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Want to browse the web privately? Here’s how to do it for real

Justin Pot
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Konstantynov/123RF

When it comes to browsing the Web without leaving a trail, there is a lot of noise out there. Advice varies from getting a VPN, to disabling cookies, to utilizing the Private Browsing mode within the browser of your choice. But which of these tools actually work? And how do they work? The truth is, different tools prevent different kinds of tracking.

  • Your IP address is a series of numbers generally set by your ISP, and is necessary to access the Internet. Any site you visit can log your IP address, which could later be used to identify you.
  • Accounts you’re signed into, such as Google or Facebook, can be used by those companies to track your activity on those respective sites, along with other sites thanks to an embedded code. Things like Google Analytics or the ubiquitous “Like” button could, in theory, track your browsing activities on behalf of those companies.
  • Cookies are small text files generated by sites to save, among other things, your preferences on sites. The Web would be very annoying to use without them, but cookies are also sometimes used to track users for advertising purposes.
  • Your online fingerprint, or user agent string, is made up of all the information your computer sends out to Web servers while requesting a website. This includes what browser and operating system you’re using, as well as your resolution. This site lets you see what this information looks like. Your fingerprint isn’t necessarily unique, but can be used to track you even when everything else is obscured.

There are other methods, but these are the main tracking tools as of this writing. Knowing which privacy tools to use depends on which of these things you’re concerned about. Let’s go through all the different tools you can use to browse the Web privately, and go over what they do and don’t do to protect your privacy.

Private Browsing: Stop your browser from tracking you

What it does: Opens a new browser session that isn’t signed into any accounts and doesn’t utilize cookies. Activity in private browsing mode is also not added to your browser history. 

What it doesn’t do: Stop sites from tracking your IP address. 

Your Web browser keeps track of every site you visit, and stores a complete list of those sites in your browser history. This can be a very useful tool for finding back websites you’ve visited, and it’s also used to populate the auto-suggestions you see every time you start typing a URL.

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Sometimes, however, you might want to browse the Web without your browsing keeping track of your all your activities. That’s where Private Browsing comes in.

This feature has different names on different browsers — on Chrome it’s called Incognito Mode, on Internet Explorer it’s called InPrivate — but acts basically the same on all of them. A new browser window opens, and none of your activity in that window is added to your browser history. Any accounts you’re signed into in your other browser windows are not signed into in the Private Browsing window, meaning you can’t be tracked as a user of those sites. And your cookies are not visible while using Private Browsing, meaning sites cannot track you this way.

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So, Private Browsing mode does quite a few things if you want to quickly browse the Web without being tracked by your accounts or by cookies. However, it also doesn’t obscure your IP address. Any site you visit can still keep a record of your IP address, which could in turn be used to identify you.

Do Not Track: Ask sites to not track you

What it does: Kindly asks sites if they will not track you. 

What it doesn’t do: Actually stop sites from tracking you.

Dig through your browser’s settings and you’ll find the option to turn on something called “Do Not Track.” You might think that turning this on will prevent sites from tracking you entirely, but sadly, that’s not the case. “Do Not Track” is something that’s a great idea in theory, but one that hasn’t worked well in practice.

The idea was to give browsers an optional setting where users could state that they’re not comfortable being tracked. Sites would agree not to track such users, giving users just a bit more control over their information.

Unfortunately, list of sites that respect Do Not Track is laughably small. Turning this feature on doesn’t hurt in terms of hiding your identity, but it also won’t help much.

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There are alternatives to Do Not Track that actually block trackers, the most famous of which are Ghostery and Privacy Badger. These are browser extensions that show you which services are tracking your Web traffic on any given page, and give you the power to block trackers at will.

VPNs: Mask your IP address

What they do: Obscure your IP address and encrypt your traffic. 

What they don’t (necessarily) do: Stop your traffic from being logged by the VPN itself, or by any sites you’re signed into. Stop you from being tracked by cookies, user accounts, or your user agent string.

You can’t use the Web without an IP address, as sites would not know where to send the information you request, thus breaking your Internet connection. That said, you can obscure your IP address using a VPN service. A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, routes all of your Internet through another computer. This means that, so far as the sites you visit are concerned, your IP is that of your VPN. Because thousands of other VPN users are also using the same IP address, anyone trying to trace your activity can’t do so using your IP alone.

This isn’t a solution to all potential tracking, however. If you’re logged into Google, for example, that company will be able to track your activity using your account. Furthermore, using a VPN does nothing to protect you from being tracked by cookies, or your user agent string.

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It’s also worth noting that not all VPNs are created equal. Some have publicly committed to not keeping logs of their users’ activity, while others have not. There have also been security problems that have revealed user identities on more than a few major VPNs.

Some easy-to-use services that currently have strong security reputations include NordVPN and Private Internet Access, but ultimately it’s up to each user to decide which services they trust. Do your homework before routing all of your traffic through any of these services.

TOR: Route your traffic through other users’ computers

What it does: Routes your traffic through other users’ computers. 

What it doesn’t do: Keep you anonymous outside the TOR browser.

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Using a VPN is just one option for obscuring your IP address. TOR is another. The service encrypts your traffic, and your IP address, before routing it through three randomly selected exit nodes. Everything is also re-encrypted at every step, making it nearly impossible for your Web traffic to be traced.

To get started, you’ll need to download the TOR browser, which is a modified version of Firefox. Use the browser when you want to avoid being tracked by your IP address.

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Government agencies and hackers have occasionally managed to trace someone’s traffic over TOR, but so far, the problem has usually turned out to be related to user activity. For this reason, TOR also recommends that you do the following.

  • Don’t download torrents over TOR, because this will usually end up revealing your IP address one way or another.
  • Don’t enable any browser plugins in TOR, such as Adobe’s Flash, because they’ve been known to reveal IP addresses.
  • Use encrypted versions of sites, whenever possible. TOR comes with HTTPS Everywhere out-of-the-box for just this reason. This enables encryption on any and all sites that offer it.
  • Don’t open documents downloaded through TOR, at least not while online. These could access the Internet outside TOR and be used to trace your real IP address.

Using TOR to browse the Web is probably the simplest way to ensure your security, particularly if you only use it in situations when security is a must. There are ways your traffic can be traced through it, but that usually boils down to user error. It’s probably a good idea to only use TOR when it’s important to be anonymous, and use another browser for day-to-day computing.

When these powers combine…

As you can tell, there are many different ways you can keep yourself anonymous if you combine the proper tools. Here are just a few examples:

  • A VPN with Private Browsing. This will obscure your IP address from the outside world while also disabling your cookies and sign-ins.
  • TOR is a great way to browse the Web without being traced, and you can enable private browsing on that browser for yet another layer of protection.
  • A VPN with Ghostery enabled stops your IP from being traced, and lets you block scripts from tracking your online activity.
  • TOR with a VPN is great for the truly paranoid, as it stacks up as many layers as possible between you and the outside world. Enable private browsing here and you’ve got yet another layer.

Any of these setups can go a long way toward making your Web activities completely anonymous.

Being anonymous isn’t easy

Of course, there’s always more you can do. For example, you could switch from Google — which famously tracks your search activity — to DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t. Moreover, if you’re using an unencrypted Wi-Fi connection, anyone nearby can sniff out your traffic and get a very good idea of what you’re up to online. Make sure your router is set up to encrypt your traffic, and be sure to browse only through a VPN when you must use an unencrypted connection.

The Internet was never designed for anonymous usage, which makes staying anonymous online a good deal of work. The above tools are a great starting point, but remaining anonymous in the long term depends on whether you keep up with the latest security news and ensure your software is up to date. Good luck, and stay safe out there!