Can You Really Be Anonymous Online?

James Bruce 12-09-2013

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 Why Email Can't Be Protected From Government Surveillance “If you knew what I know about email, you might not use it either,” said the owner of secure email service Lavabit as he recently shut it down. "There is no way to do encrypted... Read More , 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.

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



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.



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 What Is HTTPS & How To Enable Secure Connections Per Default Security concerns are spreading far and wide and have reached the forefront of most everybody's mind. Terms like antivirus or firewall are no longer strange vocabulary and are not only understood, but also used by... Read More ? Well, that’s one option – but be sure to type HTTPS directly into your browser address bar.



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.


Moving on, how about some good old VPNs What A VPN Tunnel Is & How To Set One Up Read More ? 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.



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 SurfEasy Private Browser: Portable USB VPN-Enabled Browser On A Card [Giveaway] Email, social networks, banking: many of the things we do online require some level of security. This is relatively secure on your own devices, but what if you need to use these services on a... Read More 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 What Is PRISM? Everything You Need to Know The National Security Agency in the US has access to whatever data you're storing with US service providers like Google Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook. They're also likely monitoring most of the traffic flowing across the... Read More 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 What Is Onion Routing, Exactly? [MakeUseOf Explains] Internet privacy. Anonymity was one of the greatest features of the Internet in its youth (or one of its worst features, depending on who you ask). Leaving aside the sorts of problems that spring forth... Read More , 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.



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.

Related topics: Online Privacy, Online Security, Tor Network, VPN.

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  1. Barry Wilson
    March 17, 2017 at 7:49 am

    Perhaps one can't be truly anonymous. Which if true is good if someone is being harassed online.

    As for racist jerks that one would like to see exposed. Unless it a call to violence, a normal user can't find any authority to track them down.

    Or if you want to post hatred against others. Use Facebook and your real name. I have found even the most malicious and false statements against a group does not contravene their community standards. I have reported enough vile statements to be sure of that.

    Thanks and all the best
    Barry Wilson
    Niagara Canada

  2. AliciaFoxyyy
    March 8, 2017 at 12:14 am

    "Claiming that it wasn't you isn't an excuse" What are u on about, damn right i'm gonna claim that it wasn't me that's like a scenario where someone falsely accuses u of some crime u didn't commit, what if my neighbour who came for a coffee posted something on my pc while i was in the bathroom this article is utterly iritating & stupid!!!

  3. Aliciaaa
    March 8, 2017 at 12:05 am

    This article sucks & it's very iritating.

  4. Anonymous
    April 9, 2016 at 11:49 pm

    This entire article starts with the premise that you can be tracked by your ISP-provided IP address, which they can corelate to an individual subscriber. (We'll pretend, just for the sake of argument, that you can't sign up for a wire-line connection or prepaid hotspot using falsified information not traceable to your real identity.) It then goes on to detail why all the methods for obscuring that IP are not 100% effective (which is true) and, with enough work, can be undone to resolve your true IP. However, you got so stuck on that train of thought, you failed to remember that Starbucks, and the public library both exist, which completely negates the entire conclusion drawn by the article. If I use tor and a VPN on anyone else's connection other than my own, the government can enjoy spending a month resolving that connection back to a coffee shop, but good luck figuring out which customer it was after I'm long gone.

    Your reply in the comments section about not sending banking details over a VPN or public WiFi just further demonstrates your lack of credibility on the subject of online security and anonymity. Over a VPN is the ONLY way you should transmit sensitive information when connected to unsecured public WiFi. If you don't trust your VPN enough not to be snooping or logging that info, you shouldn't be using that VPN to begin with.

    • James Bruce
      April 10, 2016 at 6:59 am

      If you're happy doing whatever it is you're doing in a public place with cameras and people wandering around all the time, then probably what you're doing doesn't need to be anonymous at all.

      • Anonymouse
        June 4, 2016 at 9:35 pm

        That statement doesn't make any sense at all.

    • stravo lukos
      January 5, 2018 at 9:28 pm

      An, sorry, but no soap. Public hotspots are no longer a safe zone for pervs & other scumslurpers. I suggest you look up Eli the Computer Guy on YouTube. He clearly illustrates why this isn't the case. Privacy is history. Just the way it is, hombre.

      • Anonymous
        January 10, 2018 at 4:27 pm

        You felt the need to reply to a 2 year old comment to point out that technology evolves? Regardless I'll stick to actual security white papers published by reputable researchers, not some nerd on YouTube

  5. anonymous
    September 15, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    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 ...

  6. Chump
    September 14, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    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.

  7. ahmed
    September 14, 2013 at 7:53 am

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

    • James B
      September 14, 2013 at 8:05 am

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

  8. Bill
    September 13, 2013 at 10:04 am

    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 - 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.

  9. Min Xuan X
    September 13, 2013 at 6:29 am

    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
      September 13, 2013 at 7:49 am

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

  10. Chris
    September 13, 2013 at 5:31 am

    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
      September 13, 2013 at 7:51 am

      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.

  11. Gianna Marie L
    September 13, 2013 at 4:03 am

    i agree .

  12. Zhong J
    September 12, 2013 at 9:43 pm

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

    • ThatGuy
      September 13, 2013 at 3:04 am

      They keep kicking me out for masturbating in too loudly

  13. Trebor
    September 12, 2013 at 9:13 pm

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

    • Zaphod Beeblebrox
      January 2, 2014 at 9:01 pm

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

  14. Niels V
    September 12, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    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
      September 12, 2013 at 10:47 pm

      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
      September 13, 2013 at 3:43 am

      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
      February 17, 2014 at 8:26 pm

      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.

  15. cp
    September 12, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    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.

  16. Joel L
    September 12, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    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
      September 12, 2013 at 7:09 pm

      Forgot to mention: Increased anonymity leads to reduced accountability.

    • Schvenn M
      September 13, 2013 at 9:37 am

      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
      March 11, 2014 at 3:08 pm

      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...