Three Simple but Strong Tools for Online Anonymity
It’s often said that no one knows who you are on the internet but in recent times, that idea has come into question. With current technology, tracking a person down on the internet is possible even for a hobbyist—and for dedicated hackers, criminal networks, and government organizations, it’s remarkably easy.
That is, of course, unless you take precautions to protect your identity online. Internet anonymity comes in different levels and has a variety of uses. Accessing the internet anonymously can let you avoid surveillance, access content that is typically blocked, or even assume a different online identity in the form of an altered IP address. Some forms, which use the deep internet, include services that can’t even be accessed except through specific kinds of online anonymity.
There are a number of tools that you can use to achieve these kinds of anonymity. While their underlying technology can be quite complex, these platforms make it so that with even newcomers can use them with just a little setup and research. You can use each one according to your preferences and, in some cases, even combine them for stronger protection.
This secure, anonymous browser takes its name from The Onion Router (TOR). TOR started as a military initiative to improve encrypted communications, but eventually became a non-profit organization committed to developing technology for internet anonymity.
TOR is named for its use of multiple layers of encryption, which are employed over a network of relays. To put it simply, TOR relies on multiple nodes that pass on information. A computer using this network identifies a path, which runs through multiple nodes, and sends information through it. From each node to the next, the information is encrypted and then decrypted, retaining only enough information to send it along to the next node and then out from there. Once it reaches the end, tracing the path back to the original computer would take considerable effort.
Tor Browser makes this technology available in a way that even casual users can use. It’s installed like any other browser and, once launched, acts like one as well. Its powerful encryption protects your identity and keeps your actions concealed—though any outside party will be able to see that you are using TOR. This means that any site that is set up to block access through TOR will be able to keep you out.
Also, because of the encryption process, Tor Browser slows your connection somewhat. Depending on your usual speeds, this may make it difficult to stream videos or download large files. If combined with a VPN (see below), the connection is slowed even further, though you gain additional security benefits.
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
Using a VPN is one of the most common ways that people use to achieve online anonymity. While it’s possible to configure a VPN for your own use, most people use VPN services (either free or paid) because of a combination of convenience and utility.
When you connect to a VPN endpoint, it establishes a secure tunnel between your computer and the corresponding VPN server. This tunnel encrypts all data passing through it, so that third parties can’t monitor your actions or messages. A VPN server also assigns you an IP address based on its location. This conceals your IP address—more anonymity—and lets you pass as a user from that region. Most VPN services have servers in multiple regions, which lets their users bypass most geo-blocking measures.
For an easily accessible VPN, you can try Hotspot Shield’s free version. It features the basic features of any VPN service—powerful encryption, servers in multiple regions, IP address concealment—but at no cost. And if you want to expand your options, an elite version is available at different pricing schemes.
Other VPN services might offer other features or specifications to carve their niche into the market. Some, for instance, cater to gamers by providing extra protection against cyber attacks. Others push the limits on anonymity by having headquarters in countries with looser data management laws. You can easily find a VPN to suit your needs.
It’s possible to use a VPN in conjunction with either Tor or I2P (see below). Their different types of encryption and concealment complement each other: other parties will be be hard-pressed to monitor you and may not even be aware of the extent of your security measures—they might not know you’re using Tor, I2P, or a VPN, depending on how you set it up. That said, this also compounds the reduction in net speed.
The Invisible Internet Project (I2P) uses an anonymous overlay to protect its users information online. It uses a network of volunteer computers to relay encrypted, peer-to-peer data that’s resistant to surveillance and censorship.
Unlike TOR and VPNs, I2P is mainly concealed with maintaining networks within networks—sites that can operate outside the normal sphere of the internet. It has more “hidden functions”—web pages or functions accessible only by using it—than Tor (or VPNs, which do not, strictly speaking, have any). Because of this and because I2P doesn’t have a simplified browser like TOR does, it’s somewhat more complicated to use than the other two alternatives.
I2P’s smaller network allows it to maintain a lower profile than TOR, but also means that it does not benefit from as extensive a community of experts and scholars. So while its protection is comparable in strength, it may not appeal to a broad user base.
About the Author
Chris San Filippo is a part of the marketing team at Hotspot Shield, one of the top ranked VPNs in the world. Hotspot Shield has over 500 million downloads and has helped users from over 200 countries fight for net neutrality and against censorship. Chris’s work has helped Hotspot Shield earn features in publications like Forbes, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal. In addition to his job with Hotspot Shield, Chris also blogs about web security, cryptocurrencies, and social media trends.