There are many reasons why you may need to protect yourself in the digital world. It may be to mitigate social engineering attacks or even blackmail in the corporate world. Attackers are more effective when they can access information about key members of an organization. However, online anonymity is an excellent way to stay private, and we’ve provided helpful tips on how you can achieve that.
Why is Online Privacy Important?
Bad people can use data for nefarious reasons. They can do terrible things to you or others in your name. For instance, someone can use your personal data to open a new financial account in your name or cause other issues. Some people think that they don’t have anything to hide, and so they are safe.
You may think that no one is after your information. But we all need to protect ourselves, as you never know what could happen. Information such as medical records and financial accounts are not to be exposed. When such data gets into the wrong hands, they can be used alongside other pieces of information like mother’s maiden name, date of birth, etc.
If you live in authoritarian or repressive countries where certain beliefs or activities attract fines, imprisonment, or death, you would want to maintain anonymity when using the internet. Also, it could be that someone has meant to harm you. From a disgruntled employee to a hate group, down to a random online stalker, it is critical that you stay safe to be maintaining anonymity online.
As humans, we tend to make mistakes in our life’s journey. If you have made certain decisions that you are not proud of in the past, you would not want it to limit your possibilities in the future. So, everyone has something they do not want the whole world to see.
Is privacy the same as anonymity?
It’s easier to perform activities on the internet securely than it is to be anonymous online. You have to put in some work to brute force decrypt an encrypted message or file, making privacy more attainable. On the other hand, anonymity requires you to put in a lot of work. Sometimes, people use privacy and anonymity interchangeably, and it is wrong.
With encryption, your messages are secure, as only you and the receiver will be able to read them. While this protects your privacy, the metadata will be unprotected, which means you are not anonymous. With a mass surveillance apparatus, sophisticated hackers can easily see all unencrypted information about you. They can tell who you are talking to, the duration of your conversations, how many messages, type of communication (email, text message, voice call, video call, or voice memo), size of attachments, etc.
10 Tips to help you Remain Anonymous on the internet
Before you can achieve true anonymity, you will need to change a lot of things in your digital routine. Some of the required changes may include replacing your browser, operating system, search engine, email provider, and messaging apps. If you want to be anonymous while using the internet, we can help you get started. Here are ten tips to help you become anonymous online.
Let us start with the basics! Incognito is one of the easiest privacy options that you can take advantage of. The web browser on your mobile device or laptop has a private browsing mode. Let us consider the most popular browsers globally: Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari. You can find these browsers’ incognito modes in their setting’s menus.
When you activate private browsing, your browser will stop storing internet history or cookies on your computer. You should know that the uses of this feature are very limited, as it only helps to hide your browsing history from the people around you. Private browsing cannot securely hide your browsing activities or your identity beyond your local machine.
You may succeed in keeping your parents, siblings, or significant other unaware of your browsing activities. But your IP address is still vulnerable to hackers.
2. Do not use social media.
You will be amazed to find out the amount of personal data collected by social networking platforms. Billions of users on sites like Google Plus, Facebook, and Twitter have their data collected on these platforms every day. For example, if you want to know how much of your personal data are on Facebook, go to the settings menu and click on ‘Download a copy of your Facebook data.’
You will notice that information such as who you poked, the events you attended, where you logged into your account has been logged and saved. Such levels of data harvesting are not only limited to Facebook, as you can see in other major social networking platforms. There is no way to avoid giving up your personal data on these platforms.
It is the little price you have to pay for enjoying their free service. However, if you don’t want to give up personal information, then you might consider deleting your social media accounts. While you do that, you should know that account deactivation is not the same thing as deleting your account.
When you deactivate your account, it goes into hibernation. All your information is still intact, and you can retrieve it whenever you decide to do that. So, if your aim is to wipe your stored information entirely, then you should delete your account instead of deactivating it.
3. Use Signal
Signal is an encrypted messaging app that allows users to send text messages, audio calls, voice calls, and voice memos. You may think that it is just like every other messaging app because of its appearance. But, that’s not true, as Signal uses encryption that is almost, if not impossible, to brute-force. You may have come across their mantra, “Use Signal, use Tor.”
However, it is important to know that a network-level adversary can tell that you are using Signal when you consider metadata. In addition, if the adversary is the United States or Five Eyes, they have access to all Signal traffic, meaning that they know the parties involved in all conversations, the time they had each conversation, as well as the duration.
Many software developers use Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) to sign their code. It is an excellent way to ensure private, secure, end-to-end encrypted communication. If your threat model does not have a large nation-state or three, you are technically proficient. In this case, you are better of using Signal instead of PGP.
All these technical limitations are not new to the people who made Signal. However, they are continuously trying to figure out ways to make things better. In the world of technical research, metadata-resistant communication has always been an unsolved, cutting-edge problem. But, if you are looking for a secure, easy-to-use messaging app that offers more anonymity than other apps, you should use Signal.
However, it would be wise not to rely on it for complete anonymity. These days, it is questionable to believe that any app provides complete anonymity.
4. Do not expect anonymity from VPNs.
Some people think that VPNs are anonymous, but that’s not true. We are going to debunk the idea that VPNs are anonymity tools. A VPN can be used to move trust from your ISP to another person’s server. It helps travelers to move trust from their local hotel or coffee shop, or airport Wi-Fi network to another person’s server.
You may want to use a VPN for many different security reasons. But, if online anonymity is what you want to achieve, then you should try other options. A VPN cannot perform the same functions as Tor, which bounces traffic via three Tor nodes across the internet. With Tor, it is almost impossible for any adversary to know what you are doing.
That is not the case with a VPN, as it only shifts traffic from your ISP (at home) or hotel Wi-Fi (if you traveled) to the VPN’s servers. The VPN provider will be able to see your traffic. If any adversary serves the VPN provider with a court order or hacks the VPN’s servers, they will be able to see your traffic too. VPNs are not bad at all, and you should use them if you want.
5. Use Tor
If you need large, robust, and effective metadata-resistant software, you can never go wrong with Tor. However, you may be concerned about how much anonymity the Tor project can offer. There are some technical limitations to how anonymous you will be online when using Tor. Researchers have not been able to fix this issue successfully.
Tor is an acronym for The Onion Router that works well for low-latency web browsing. It only supports TCP and not UDP. It’s important to know that larger websites block access using Tor, which means that the software will not work when accessing such sites. Tor does not offer complete anonymity, but it is the best tool you can have in your arsenal as far as online anonymity is concerned.
Unfortunately, some bad actors take advantage of Tor’s dual use to perform criminal activities. While journalists use this technology to do their work anonymously, criminals use it for bad reasons. But that does not mean that Tor is bad. We cannot ban highways or cars simply because robbers drive cars on the highway.
The same thing goes for the scary “Dark Web.” The Tor Browser is an excellent choice for mobile devices. Some other browsers like the Brave browser also come with a Tor option. If you are an iOs user, the OnionBrowser has an unofficial Tor Project-endorsed app. For Android users, there is an official Tor Browser app.
6. Use zero-knowledge services
Many services offer their users no privacy. For example, Office 365 scans everything their users write, and Google can read all your emails (inbox and sent messages). DropBox examines everything its users upload. These companies, alongside many others, are PRISM providers. What this means is that they work hand-in-hand with mass surveillance programs. If your online activities are visible to Google, folks in Washington can also see it.
However, there is a way to go around this issue. You may encrypt your messages when using Gmail or your photos before uploading them to DropBox. It requires you to use PGP, and if you know how the encryption system works, you should take advantage of it. On the other hand, some service providers offer zero-knowledge file storage.
You cannot fully trust that a service provider is not backdoored. However, SpiderOak, a US-based DropBox-alternative, advertises zero-knowledge file storage. Also, if email security is what you want, Protonmail, a Switzerland-based company, advertises zero-knowledge email. They also claim that it is not mathematically possible for them to share your email with a third party.
However, it would be best to do your own research before you entrust anything important to any of these providers. Try to find out services that offer zero-knowledge file storage and use them.
7. Be careful what you post online.
You probably have a couple of things going on in your life that you want to keep private. Since you are in charge of what you post on social media, you can choose not to post things that you would rather keep private. It is not the best idea to share such information. Not even with a select group of people online, as the information would risk getting into the wrong hands.
While some people, especially older generations, do not like the idea of sharing their life on social media for the world to see, others do not mind. The younger generation grew up with cell phones on their palm, which makes them feel that over-sharing is normal. However, there is nothing wrong with the deliberate sharing of activities you want everyone to see, as this has value.
Sometimes people share details about their lives that do not appear sensitive on their own. But when considered with other personal information, such details might constitute a build-up of data that you do not want on the internet. It is almost impossible to take back information you shared on the World Wide Web. So, it would be best if you were careful about the things you put out there.
8. Check those app permissions.
Before you sign up on any app, make sure you check the app permissions. Many apps, Android and iOS, ask for more permissions than they need. These apps tend to extract their user’s personal information and transmit them back to the makers of the app inappropriately. You recently installed a random app.
You should ask yourself if the app needs certain permissions. For instance, why does the app need to access your microphone? Will it be recording all your verbal conversations? Some apps ask for permission to access your location. Ask yourself why it needs that information.
An app that can access your address book knows all your friends. Is that necessary? Please make sure you check your phone’s settings for unnecessary permissions and turn it off.
9. Use an ad blocker
Companies like Google and Facebook are excellent at tracking your every move on the internet. It does not matter whether you have an account with them or not. They can track all your activities online and into meatspace. But there is a way to go around this issue.
You can start by installing an ad blocker. While this does not guarantee complete privacy and anonymity, it is better than nothing at all. There are a few apps out there that can block ads by default. For example, the Brave Browser blocks trackers and ads by default.
You can also install AdBlock or use other extensions such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s great Privacy Badger extension. Also, at your local router level, you may see sinkhole ad network DNS requests.
10. Dump your home assistant.
Your home assistant can be susceptible to bad actors who want to invade your privacy. If you value your anonymity and privacy, you may want to consider getting rid of a few IoT devices in your home. For instance, your Google Home, Amazon Ring, Amazon Echo, etc., may be a channel for hackers to gain access to your sensitive information.
These devices are always on, which makes them go-to targets for hackers. If you want to be private and anonymous online, you should consider getting rid of them. However, if the people around you use such IoT devices, then your privacy and anonymity are at risk. Since your neighbors all have a Ring recording the happenings in your area, your movements can be recorded and tracked.
There are many different ways that you can protect your privacy online. All it requires is some time, energy, and technical know-how. We have provided you with details to help get you started on online anonymity. Once you understand and implement these tips, your privacy will be on a higher level.