recommendations.
For more anonymity protection, you can use Tor, a free open network originally developed to protect government communications. Recommended by the privacy advocacy organization the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Tor browser works with Firefox and lets you turn it on or off depending on when you need anonymity.
Tor works by routing your traffic through a series of servers, operated by volunteers around the world, before sending it to your destination. This makes it very effective at hiding your IP address.
However, it has limitations. First, because of the number of servers your data passes through, Tor can be quite slow. And while data is encrypted between the servers, it is unencrypted when it leaves the last (exit) server and is passed to the website you're visiting. So anyone operating an exit server can see IDs, passwords and any other data you send unless you have a secure connection with the website you're visiting (look for the "https" in the URL). It is widely speculated that various government agencies and hacker groups operate exit servers to collect information.
For the most secure connection, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is the way to go. It creates an encrypted connection for all traffic (including VoIP and movie streaming) between your PC and the VPN server for privacy, and protects your IP address from being transmitted to the sites you visit for anonymity. VPNs will also protect your information while on public networks in hotels and coffee shops. And unlike free services like Tor, VPNs charge a fee that allows them to provide much higher bandwidth. Witopia and StrongVPN have packages starting at $55 per year.
VPNs still share some of the same drawbacks as other services. If your VPN keeps traffic logs, those logs could still be turned over to others based on a court order, showing what sites you visited and when. And the data you send to external sites won't be encrypted unless you're using a secure connection (look for the "https" in the URL).
Seth Schoen, senior staff technologist at the EFF, warns that you can lose many of the privacy benefits of the proxies and VPNs by using the same browser for secure and non-secure activities. "If you're using the same Web browser, sites could recognize your cookies from non-private sessions," he says. For this reason, he recommends having one browser dedicated to private browsing. The Tor browser, he says, offers this protection.
Using any of these solutions may be difficult if you're employed by a large enterprise that's using sophisticated IT tools.
An IT administrator at a large corporation, who didn't wish to be identified, shared his company's security measures. “We remove Administrator privileges to install software, and use an enterprise software distribution package (Marimba) to both install and monitor workstations." He also told me his company blocks employees from using anonymous Web proxies.
If you work for a smaller company with limited IT resources you can probably fly under the radar when it comes to private browsing at work, but if you’re at a Fortune 500 company your best bet is to either wait until you get home or use your own laptop and wireless hotspot that doesn’t make use of your employer's resources at all.
Accomplishing true anonymity and privacy on the Web is not an easy process. If you would like more information, we highly recommend the EFF's Surveillance Self Defense Project.
More stories on Techlicious: