There is no doubt that the internet has revolutionised our lives, but it’s come at a cost. Mental health issues like anxiety and depression are being widely reported among young people, while privacy concerns have arisen following numerous data hacking scandals and revelations about how personal data is being publicly resold. Facebook has repeatedly been accused of everything from inappropriately targeted advertising to inconsistent censorship of disturbing content, and Twitter has been battered by a series of high-profile trolling incidents. Even governments have come under fire for the data they retain on their citizens, and the bodies entitled to view it.
Any anonymity provided to internet users has been widely criticised, which is regrettable in the sense that staying anonymous online is often advisable (or even necessary). From whistleblowers to former stalking victims, there are many reasons why revealing your true identity may not be advisable. Without the prospect of staying anonymous online, bloggers and campaigners might not have shared inspirational and educative stories of abuse, illness, or maltreatment. Anonymity isn’t always a bad thing, as the recent introduction of GDPR and the growth of encrypted communications platforms such as WhatsApp demonstrate.
The principles of staying anonymous online remain under attack from over-zealous security services and meddling internet service providers. Happily, there are still ways to maintain anonymity over the internet:
1. The Tor browser.
The Tor browser uses a complex (and effectively uncrackable) data distribution protocol to ensure nobody can determine which end user device has requested specific information. As a gateway to the Dark Web, Tor resembles a 1990s’ web browser in terms of both aesthetics and performance. The randomised distribution of individual data packets makes video streaming impractical, but the payoff is exceptional levels of privacy when combined with a security-conscious search engine like DuckDuckGo. Before you conclude that Tor’s association with drug dealing and extreme pornography makes installing it illegal or immoral, it was developed by the American military and is still part-funded by the US Government. It’s doubtful that democratic revolutions like the Arab Spring would have happened without the Tor browser.
2. Virtual private networks.
Tor’s popularity demonstrates how staying anonymous online involves physical connections between your device and the wider world. A virtual private network (VPN) creates a secure tunnel between a user device and a host server. Data sent in both directions is encrypted, so it can’t be inspected or intercepted by third parties. As such, VPNs are popular among those wanting to browse the internet without leaving electronic footprints. Conscientious VPN operators won’t retain user logs that could identify anyone’s activities, and most devices support connection through a VPN. Like Tor, VPNs are legal. Nevertheless, activities such as geolocation spoofing to dodge copyright restrictions could land you in hot water.
3. Dedicated browsers.
Any information distributed through a domestic internet connection will be logged by the relevant ISP. However, swathes of data will also be stored by web browsers, like cookies and browsing history. This may be resolved by installing a secondary web browser and maximising its security settings, such as deleting page histories on exit, not storing form field data, etc. Using this browser to access websites and online services while not logged in will eliminate device-based footprints. For instance, search engines won’t bring up anonymous searches in your main web browser, if you weren’t logged in while using the backup browser. Your ISP will know what’s going on, but a second web browser is useful for conducting research without leaving any permanent reminders in the primary browser. That’s ideal in terms of devices shared between friends, colleagues or family members.