The internet is not safe.
I know, it’s mean to start out with a bombshell like that. But I respect you, so I’m not going to lie to you. If you browse the internet without taking precautions, you risk being spied on, ripped off, or worse.
I would rather enter an abandoned house during a full moon and suggest that my friends all split up than browse the internet without any sort of security. Sure, I might get murdered. But at least I won’t have to live with a stolen identity.
Hackers can do all sorts of foul things with your IP address. They can easily mask their own address to look like yours, downloaded terabytes of illegal data, and put you on the hook for it — and that’s just one example.
I’m not saying horrible things will happen to everyone, or even to most people. But the potential consequences of totally unsecured browsing are so severe, and the precautions so simple, that there’s no reason not to be careful.
There’s a common misconception that the only people who need to browse the internet anonymously are people with something to hide — people downloading music illegally, spouses watching porn, or even outright criminals.
That’s no longer true (if it ever was). Online anonymity benefits everybody. It’s frighteningly easy for people with very little training to gain access to your credit card numbers, bank account information and personal passwords.
So how can you stay anonymous online?
You don’t need to be an expert in cybersecurity or an NSA analyst to hide your online traffic. In this article, we’ll explain how to stay safe in three easy steps — and go into detail about what (and who) you’re staying safe from.
What Do You Mean by Anonymous Browsing?
Every device capable of connecting to a network has a unique number called an IP address. Think of it as a signpost that your computer uses to tell websites where to send information.
When you boot up FerretOwners.com (I won’t judge), your computer sends a request to the server where FerretOwners.com lives, asking it to send the website to your IP address as a packet of information. Because of universal protocols agreed upon by web hosts, two devices can communicate even if they’ve never connected before.
Unfortunately, that also means that to get any of that sweet ferret content you crave, you need to make your identity publicly available online.
Your IP address is the stepping stone to tracking everything else about your online activity. If a third party can see your IP address, they can also see every request it makes to a website. And as any physicist can tell you, if you know something’s position and direction, you know everything.
The only way to actually browse anonymously is to ensure that nobody can see your IP address.
Why Browse Anonymously?
You know that old saying “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide,” and how it’s complete BS?
I bet you can think of five reasons, right now, why somebody would want to be anonymous even if they weren’t doing anything wrong. Here’s my list:
- They work in a field like law or medicine where confidentiality is sacred.
- They have a stalker and are trying to ensure that person doesn’t find their new home address.
- They live under a repressive government that prosecutes people for the things they write online.
- They’re buying someone a bicycle helmet as a birthday present, but have zero interest in biking themselves, and don’t want to get bombarded with biking gear ads just because they looked it up on Amazon one time.
- They live in the United States but really want to watch The Great British Bake Off.
As you can see, reasons range from light to serious — and I’m willing to wager you came up with different ones.
Everybody faces the consequences of the steady erosion of online privacy. Even if you don’t think you’re being spied on, you are.
Here’s an example: If you use the same IP address to connect to multiple websites, people can begin following your trail. You know how you agree to enable “cookies” on every website you visit, just to get that annoying pop-up out of the way?
Cookies are information gatherers that follow your activity on a website. They can be used for benign purposes — for example, recording that you’ve already logged into a website, so you don’t have to reenter your credentials every time. But they can also be used to spy on you for advertising purposes.
Ads aren’t the worst of it, either. We described in the intro how hackers can use your identity to commit fraud and other crimes.
By this point, I hope I’ve convinced you to take your own online privacy seriously. Your next question is probably: “How do I stay anonymous online?”
Well, I did promise three easy steps.
Step by Step: How Do I Browse Anonymously?
Before we start, let’s get one thing out of the way: Incognito Mode is not anonymous browsing.
Most browsers have an Incognito Mode or similarly named option for private surfing. These only prevent information from being stored locally. As we’ve just learned, local storage isn’t the problem — the problem is that your browser is shouting your personal information every time you get online.
Here are three steps you can take to actually protect your privacy while you browse.
1. Update Your Browser Settings
The user policies of Chrome and Edge state that they can log any queries you type into the URL bar. They give these queries to their ad networks, or sell them to third parties who target invasive personalized ads at you.
Luckily, on both browsers, you can request that your search history not be used against you. To prevent Google from saving and using your searches on Chrome, click the top-right dots, then go to Settings → Sync and Google Services → Control how your browsing history is used to personalize search, ads, and more → Turn off Web & App Activity.
On Edge, go to Settings → Privacy → Diagnostics & Feedback → Tailored Experiences and set your browser not to tailor ads using your search history.
Firefox sends data to the search engine without recording it. So if you’re using a privacy-focused search engine like DuckDuckGo, you should be good (more on that in a minute).
Tech companies are betting that you’ll let them do shady things because it’s more convenient. It’s a tale as old as time, dating back to the very first overly long user agreement that hid sinister privileges in the fine print. This means you can start protecting your privacy simply by studying up and refusing to consent.
With all that said, you should never trust people with your information just because they promise they won’t use it maliciously. Step 1 isn’t enough on its own.
2. Use a VPN for Browsing
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a tool that encrypts all the data you send from your device to your ISP.
Normally, a request to view a website goes to your ISP first, enabling it to log your activity. With a VPN, all requests are filtered through an anonymous server. All your ISP sees is the VPN — you become a nonentity.
Not all VPNs are trustworthy. Some slow down your connection, some don’t work and some actually log your browsing information for themselves.
That said, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that all VPNs are out to get you. Our favorite, ExpressVPN, is fast, tightly secured, and promises to never save user web browsing activity. Of course, we wouldn’t trust that promise without verifying, but ExpressVPN comes out clean; it’s been around since 2009, and has never been caught selling user data.
3. Install an Ad Blocker
Ad blockers keep you from being bombarded with annoying banners and videos, but the best ones do even more than that. Tools such as uBlock Origin and Privacy Badger block the cookies and trackers that follow your IP address across the net to spam you with invasive ads.
I don’t endorse any silver bullets for online privacy. There’s no one app that will keep you safe forever. But if you combine education with a suite of battle-tested tools, you can enjoy the marvels of the internet stress-free.
10 Ways to Stay Anonymous Online
When it comes to the full array of anonymous browsing tools, we haven’t yet scratched the surface. Governments, corporations, and hackers are powerful, but so are the people working on your side.
Remember, the key to anonymous browsing is to mask your IP address so that your DNS requests (messages from your device asking to see a web page) can’t be traced back to your device. The following 10 tools help you do that in different ways.
I mentioned them already, but I’m going to mention them again: you should never be on the internet without a virtual private network. These networks launder your connection to keep information from your ISP. In addition, every connection you make through a VPN is encrypted, usually with nearly unbreakable AES-256 encoding.
That means signal tracers can’t follow your request back to your home device. As an added bonus, you can use them to access region-locked content, like BBC shows outside the UK.ExpressVPN is my personal choice, and a clear leader in every category: price, speed, security and ease of use. NordVPN and CyberGhost are also superior options. If you don’t have the budget for a new app right now, lots of VPNs offer robust free plans, with the best being Windscribe.
2. Anonymous Proxy Servers
An anonymous proxy is the light beer version of a VPN. It has the same purpose as a VPN — running your web requests through an unrelated server (the proxy) so third parties can’t see where they’re coming from.
Unfortunately, proxies are missing the VPN secret sauce: encryption. Without encryption, your requests can easily be traced back to your real IP address and physical location.
This makes proxies only suitable for light mischief, like watching a video in a region where it’s not available. A proxy server might hide your activity from a site that gets millions of requests per day, but it won’t secure your data against a determined hacker.
If you have to get past a content filter but don’t require strict privacy, a proxy can be nice. They’re almost all free, or at least cheaper than a VPN subscription. Try FreeProxy, Ultrasurf, Privoxy, Java Anon Proxy or CGIProxy.
3. Tor Network
Tor is a network that has long been popular among the sort of people who liquidate all their assets to buy litecoin, but it’s been receiving more mainstream attention lately. I’ve seen it held up as the ultimate form of online security, and even the only way to be truly anonymous.
Do I buy that? Not really.
Tor uses a technique called “onion routing” to mask web traffic. When your device makes a request, Tor shuffles it randomly around the nodes in its network, adding a new layer of encryption each time. The final “exit node” then peels back the encryption like the layers of an onion.
In theory, it’s supposed to be impossible to follow this trail back to its origin. In practice… not so much. MIT scientists managed to use certain fingerprints to track onion-routed traffic, without needing to break secure encryption at all.
More concerning is that the individual nodes are all volunteer-maintained, and there’s no background check whatsoever. In fact, out of fear that malicious volunteers will use their nodes to stick malware on passing connections, many websites block all Tor exit nodes on principle.
Tor is free to use, and it’s nice that you don’t have to trust anybody not to break a user agreement. You can download the proxy app or use Tor Browser, a web browser with onion-routing built in. However, onion-routing your traffic is an act of faith, and you have to understand that some websites don’t want to make that leap with you.
4. Private Search Engine
Search history is one of the biggest points of vulnerability in your online privacy. Not only do search engines save your history for marketing purposes, they often leave it lying around where anybody can find it. Just last month, 70 million Bing users had their search history exposed.
The only way to search safely is to choose a search engine that doesn’t save user history at all (hint: not Google). DuckDuckGo, built on the Yahoo engine, is the best known, but I also like Gibiru, which weights results in favor of sites that are buried by Google’s algorithm.
If you can’t get results you like from anybody but Google, try Startpage. It runs a Google search without sending any details about your device, leaving no connection between you and your search history.
5. Anonymous Browsers
One of the biggest risks to your online security is your web browser itself. Secure browsers build in many of the features you’d otherwise be getting piecemeal, including log-free search engines, encrypted traffic, ad blockers, malware protection and password vaults.
Tor Browser is one of the best known, but comes with a lot of baggage (see #3). Orfox uses much of the same code as Tor.
Epic Privacy Browser will be familiar to anybody who’s used to Chrome. It’s built on Google’s open-source Chromium platform, but it has a full suite of privacy settings enabled by default. If you’re more used to Firefox, try Comodo IceDragon, a version of Firefox with enhanced security.
xB Browser is another nice option based on Firefox. It blocks all ads, and completely eliminates all your history every time you close the browser.
6. Anonymous Email
Emails you send through leading platforms like Gmail are usually encrypted, but not as strongly as they could be. Gmail encrypts emails so they can’t be read by third parties — but they can still be read by Gmail itself. And we’ve already seen what Google does with your private information (ads on ads on ads).
Anonymous email services go one step further and offer end-to-end encryption. This means that nobody can read any message except for its sender and recipients. Not even the people who run the server can see the content.
ProtonMail was first into this space and is still trusted by privacy-seekers worldwide. Tutanota is a great alternative. Both can be used free of charge, though you’ll have to get a new email address on their domains.
If you don’t want to deal with a new address, try Mailvelope. It’s an extension for Chrome, Firefox and Edge that encrypts any Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook or GMX message end to end.
7. Change Privacy Settings
From my three-step guide above, you’ve already learned how to change your browser settings to limit what they can do with your private data (in theory, at least). To go the extra mile, you should also change your settings on social media.
The best way to stay secure on social media is to get the hell off of it. Not only will you be less vulnerable to data harvesting and social engineering attacks, you also won’t have to see your ex’s vacation photos or listen to your uncle ranting about chemtrails. (Seriously, I just deleted Twitter, and it’s been amazing so far.)
But if you can’t get off social media for whatever reason, there are still things you can do to use it more safely. On Facebook, stop giving third-party apps permission to view your profile — that’s how Cambridge Analytica got all that user information. Make sure to set all your posts so that only friends can see them.
Twitter removed some important privacy features earlier this year, but you can still protect against targeted advertising by going to Settings and Privacy → Privacy and Safety, then turning off all Personalizations and Data. Consider making your account private so that nobody can see your tweets if they aren’t following you.
8. Browser Extensions
Browser extensions are excellent security tools because they don’t require you to change your habits all that much. We’ve already learned of one extension, Mailvelope, that fits seamlessly into your current browsing experience — it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
For instance, there’s anonymoX, a user-friendly IP switcher that lets you activate a proxy with a single click. Like other proxies, it’s not encrypted traffic, but it makes you practically untraceable when used in concert with a VPN. Even better news: lots of the best VPNs have their own browser extensions.
9. Password Managers
You also owe it to yourself to take a look at LastPass, which deals with a problem we haven’t touched on much until now: password management. One of the simplest ways to hack someone’s personal accounts is to get basic personal information on them, then make educated guesses about their passwords.
With LastPass, you can make your passwords as ludicrously long as you want, and the extension will remember them for you. It’s like writing them down on sticky notes, except LastPass can’t be stolen. All you need to remember is one master password.
10. Anonymous Apps
Some digital natives, concerned about online privacy but still hungry for the connective power of social media, turn to anonymous apps — social media platforms where nobody has a profile.
I can’t recommend these. In practice, they either degenerate into cyberbullying dystopias (like Yik Yak) or turn out to have been harvesting everyone’s data from the back end all along (like Whisper). Maybe someday an anonymous app will come along that actually seems committed to user privacy, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Dishonorable Mention: Incognito Mode
Time for some boldface again, in case anyone forgot: Incognito Mode is not anonymous browsing.
Incognito mode does nothing to hide your IP address from the internet. It hides your browsing history from other users on your device. It’s for when you don’t want your spouse to see that you’ve been shopping for a present for them, or don’t want your parents to discover you’ve been on Pornhub. Do not rely on it for security.
The internet is a wonderful place. In many ways, it’s fulfilled and surpassed our early expectations of what it could do. Billions of people have found communities, received timely aid and accessed knowledge that was previously locked away.
You know what else is a wonderful, magical place? The backwoods of Olympic National Park. I love it there, but I wouldn’t dare go in without a solid plan. There are bears.
Anonymous browsing tools aren’t about fear, but preparedness. Logging on with a VPN, using a secure search engine and updating your privacy settings are like bringing your signal mirror and bear spray into the woods.
Our favorite way to stay secure online is to use ExpressVPN. I promise that after a few minutes you won’t even notice it’s there.
Check out the comments below, and let us know if you have a favorite anonymous browsing tool we didn’t mention!