Internet Browsing and Privacy
You may have wondered why advertisements seem to follow you around the internet, or why your search engine seems to know what you want. The answer is that tech companies like Google, and commercial websites too, put a lot of energy into tracking visitors to their website—and it is this tracking that enables companies to ‘follow’ you with their adverts.
This page explains more about how companies might track you online. It also explains some of the options for avoiding this tracking if you want—and why you might want to do this.
An Open Book
Unless you take action to prevent it, everywhere you go on the internet leaves a trail or trace on your computer and online.
For example, when you visit a website, it leaves information called cookies on your computer. This means that the website recognises you next time. Cookies are useful, because they allow you to remember websites that you visit often and remember your preferences. However, they also mean that the owners of the websites can track your activity.
In all honesty, this does’t usually matter.
Most of the time, websites only use this information to make your browsing easier and quicker. It points you towards useful sites faster. It’s true that Google keeps logs of all your searches, and will sell that information on for commercial purposes—but again, most of the time, it makes your life easier anyway.
However, there may be times when you don’t want to use your previous browsing history, or when you want to hide your browsing from other people. These don’t need to be for nefarious purposes, either. For example:
If you want to search for information about yourself online as part of managing your online presence, you need to know what other people will see about you, not what you see yourself. You therefore need to browse as someone else—which means anonymously.
If you are using a shared computer, and you don’t want other people to know what you’be been doing, for example, if you are job-hunting on a work computer.
If you want to avoid being spammed by websites, but you need to search for information about something that often leads to lots of spam—like particular prescription drugs.
You may simply wish to avoid any risk of sharing your personal data with any spammers or potential fraudsters. It is therefore wise to know how you can start to protect yourself by browsing anonymously or privately.
Options for Anonymous Browsing and Internet Privacy
There are several possible options for browsing anonymously.
Choosing how to browse anonymously
All the methods of browsing anonymously have their advantages and disadvantages. They may also provide more or less privacy than you actually need or want. However, it is worth being aware of all of them so that you can make an informed choice.
A web proxy will enable you to hide your IP address
Your IP address is a way of identifying your computer/modem. It is a string of numbers set by your internet service provider. Your IP address allows the information that you request from the internet (that is, any website that you click on) to be shown on your computer. Using a web proxy will still allow information to be sent to your computer, but it will make it seem like the request comes from somewhere else.
A web proxy will hide your browsing from view, but it won’t anonymise activity like file-sharing or any messaging.
There are several free web proxies available, such as Hidester. As with any software or tool, it’s a good idea to read some reviews before you decide what to use.
A virtual private network or VPN is similar to a web proxy, but with more encryption
Like a web proxy, a VPN makes it appear that you are somewhere else, and therefore hides your location from view. This can be a useful way, for example, of accessing cheap deals that are only available in certain parts of the world—although you could also argue that this may be slightly unethical.
Unlike a web proxy, a VPN will encrypt everything that goes to or from your computer, including messages and file sharing. However, it does have limits. For example, if you post to a social media site from your VPN, or send emails from your primary email address, that will expose your identity.
Anonymous or privacy-minded web browsers encrypt your browsing activity and route it through multiple servers
Like a VPN, anonymous browsers like Tor will hide your IP address. You need to download the browser, but once that’s done, you can browse anonymously.
Tor does this by routing your data through multiple servers and keeping it encrypted. It’s a good way to browse without showing your identity. However, it only covers you while within the Tor browser. You therefore need to avoid downloading huge amounts of material, and also steer clear of any browser plug-ins like Adobe Flash.
Use the incognito option on your own browser
If you open up incognito browsing on your own web browser, your browser will not track your activity. In Chrome, for example, that is via the menu at top right of the screen, which gives you an option to ‘Open a new incognito window’. This will mean that your browser itself doesn’t save any cookies or tracking information. Websites that you visit can still see your activity, as can your internet service provider—so it’s not really anonymous, just hidden from other users of your computer.
However, incognito browsing is probably the simplest and best way to keep your internet activity private on a shared computer, or see what other people would see when they searched for you online.
Secure search engines like DuckDuckGo do not track your search activity
One of the primary ways in which your web activity is tracked is via your search engine. Google, for example, actively tracks search and browsing activity. Ostensibly, this is to improve its search engine—but it can also feel a bit sinister. If it bothers you, you can use a secure non-tracking search engine such as DuckDuckGo. These also block advertising trackers so adverts will no longer follow you around the internet, this doesn't prevent adverts from being shown but probably means they are less relevant to you.
- A tracking blocker will show you what is tracking you, and enable you to block trackers
Tracking blockers are browser extensions that will show you which services are tracking your web activity on any given site. They also give you power to block trackers when you want. This is effectively a bit like an ad blocker. One of the best-known of these is probably Ghostery, which also provides an ad blocker.
Do Not Track
Do Not Track was an initiative started in around 2015. The purpose was to allow internet users to politely ask websites to turn off tracking. Many browsers still offer it as an option.
However, it is more or less completely defunct now.
The problem was that very few websites respected it. It was therefore largely useless in that it really didn’t stop any tracking at all.
Other Aspects of Online Privacy
There are, of course, other things that you can do to protect your identity online. For example, it’s a good idea to clean out your cookies periodically, and there are plenty of programs around that will do that for you.
You can also use a secure email provider and secure messaging service such as WhatsApp.
It’s also worth checking whether your cloud service provider offers zero-knowledge encryption (and for more about why you might want to use cloud, see our page on Back-up and Storage Solutions).
You can also take precautions to hide your phone number and delete your information from public search databases.
These are all quite complex, and you may feel that they are not worth the time and energy required. However, it’s worth being aware that the option exists, should you ever need to become truly anonymous.
Mixing It Up
It is fair to say that none of these options is completely anonymous.
However, if you really want to get close to total anonymity, the best option is probably to combine several of these ideas. For example, you could use a VPN, but also browse anonymously, because this will hide your IP address, and stop cookies. You could also enable private browsing on an anonymous browser, or prevent tracking while using a VPN. Taken together, you can get reasonably close to privacy—but only within some serious limitations.
For example, you need to be aware that once you log into your Google account or primary email address, or a social media site, you are effectively exposed to view again. You have to want to be anonymous to stay anonymous.