An introduction to private browsing

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When we go online, we all leave a digital ‘trace’. Our IP addresses give us away and cookies collect our browsing habits. Our Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and employers theoretically have a log of what sites we visit and when. Even private browsing, otherwise known as incognito mode, is not totally safe from prying eyes.

So, what is private browsing? In essence, it is about staying anonymous on the web with little to no trace of your online activities.

The advantages are numerous; ranging from protecting you from targeted ads to enabling you to get around website paywalls or even buying ‘surprise’ presents for your friends and family. Furthermore, there are other, little-known benefits, such as saving you money.

So with Data Privacy Day coming up on January 28th, we look at how you can stay anonymous online.

Stick with HTTPS

Whenever possible, use the HTTPS protocol when browsing the web. The ‘s’ on the end stands for security, which is made possible with SSL (Secure Sockets Layer). This helps to encrypt any data that is sent online.

“HTTP IS LIKE WRITING THINGS ON A POSTCARD, HTTPS IS LIKE WRITING THINGS IN A LETTER.”

Note that the HTTPS protocol does not mask your location at all, only the contents of your communication. Here’s a great analogy ESET’s from Aryeh Goretsky:

“HTTP is like writing things on a postcard, HTTPS is like writing things in a letter, and then putting it in an envelope and sealing it. The mailman/ISP can still see where the letter is going, but can only read the contents of the HTTP/postcard communication; all they know about the HTTPS/envelope is where it came from and where it’s going.”

Ad blockers

Ad blocking, for many, is an absolute must for maintaining online privacy, and indeed staying secure from cybercriminals.

A large number of websites track and collect the browsing habits of the users that visit them through cookies, but ad blockers stop these details being collected.

“AD BLOCKING, FOR MANY, IS AN ABSOLUTE MUST FOR MAINTAINING ONLINE PRIVACY, AND INDEED STAYING SECURE FROM CYBERCRIMINALS.”

It is recommended that you block advertisements and scripts on all websites except those that you trust, and then only allow what you need to support the functioning of that site.

Password managers

There are several password managers available, but sadly mainstream adoption is a constant struggle. This isn’t helped by the fact that some get compromised, opening up all your passwords to cybercriminals.

A password manager is, nevertheless, a good idea. It can save all your passwords, create new ones and save other details too – like your bank credentials. Note, the password you use to access your password manager – this needs to be ‘super’ complex. After all, with ‘all your eggs in one basket’, having a weak password is not ideal to say the least.

Use temporary email addresses

Disposable Email Addresses (DEAs) are anonymous and temporary. They allow users to create new email addresses quickly, as and when they’re needed, after which they can be forgotten and never used again.

This is particularly useful to avoid spam one might receive after filling in forms on potentially dodgy websites that require an email address in order to be able to complete (and submit) the form. All that said, if you have to put in an email address in a form on a website that you don’t consider truly legit, you are playing with fire.

VPNs

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are an effective way of guarding your online privacy, as they hide your IP address – your unique online identifier – and run all your online data via a secure and encrypted virtual tunnel, which can keep websites from tracking your online activity, or even knowing which country you’re browsing from.

VPN works by using proxy servers across the world, so your identity – or location – can never be fully known (well, to a degree – technically speaking, it’s not theoretically impossible).

Tor

If you’re particularly concerned about being tracked, you could use the Tor anonymizer network, which hides your IP address, making you less likely to be identified and targeted by advertisers or cybercriminals. There are other alternatives to Tor, but this is perhaps the best known.

Tor is a network of “virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet.” Tor’s anonymity network allows access to the ‘deep’ web, where websites can be created anonymously and individuals can communicate privately with one another.

“THE TOR ANONYMIZER NETWORK HIDES YOUR IP ADDRESS, MAKING YOU LESS LIKELY TO BE IDENTIFIED AND TARGETED BY ADVERTISERS OR CYBERCRIMINALS.”

Private browsing mode

Most modern browsers have private browsing modes you can use to make sure the websites you visit don’t appear in your browsing history (note, this does not ‘erase your footprints’ on the internet itself – just the records on machine you’re using).

Browsers typically log each website you visit, storing information about what information you entered. With private mode, you are basically telling your browser not to record which websites you’re visiting, and telling it not to use or download any cookies.

These aren’t perfect though. For example, in 2010, professors at Stanford University found that while Firefox won’t record your history during a private browsing session, it still records the sites on which you’ve installed SSL certificates.

Encrypt your web chats

WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage are end-to-end encrypted, but there are some other options available too, especially for desktop communications.

TOR chat is a lightweight and easy to use chat client that uses Tor’s location hiding services. It uses SSL/TLS encryption.

Cryptocat is a web-based chat client that uses the AES-256 encryption standard, which is extremely hard to break. It also supports group chats.

So, there you have it

These are some of the tools and techniques you can use the better to protect your anonymity and privacy on the internet. Keep an eye on WeLiveSecurity for future posts on more details and newer options.


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