Can You Really Be Anonymous Online?

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We all have things we’d rather not tell the world about — whether that be a flagrant disregard for copyright law, a penchant for specialist videos, or a desire to simply stay out of Big Brother’s ever-probing eye. Whatever the reason, I think it’s about time we clear up a few things about anonymity online — and answer once and for all, whether it’s really possible. We’ve already tackled the topic of why email can never be secure from government surveillance, but I think  it is worth tackling the Internet as a whole.

If you’d rather watch than read — I’ve got you covered.

It All Starts With Your IP

You probably already know this, but your IP address is the gateway to revealing everything about you. Your ISP keeps logs of who is assigned which IP and is able to map those to a customer. They keep records of this for varying lengths of time — typically 6 months to 2 years — and governments are trying to constantly increase this “retention period” to make recovering the identity of criminals easier.

Your IP is transmitted every time you access any website. The website you visit doesn’t know who you are, per se, but they will have records of every IP that accessed the site. These log files are minimal, and could easily be kept for years.

Claiming that it wasn’t you using the computer at the time is not an excuse. As the subscriber of that internet connection — even if you’ve made that connection available to patrons of your cafe — you are responsible, and legally liable for everything that goes through it. It’s your job to secure your own connection.

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So with this is mind, how do you go about hiding your IP address?

PirateBrowser

Let’s get this out the way quickly. There’s been a lot of talk about the PirateBrowser lately, a specially customized version of Firefox released by the PirateBay team which includes elements of Tor and some proxy plugins pre-configured for you. It lets you access censored sites — thats all. It doesn’t make you anonymous. It bypasses any firewall blocks that your ISP or government has in place and lets you access the sites regardless, but it will not anonymise you. So I say it again, PirateBrowser will not make you anonymous.

PirateBrowser   Can You Really Be Anonymous Online?

HTTPS

HTTP Secure encrypts your connection to a website. The website itself will still know exactly what your IP address is and your activity on that site, but no one will be able to snoop on the traffic — such as your ISP.

So how about using only secure connections to websites? Well, that’s one option – but be sure to type HTTPS directly into your browser address bar.

HTTPS01   Can You Really Be Anonymous Online?

Many sites will automatically redirect you to the secure version of the site once you’ve logged in; but that’s too late. If your connection to the site starts unsecured, then an attacker can sit in the middle and fake the secure handshake;  they’ll redirect you to the unsecured version of the site and intercept everything you send.

VPNs

Moving on, how about some good old VPNs? A VPN tunnels through your regular Internet and uses another remote server as your visible connection to the world — thereby giving you a different IP address. Ideally, one that can’t be mapped back to you. But not all VPNs are created alike.

torrentip results   Can You Really Be Anonymous Online?

In fact, some VPNs are known to give up customer information at a moments notice. HideMyAss is a particularly notorious example; despite what their nomenclature suggests, not a single inch of your posterior is covered if you break their terms of service, which includes conducting any illegal activity.

Some VPNs claim to keep no records at all, and this really is the only way to be truly safe from low level investigations. It doesn’t matter if authorities request the records — there simply aren’t any to give. But how much can you really trust the word of these companies? If they were cooperating with security agencies, they would have to deny it anyway. The lesson there: use a non-American VPN that has a trusted reputation of not keeping any records. Do your research first.

Government Surveillance

So, even if you do directly navigate to the HTTPS version of a site or use a VPN to secure the connection, if the site is hosted in America there’s a good chance the NSA already has a backdoor into their services with programs like the PRISM or could request one at a moments notice. You wouldn’t know if they were doing so because gag orders prevent them from telling anyone. It’s not just services hosted in America; agencies throughout the world cooperate with the government — the UK does exactly the same thing.

What about Tor?

Most people are under the impression that Tor is the ultimate in online anonymity, but a recent FBI operation took down the largest darknet child pornography site in the world, by injecting malware into the browsers of Tor users — and obtained the IP addresses of all the site members in the process.

onion routing 2   Can You Really Be Anonymous Online?

Given enough time and effort, traffic correlation data can be used to identify users by controlling Tor nodes. The more you control and can snoop on traffic, the faster you can crack the anonymity. With one node it might take you 6 months to identify a single user. With 10s or 100s of nodes, you’re laughing. It’s not something your average hacker is going to do, but official surveillance budgets can clearly handle that level of commitment. Ultimately, Tor does not make you anonymous. If anything, the fact you’re even using Tor may be more of a red light for authorities to delve further.

No, You Can’t Be Anonymous

The ultimate truth is, there’s no real way to be truly anonymous online. But on the other hand, no government agency really cares that much about you pirating things or seeking encounters on CraigsList. A properly chosen VPN offers more than enough protection for most purposes. Tor even more so. Breaking your anonymity takes a lot of work, patience, and court orders (unless you’re NSA, then it’s just a few keystrokes away sometimes). But when it comes to things like planning to bomb things, or posting pictures of children — you’re never going to be safe. And that’s a good thing. 

What is your personal point of view about online anonymity? Tell us in the comments.

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23 Comments - Write a Comment

Reply

Joel L

I personally don’t get all the hub-bub surrounding Internet anonymity. I rarely, if ever, expect to conduct anonymous activities offline, and even if that were the case, people would see my hair, height, ethnicity, hear my voice, etc. Yet when we sit down at the computer, we suddenly expect everything to be magically hidden. Meh.

Like you said, I think it’s a good thing that we can’t be perfectly anonymous.

Joel L

Forgot to mention: Increased anonymity leads to reduced accountability.

Schvenn M

It’s the permanence of online activity that is the biggest problem.

How many times have you said something that you regret? The offended party may remember it, but there is no permanent record.

With online activities, everything is permanent and can dredged up against you, down the road. I’m not talking about things that someone should obviously not have said or done under normal circumstances. What about the off-colour joke you told or something you said that can be misconstrued. Someone can take all of that information and use it against you, down the road.

What does your future hold? Right now you might be young, single and steadily employed. However, a criticism you expressed about a particular company or policy that may have been perfectly valid may eventually bite you in the backside.

5 years from now you suddenly have a family to worry about and someone wants to track you down, or them through you. Things you’ve said or done in the past may help them to do so. That’s where the greatest concerns begin to coalesce. Everything should have an expiration date, but on the Internet, that’s not really the case.

While things like TheWayBackMachine are great resources, they can also demonstrate the problems with this concept.

That’s only one problem with the concept of the Internet and why anonymity is not such a bad thing, in the long run.

Of course, hiding your less savory activities is the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Internet anonymity, but it’s not the only consideration.

Walkingeagle

Joel ? where have you been ?…. Well let me tell ya’ what its like to be a target… and just how easy it was to be targeted…. actually I’ll spare you the Drama…
But I have to tell ya’, you had better WAKE UP !.. and realize just how crucial it is to protect your personal details, Identity, and History on the Internet… or Anywhere, my friend…
W.

Reply

cp

It’s not so much the use of these spying techniques that are of concern, as much as it is the potential abuse (for political purposes). A citizen review board (as opposed to another rubber-stamp crony court) would go a long way in addressing this issue.

Reply

Niels V

Dude, you clearly do not known what you are talking about.

True internet anonymous browsing DOES exist, it is just extremely hard to objectain

For example
If you make thing connection TOR > VPN (first encrypted with all the TOR encryption layers, than with the VPN layer) on a public hotspot, with a spoofed MAC address and hostname, so you fool a potential local advanced log systems, out of sight of any cameras

And use a M3 privacy filter, external screen so you make change bigger you fake the screen resolution the websites see, check the source code or the TOR browser, remove anything that could be exploited and is not useful or even privacy harming, compile it yourself, run it, disable cookies, remove all cookies, flash cookies, browse history, disable flash & java, fake user agent, turn on do-not-track, use a tracking stopper like Ghostery or DoNotTrackMe, than switch between the private search engines; DuckDuckGo, Zeekly, and Startpage.

Of course all in Linux

Than you could browse kind’a, anonymous, couldn’t you?

osman

Dude, if you don’t know the difference between the words “then” and “than”, and how to properly use them, I don’t think your advice on anonymity can be trusted.

Joe

than/then yeah type-o it happens geez :-p

might as well just get a throw away phone that has internet then throw it away after every session.

if you are on linux just install lynx and use it.. i think still works.. no java(script), flash, etc.. its great! ;-)

Ert

No, you still can’t be sure, unless you create your own hardware. They can put malware in hardware, you know.

So, the answer is true. There is no way to hide from governments.

I personally and unwillingly accept the fact that we all live in a surveillance world like 1984. Sad but true.

Reply

Trebor

Thanks Niels, now the Terrorists know how to do it.

Zaphod Beeblebrox

Yeah Trebor. Are those the ones with WMDs from Darkadarkistan…?

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Zhong J

You can bring your laptop to a library and use their wireless access to perform your anonymous tasks.

ThatGuy

They keep kicking me out for masturbating in too loudly

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Gianna Marie L

i agree .

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Chris

I never really have had a problem with remaining anonymous on the internet, I don’t do things that I need to hide. If the government wants to see all the porn I look at then I don’t really care. What I do care a lot about and what everyone should care about is remaining SECURE on the internet. There is a big difference and for whatever reason people have made anonymity and security synonymous when they aren’t necessarily. So while it may not be possible to be completely anonymous from your ISP and the government you can definitely keep yourself secure from black hat hackers, which is important (obviously).

Btw I love this site. You guys always have interesting and informative articles that I pass on to my friends and family who aren’t very computer literate. It saves me the trouble of always having to do everything for them and stops them from constantly bombarding me with questions… they just use your site.

James B

Thanks for the compliment Chris!

It’s strange, because security is generally lost with anonymity, and vice versa – you wouldnt send your banking credentials over a VPN or a public wifi, for instance.

Reply

Min Xuan X

VPNs generally decrease internet speeds for some reason (I forgot why). But some ISPs also provide their own VPN so the international streaming speed will be higher. That means people from another country will be able to use Netflix etc. without any problems. Trouble is that their monthly subscription is typically much higher than those telcos that don’t provide VPNs.

James B

If you’re just after international streaming, a DNS hack like UnoTelly.com is much faster – VPNs are overkill for that. But yes, VPNs are always slower because you’re tunnelling one connection inside of another, basically.

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Bill

Excellent article, concisely and realistically addresses the issue of achieving a high degree of anonymity online. Complete anonymity is of course almost impossible to achieve without sacrificing critical elements of functionality. For instance, any use of java applets and flash will allow your actual IP address to be uncovered whether using proxies or vpn. Check it out at – http://ip-check.info/. If using “NoScript” in your Firefox browser, you allow the scripts to run, you will find that your real IP can be seen. If blocking those elements, your identity won’t be uncovered. Not to mention the way cookies are often used to track your web experience and reveal things about yourself to third parties. As far as proxies, etc., Tor is always flaunted as a “cure all” for ensuring on-line anonymity, but it too has many weaknesses and drawbacks all of which are well documented. There are many fine, paid proxy & vpn services, but if your browser is not configured correctly, they too will inadvertently expose your real IP.

Firefox is probably the best secure browser available, and it’s feature of allowing add-ons such as Ghostery, User Agent Switcher, NoScript, Https-Everywhere, Cookie Monster, etc., is extremely positive for enhancing the browsing experience and aiding anonymity online.

The reality is, anonymity and security go hand in hand. The greater degree you can achieve both, the safer and more secure your web surfing will become. As to those that don’t understand the need to educate themselves about these issues, and take some action to protect themselves, all I can say is that it’s a little like forgetting to get dressed before leaving your house to go someplace – well, maybe that’s okay for some people.

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ahmed

what about cyber ghost VPN. i think it is the best vpn to hide identity online.

James B

No – the encryption used on all VPNs has been compromised.

Reply

Chump

You sort of do have anonymity – so far as hiding your identity from other people on the internet – unless you carelessly re-use obscure usernames and email addresses etc.

Privacy is what you don’t have.

Reply

anonymous

There is a method for being anonymous but it’s not easy and it’s illegal of course : connect to a Wifi spot with an account that is not yours … using a machine without identified mac …

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