Skip to comments.How to surf anonymously without a trace
Posted on 03/13/2007 6:29:37 AM PDT by ShadowAce
The punchline to an old cartoon is "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," but these days, that's no longer true.
It's easier than ever for the government, Web sites and private businesses to track exactly what you do online, know where you've visited, and build up comprehensive profiles about your likes, dislikes and private habits.
And with the federal government increasingly demanding online records from sites such as Google and others, your online privacy is even more endangered.
But you don't need to be a victim. There are things you can do to keep your surfing habits anonymous and protect your online privacy. So read on to find out how to keep your privacy to yourself when you use the Internet, without spending a penny.
What they know about you
Whenever you surf the Web, you leave yourself open to being snooped upon by Web sites. They can track your online travels, know what operating system and browser you're running, find out your machine name, uncover the last sites you've visited, examine your history list, delve into your cache, examine your IP address and use that to learn basic information about you such as your geographic location and more. To a great extent, your Internet life is an open book when you visit.
Sites use a variety of techniques to gather and collate this information, but the two most basic are examining your IP address and placing cookies on your PC. Matching your IP address with your cookies makes it easier for them to create personal profiles.
If you'd like to see what kind of information sites can gather about you, head to these two sites, which peer into your browser and report what they find.
Protect yourself: Surf anonymously
The best way to make sure Web sites can't gather personal information about you and your computer is to surf anonymously by using an anonymous proxy server that sits between you and the Web sites you visit.
When you use an anonymous proxy server, your browser doesn't contact a Web site directly. Instead, it tells a proxy server which Web sites you want to visit. The proxy server then contacts the Web site, and when you get the Web site's page, you don't get it directly from the site. Instead, it's delivered to you by the proxy server. In that way, your browser never directly contacts the Web server whose site you want to view. The Web site sees the IP address of the proxy server, not your PC's IP address. It can't read your cookies, see your history list or examine your clipboard and cache because your PC is never in direct contact with it. You're able to surf without a trace.
There are three primary ways to use anonymous proxy servers. You can configure your browser to use a such a server (or get software to do it for you); you can visit an "anonymizer" Web site, which does the work of contacting the server; or you can download software that will ensure your anonymity when you use the Internet. We'll look at how to do each.
Keep yourself anonymous with Tor
The best free software you can find for being anonymous when you use the Web is to use the free Tor. When you use Tor, all your communications -- not just Web surfing, but also instant messaging and other applications -- are in essence bounced around a giant network of Tor servers called "onion routers" until it's impossible for sites or people to be able to track your activities.
Setting up Tor is straightforward. Download a package that includes not just Tor, but other software you need to work with it, such as Privoxy, a proxy program. All the software is self-configuring, so you won't need to muck around with port settings or the like. Tor runs as a small icon in your system tray. To start Tor, right-click it and choose Start from the menu that appears; to stop it, right-click it and choose Stop.
Once it starts, simply use the Internet as you normally would. If you're superparanoid, you can regularly change your Tor "identity" to make it even harder for anyone to track your travels. Right-click the Tor icon, and select "New Identity." That's all it takes.
Tor also includes a nice bandwidth tool that has nothing to do with anonymity but that graphs your bandwidth use. Right-click the Tor icon, and choose Bandwidth Graph. You can see it in action, along with Tor's right-click context menu, in the nearby figure.
Firefox users will want to download the Torbutton, which will let them turn Tor on and off from directly within the browser.
I've found only one drawback to Tor: At times, I've noticed a slowdown in surfing when using it. But that comes and goes, and slowdowns aren't that extreme. So if you're worried about your privacy when you surf, it's a great bet.
Web sites that let you surf anonymously for free
A number of free Web sites offer free anonymous surfing via proxy servers. The benefits of these sites are obvious: When you surf, you're anonymous. But there are some drawbacks as well. Surfing tends to be slower -- and in some cases very slow. And when you use these Web sites, some sites you visit from them don't display properly.
The sites all work pretty much the same. Head to them, and in a box, type the Web site you want to visit. From that point on, you'll be surfing anonymously; the site does the work of using an anonymous proxy server for you.
Once you do that, you type in the address you want to visit, and you're off. As you browse in your browser's address bar, you'll notice an odd URL that contains the Cloak's URL as well as the site you're visiting. For example, if you visit CNN, you'll see something like this:
Note that if you want to remain anonymous during your surfing session after you visit the first Web site from The Cloak, you'll have to only click links. If you type a URL directly into the address bar, the Cloak will no longer work.
The Cloak is free, but it has some limitations. You'll surf more slowly than normally, and the slowdown may become noticeable. One reason is that the site also offers a for-pay service, and so it throttles down free users, while letting those who pay surf without a throttle. And the site may also limit the amount of time you surf anonymously as well, depending on whether many users are logged in simultaneously.
Use your browser with an anonymous proxy
If you don't like the limitations imposed on you by sites like the Cloak or would simply prefer to configure anonymous surfing yourself, you can easily set up your browser to use an anonymous proxy server to sit between you and the sites you visit.
To use an anonymous proxy server with your browser, first find an anonymous proxy server. Hundreds of free, public proxy servers are available, but many frequently go offline or are very slow. Many sites compile lists of these proxy servers, including Public Proxy Servers and the Atom InterSoft proxy server list. To find others, do a Google search.
I prefer Atom InterSoft proxy server list because it provides more information about each server. It lists server uptime percentage and the last time the server was checked to see if it was online.
Find the server with the highest percentage of uptime. Write down the server's IP address and the port it uses. For example, in the listing 126.96.36.199:80, the IP address is 188.8.131.52, and the port number is 80.
In Internet Explorer, select Tools-->Internet Options, click the Connections tab, and click the LAN Settings button. Check the "Use a proxy server for your LAN" box. In the Address field, type in the IP address of the proxy server. In the Port field, type in its port number. Check the "Bypass proxy server for local addresses" box; you don't need to remain anonymous on your local network. Click OK and then OK again to close the dialog boxes. Now when you surf the Web, the proxy server will protect your privacy. Keep in mind that proxy servers can make surfing the Web slower, depending on the proxy you're using.
In Firefox, select Tools -->Advanced, click the Network tab, and click the Settings button. Choose "Manual proxy configuration," enter the proxy information (IP address and port number), and click OK and then OK again
Problems with anonymous proxy servers
If you set up your browser to use anonymous proxies, as I just outlined, you need to keep in mind that there's one potential danger: Theoretically, a hacker could set up a proxy server, and then use it to capture information about the Web sites you visit. And if you type in user names and passwords, he could steal those as well.
I haven't heard of this actually happening in the real world, but you should be aware that it's a possibility. Using software like Tor or a free proxy server like the Cloak won't expose you to this danger; only the use of public proxy servers does.
How can you protect yourself against this? Before using a proxy server, do a Google search on its name and address to see if there are any reports about hackers using it. And it's also a good idea to only use a server that you notice have been on the lists a long time, because hackers are not likely to keep a server running a long time without being caught or shutting it down.
What else you can do
There are other ways to help protect your anonymity online. If you're worried that your searches may be used by search engines or government agencies to invade your privacy or create a profile about you, see Seven ways to keep your search history private.
If you want to be able to send e-mail anonymously so that no one can find out that you sent it, you can use an anonymous remailer such as the Web-based Anonymouse's AnonEmail or the downloadable QuickSilver.
There are also plenty of for-pay anonymity services, such as the Anonymizer, and the Anonymizer's new Nyms service, which uses utilizes disposable e-mail addresses to protect your true e-mail identity.
Finally, for a very good all-around resource about how to protect your privacy online, check out the Electronic Privacy Information Center's Online Guide to Practical Privacy Tools. It has plenty of links to software and sites to help protect your privacy.
I'm flying across the country today, so I may not be able to check back today.
book marked 4 later reading
I'm already using it-but then again there's no way you could have known that, is there?
Thanks for posting this interesing and useful article.
Thanks for posting this interesting and useful article.
Thank you so much for this valuable information!
Very helpful to the potential terrorist!
Just a question. Who pays for the "free" proxy service? Is this just excess bandwidth that would otherwise go unused?
Tried all three methods--strongly recommend Tor.
Well done! Thank you.
Just don't do it from work on your employer's computer/internet connection.
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