There are many reasons to go anonymous online - preventing tracking from authoritarian regimes in certain countries, maintaining privacy from companies who track online usage, or simply a desire to remain anonymous. Some people want to avoid company or school tracking. These methods will get around web filters or site blockers in most cases, as well as ensure anonymity even with paid content or sites which require identifying information.
Every method outlined below is legal to the best of my knowledge (In the USA) and used to ensure anonymity online. However, use your best judgement when using any method outlined below. These are meant to secure legal activities only, and can often be broken quickly by law enforcement, especially where financial transactions occur. Additionally, some companies may have policies against using these methods while on company equipment. When in doubt, don't.
Note that the financial anonymity methods will not stop the US government from finding you, or people with access to your financial data.
There are a number of methods websites can use to track online behavior. Knowledge of these methods will help you avoid them over time. These are the methods websites can use to track you.
There are three main ways websites can track who you are online:
There are additional ways you can be tracked by your PC directly, and not by the sites you visit.
Any website requiring payment or personal information has tracking information by default. Common ways of tracking:
Behavior based tracking is the most insidious form of tracking and the hardest to prevent. Thankfully it is also the most difficult to implement effectively.
This tracking depends on analysis of how users interact with the site. Any behavior which you think might indicate a pattern, could be. Some examples:
Behavior which could easily be attributed to many users would not likely be used – for instance, if most people login after work around 5:30 PM. Too many people would do this to make it useful information for tracking. This method is also unlikely to be used across numerous sites, although certain advanced user tracking algorithms could try to detect it if they cross multiple sites (such as Google adsense).
Following the steps outlined in this section should allow you to surf anonymously online, and avoid all attempts to track you. Not all of these methods may be needed at any given time, depending on your needs.
While using Tor, you can generate new “identities” anytime using the toolbar and clicking new identity.
If you do this without closing the browser, make sure you delete all cookies, as these can persist through new identities. Do this by clicking tools->options, then going to the privacy section, click on show cookies, and remove all cookies.
This will give you a new identity, completely distinct from the old one. Alternately, you can close the browser and restart tor for a new identity with no old cookies. Using this method, you can have multiple anonymous sessions with the same website, or browse from one place to another without fear of having tracking cookies watching you from site to site.
If you only want to avoid someone sitting at your PC from finding out what you have been doing online, simply setting the browser to Private mode should do the trick. This removes history, cookies, and other things which can be easily used to track your activity. This method will not stop servers, proxies, internet service providers, or your own modem from tracking you.
Sometimes TOR is blocked and it won't connect. Even the TOR website is blocked. If this is the case, simply send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject "get bridges", and it will return new IP's to use. How to set this up can be found on Tor's bridges page. If this is blocked, do a google search and use the view cache function of Google to view it anyway.
TOR is great, but it will slow down your internet connection, sometimes significantly. It also doesn't prevent things like viruses, keyloggers, or other software installed on your machine from spying on you. Finally, it only protects connections via web browser unless you specifically setup other programs to use TOR. As a result, it will not allow you to, say, pirate music and video games anonymously simply by installing it.
Tracking from installed spyware programs can be very hard to detect. If you suspect you have something installed on your PC which is used to track online behavior, it is best to re-install your operating system from scratch. This is the only sure way to prevent a program from capturing data about what sites you visit.
For advanced users, a PC can be booted to a static operating system from DVD or USB drives. I personally use Knoppix for this purpose. Using this method, no data will be saved to the computer hard drive, and any programs loaded onto the normal operating system will not be run using this method, including all viruses, spyware, or other tracking programs.
Some sites require financial transactions to gain access. If so, you need a service which allows you to create one time use personal and financial information. Shop Shield is my preferred choice for this.
Shop Shield is the least expensive and simplest solution at $4.50/month or $45/year. It generates new Visa credit card numbers on demand for each transaction, and can be used with any address and name. They also generate email addresses for you which will receive e mail automatically for you. Refunds or credits applied to the same card will be correctly applied back to you.
Shop Shield offers a browser plugin, however I recommend not using this with Tor as it could be used to track you by browser fingerprinting. Instead, use the plugin in a separate browser, or log in to the shopshield site directly to generate information.
Full disclosure: I have never used shop shield myself, but I did read multiple reviews and researched many similar products. This product has been endorsed by a group of credit issuers as a secure method of transactions on the internet.
Because ShopShield is linked to your actual identity, US law enforcement can still trace any transactions using ShopShied, though other governments would be less able depending on international and local laws. Unforutnately, it is currently only available in the US. See the appendix for international options.
While it is unlikely any given site will apply behavior tracking, it is possible that certain advanced data collection agencies use this method to overcome anonymous web surfing. Following the rules below for manual transactions or automated transactions should severely reduce the likelihood of being tracked through behavior:
Most likely, you do not need to follow every action in this guide religiously. Following the guidelines above will make you nearly impossible to track online, though it also increases the overhead you must manage for each website you visit. For instance, Tor often slows down internet access and knoppix prevents you from getting full use of your PC.
Using some measure of the above will increase anonymity and make you harder to track. Overtime, you can pick and choose which measures work most effectively for you and with each site. I also provide alternates and their pros and cons in the appendix sections. Some of them may make more sense in some scenarios.
There are many ways other than Tor. Here are a couple of common ones:
Benefits over Tor
Weaknesses compared to Tor
VPN tunnel – There are many providers, just google “private vpn tunnel” for good providers.
Public Proxies – You can configure your browser to use open, public proxies. A well maintained list of public proxies.
Other Anonymous card providers / methods