If you like your privacy, you better think twice about which browser you use to to access the internet. Web browsing can be a very scary thing. Websites track your surfing session. Social networks, search engines, your Internet provider, even the government may be tracking you online as well! They may be collecting what they consider valuable marketing data, or trying to prevent potentially dangerous criminal activity, regardless, what you do online, in the so called privacy and comforts of your home, sadly folks, is anything but private! For this post, I've gathered some tips and tricks to help you browse anonymously, should you care to.
Do you ever wonder about the ads you get on your Facebook page, or other sites you visit? How they are seemingly tailored just for you? Well, THEY ARE! Your searches, and the sites you visit get captured (via cookies and other browser tools) to help the sites your visit to understand your online “tendencies”, which are for nothing more that their benefit. To help avoid sites knowing "who you are", or better, who your computer is, one thing you can do is use anonymous proxy software. What is proxy software? Anonymous proxy software is a great way to mask, or hide your IP address online. However, even using this type of software, there is still plenty of information about your Web-surfing habits stored on your computer — which could also be viewed over a network, say, at the office, by your IT department (that's right folks)
Thankfully, its very easy to manage your privacy settings right in your Web browser, unless the company you work for does not give you admin privileges, which you need to make changes to your browsers settings.
A great thing to do is to disable the cookies in your browser. A browser cookie is a tiny text file that gets stored on your computer. It has information about where you've been online, your passwords, and other information as well. You should also delete your browser history to make certain to cover your tracks! Every major browser, from IE, Chrome, Safari or Firefox allows you to delete your browsing history. All you need to do is go into the Options or Settings on your favorite browser and you'll see how this is done. In Safari, Apple makes it very easy. Click the History Menu option and you'll see a menu like the one below pop up.
You'll click the Clear history option (last item you'll see on the pop-up menu), then a window will appear like the one below.
From there, you can decided if you’d like to clear the last hour, today, today and yesterday, or all history. I recommend doing this weekly, and choosing the all history option.
Another tip...Turn off Auto-complete functionality on your browser. If Auto-complete is turned on, someone could jump on your computer, type in a few letters of a Web Address (URL) bar, or in a search engine and any recent places you've visited could be automatically filled in! And NEVER click "Remember my password" for any private or financial institutions (or anything else for that matter, see my blog/post about 1Password). Doing so could grant a hacker access to your most precious information.
Ok, there is another, very easy thing you can do. Most browsers allow for private surfing. If you are a Safari user, click on the File menu option, and choose New Private Window. Enabling this feature will stop your browser from saving any history, search queries, cookies or passwords.
Ok, now let's discuss search engines. If you think the web is a great place to search for things, you are correct! I don’t believe what you search for should become the property of the search engine you use! So what are your choices? Try using the DuckDuckGo search engine. DuckDuckGo is an Internet search engine that protects searchers' privacy. DuckDuckGo distinguishes itself from other search engines by not profiling its users and by deliberately showing all users the same search results for a given search term. DuckDuckGo emphasizes getting information from the best sources rather than the most sources, generating its search results from key crowdsourced sites such as Wikipedia and from partnerships with other search engines like Yandex, Yahoo!, Bing, and Yummly (taken directly from their web page!).
Finally and sadly, you may (or may not) have heard that Facebook shares your Web-browsing history it collects with advertisers to display more targeted ads — yes, even on non-Facebook sites you visit. Thankfully you can opt out of this within Facebook's Privacy settings.
Speaking of Facebook, how on earth does Facebook know to show you ads for your local gym or supermarket? In part it's because your computer's unique Internet Protocol (IP) address, assigned by your Internet provider, which reveals your geographical location. Unfortunately, even if your computer generates a different IP address every time you boot up or log online, this number (e.g. 126.96.36.199) still tells your general location. There are a slew of solutions that allow you to hide your Internet connection, allowing you to remain anonymous while online. One solution is to use a free "online proxy servers" to conceal your identity. Simply point the Web address (URL) to the proxy server and surf right from its website (for help with this, check out proxy.org for a list of great options). Or, you may wish to download Virtual Private Network (VPN) software that encrypts your browsing sessions. The browser-independent Hotspot Shield from AnchorFree (anchor free.com), for example is available for Windows, Macs, iPhone and Android channels all Web activities through a personal VPN and secures Internet communications by turning all HTTP traffic into the safer HTTPS (which is what your bank uses for a safe connection). You can purchase an ad-supported free version and a beefier "elite" option ($29.95/year) with more bells and whistles.
Similarly, Tor is free software that protects you against Internet surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy. TOR is short for "The Onion Router" — which gets its name for its "layered" approach to the encryption process — TOR (torproject.org) provides online anonymity as the software routes Internet traffic through a worldwide volunteer network of servers to conceal your location as well as your online browsing patterns.
Lastly, I will cover USB sticks. Aren’t USB sticks for storage you ask? Well yes, but they also can be used to help you browse the web anonymously! In some cases, software to encrypt your connection is kept on a USB drive. These can be fantastic when you wish to remain safe and secure when using a public PC. Check out the SurfEasy Private Browser ($69.99 one-time fee; surfeasy.com). Its a tiny USB key that fits into a credit card-shaped case to be kept in your wallet. When you plug it into a PC or Mac it immediately launches its own password-protected browser and you're good to go (no proxy or network settings to configure). Your browsing session is handled through SurfEasy's fast and secure private proxy network. Your IP address will be masked throughout your browsing session. SurfEasy also has a new downloadable product called SurfEasy VPN that can protect not only computers, but your iPhones, iPads and even Android devices as well! You may also wish to check out Tails (tails.boum.org), which can be downloaded and installed onto a USB stick to run independently of the computer's original operating system. Similar to SurfEasy, it allows you browse the Web anonymously, on virtually any computer as all connections are channeled through the earlier mentioned TOR network.
It is crazy how much information gets collected about us online, and if you didn’t realize how unsafe your browsing was, hopefully this blog clued you in. You may choose to do nothing, just be aware that you are being "followed" and "watched". There are things you can do, and things I hope you do to help protect yourself. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to reach out to me for assistance!
Until next time, best to you and your devices. And Safe Browsing to you all!