Dear Lifehacker, The recent kerfuffle over Telstra storing everyone's mobile browsing history has renewed my worries over how much information my internet service provider (ISP) has about my online activity. How concerned should I be, and how can I ensure they don't see everything I do? Thanks, Paranoid Browser
Photo by erwinova (Shutterstock).
A lot of people assume that if you're browsing anonymously it's because you're doing something illegal, but there's plenty of content on the web you may not want to risk letting out in the open. Not only is it possible that it will be logged by your ISP, but with free-flowing data your activity is potentially open to anyone on your network. In the past, for instance, we've seen how easily Firesheep can sniff out usernames and passwords on public Wi-Fi.
Protecting your activity is not just important because you want to avoid any tracking your ISP may employ, but because your private data can be compromised if you're not careful. While it's unlikely a hacker is going to steal your Facebook credentials -- or anything else -- while you're signing in at McDonald's to update your status, if easily-preventable bad things happen you're not going to be comforted by statistics. Here are our top tactics for staying secure and anonymous online.
Browse Securely With HTTPS
First and foremost, you should be using HTTPS. If a site offers HTTPS, just go to https://www.thewebsite.com instead of just plain old http. If you want to make things even easier, you can install the Firefox and Chrome extension HTTPS Everywhere and it will take care of the problem for you.
Browse Anonymously With Tor
HTTPS encrypts data as its transferred, but it doesn't completely anonymise your activity. That's where Tor comes in. Tor was designed to help you browse the web without leaving a trace, as it funnels your traffic through a series of virtual tunnels. The Tor site offers a great, detailed overview of how it works and what it's used for, but here's the part you'll want to know (if you don't already):
Tor is a network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. It also enables software developers to create new communication tools with built-in privacy features. Tor provides the foundation for a range of applications that allow organisations and individuals to share information over public networks without compromising their privacy.
Individuals use Tor to keep websites from tracking them and their family members, or to connect to news sites, instant messaging services, or the like when these are blocked by their local internet providers. Tor's hidden services let users publish web sites and other services without needing to reveal the location of the site. Individuals also use Tor for socially sensitive communication: chat rooms and web forums for rape and abuse survivors, or people with illnesses.
To get started with Tor, follow these steps:
- Download the browser bundle and unpack the ZIP file.
- Open up the TorBrowser application.
- Wait for the Vidalia application to connect you to the Tor network.
- Once you've connected, a special version of Firefox will open, called TorBrowser. It will provide you with a protected IP address (which should not be your actual IP address). You can browse anonymously within that browser.
Just using Tor is not enough to keep you truly anonymous. You need to avoid installing/using browser plug-ins; always use HTTPS (as recommended above); and avoid opening any documents you download while connected to Tor (or while online, for that matter). Tor also suggests that you use a bridge relay if you don't want anyone on your network to find out that you're using Tor, but that may or may not be a concern in your particular case. If you use Tor and heed these precautions, you won't have to worry too much about anyone tracking your activity.
Realistically, your ISP is going to have some idea of your online activity no matter what you do, and if you end up the subject of a court order, not much is going to help. However, with these methods you'll be anonymous enough to avoid most problems. Happy anonymous browsing!
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