Something that has been in the news lately (or at least the online news articles) is the topic of privacy on the internet with regard to how government agencies and other commercial entities are trying to keep tabs on people’s browsing habits.
Complete anonymity online is nearly impossible, as you are tagged by the address assigned to you by your internet service provider (ISP). Your browser is also being tracked by where you go, what sites you visit, and this information is being logged and sent to companies that track consumer habits to better advertise to those particular consumers. All of this paints a disturbing picture where just about everything you do online is being watched by someone and logged for analysis.
There are ways to protect yourself and make it difficult (but not impossible) to track your online travels — however, those methods are now being watched. If you even research how to protect your identity online you get flagged for monitoring (article from The Independent who re-ran this article from WIRED, and the Herald).
Once I started reading about how transparent everyone’s online journeys were to the people with the right equipment, I began researching about how to have a smaller online footprint. Yes, this probably got me flagged — but since I don’t partake in illegal online behavior, I’m not too concerned.
There are several ways to try and protect your identity. One would be using Proxy servers or Virtual Private Networks. Using Proxy servers is risky unless you know/trust the server owner and the latter usually requires some form of payment method. If you have access to a VPN, then whoever provides this service would most likely be the one to be flagged for the watch list. Your web traffic would likely get bundled into the provider’s internet access as well.
Another method is what’s called the TOR browser. TOR stands for The Onion Router, which is a service originally created by the US Navy, and is now privately maintained (though it still receives funding from the government). The TOR browser bundle includes software that allows you to connect to the TOR network. When your computer is connected to a node on this network, it gets bounced all across the world while encrypting your traffic every step of the way until you come out at your destination.
Say you want to visit Smalldog.com; normally, your computer would connect by the shortest distance between your ISP and our ISP, making as few ‘hops’ as possible. The TOR browser makes your computer travel all over the world to protect your source and destination, as well as the travel paths of the nodes along the way.
In the past, TOR has been a safe way to browse the internet anonymously, but it recently has become the target of government agencies across the world because, as we all know, information is power. Russia has even offered a reward to the Russian researcher who is able to crack the TOR network and allow it to be monitored. This reward is only available to Russians within their borders in order to protect what is discovered from outside government agencies.
There have been a lot of articles about the NSA watching the traffic of average Americans, but that is for another article. For the time being, I have been thinking about how to reduce my footprint online and the biggest hurdle is social networking. Everything you post to a social network — be it Facebook or LinkedIn — is stored on some server somewhere forever,* even if you delete it from the social network it was on. There are no takebacks when it comes to posting online. Somewhere, everything that has hit the wire has been saved somewhere else. So whatever you post online, you should probably be okay with a total stranger looking at it because nothing is ever completely safe.
Knowledge is power, so guard it well!
*Editor’s Note: “Forever” may not be literal when it comes the internet, but we also know that it has a very long memory…better to be safe than sorry.