We use Chrome as our browser and Google as our search engine, which means that everything we do online is tracked. That’s why, when we check out a bathing suit online, we’re inundated with bathing suit ads that follow us around like lost puppies, urging us to buy now.
The truth is, unless you make a concerted effort, you have no privacy or anonymity online. For those who want it, online anonymity is possible; however, it’s not the most straightforward process, so we broke down the steps you need to achieve total anonymity and private browsing on the web.
True online anonymity requires many changes to your digital routine, such as replacing your operating system, browser, search engine, messaging apps, and email provider. Here are the 22 steps you need to take to be anonymous online.
- Use an encrypted messaging app. Instead of sending a text message to a friend on your Android, use an encrypted messaging app like Signal. With Signal, all communications have end-to-end encryption on its open-source protocol. The company can’t see your messages or calls, and there are no ads or trackers.
- Use an encrypted browser. Google is notorious for its ample data collection. Instead of using Chrome or another browser from a large tech company, use Tor, a secure browser that encrypts your IP address and web activity three times. However, Tor doesn’t encrypt any other web apps you use, which is why you need a VPN as well. What is a VPN, you ask?
- Use a VPN. “VPN” stands for “virtual private network,” and, unlike Tor, VPNs encrypt all web traffic from browsers and other web apps. Aside from hiding your IP address, VPNs hide your browsing history so your internet service provider (ISP) can’t see any of your online activity. The best part? You can set up a VPN in only a few minutes; check out our VPN how to pages for more information.
- Use secure email services. Since we’re so deeply entrenched in the Google ecosystem, we use Gmail as our personal email provider. While we love its ease of use, we don’t love that Google keeps all of our private emails on its servers. However, there are secure options like ProtonMail, the same company that brought us ProtonVPN. ProtonMail is based in Switzerland, a nonmember of the surveillance alliance Five Eyes, so the company can’t be forced to give the government customer data. Rather, all email has end-to-end encryption with open source code, and the service is free for Android, iOS, and web users.1
- Use a temporary email. Don’t want a company emailing you a newsletter daily? Use a temporary email address. Services like Temp Mail generate throwaway email addresses for free.2
- Use encrypted storage. Back on the Google train, we store all of our documents, photos, and files in Google Drive, which certainly isn’t a good choice in terms of privacy. However, some cloud storage providers utilize end-to-end encryption, like Sync, Tresorit, and ProtonDrive, a cousin to ProtonMail and ProtonVPN.Money-Saving Tip: ProtonVPN has discounted bundles that cover both ProtonVPN and ProtonMail in one subscription. You can also save money by buying ProtonVPN on Black Friday or Cyber Monday.
- Don’t post PII. While it’s fun to share your life online, make sure you’re not sharing any personally identifiable information like your address, phone number, or Social Security number. Sharing PII could lead to identity theft, especially if you haven’t already set up an identity theft protection service.
- Check app permissions. We’re all guilty of mindlessly accepting an app’s terms and conditions, but before you do, see what permissions the app has. For example, does it always need to know your location, or can you disable this feature? Most apps ask for as many permissions as possible, so it’s up to you to keep them in check.
- Read privacy policies. Similarly, check what data a website or app collects, shares, and/or sells before you use it. Many companies sell users’ personal information to third parties for marketing and advertising purposes, which is not conducive to privacy, let alone anonymity.Note: In our privacy guide, we examined the privacy policies of over 100 home and digital security companies, rating each out of 10. Read it to find out just how “secure” these products and services really are!
- Use ad blockers. Adware is the software that places ads across your computer, phone, or tablet, but even if you don’t have adware, most websites and apps have some form of advertising, which can get annoying. Aside from removing adware, you can use an ad blocker like AdBlock or Adblock Plus.
- Don’t use voice assistants. Voice assistants make for convenient home automation in your smart home. However, they’re notoriously bad for privacy. Amazon employees have admitted to listening to Alexa recordings3, for example, and there was a hidden, undisclosed microphone in the Google Assistant-compatible Nest Secure security system4. Your best bet is to steer clear of voice assistants and stick to controlling your smart lights, smart garage, smart locks, and other IoT devices manually through your app.
- Stay off social media. In our research on social media and parenting, we found that more than three-quarters of parents share stories, images, or videos of their kids on social media. Worse, over 80 percent of these parents use their children’s real names in these posts. Not only does this put their kids at risk of child identity theft, but social media companies keep this data for the long haul. Your best bet for privacy is to stay off social media completely.
- Use a proxy. When it comes to VPN vs. proxy servers, proxy servers are better for on-the-go networks that you’ll only be on once. Unlike VPNs, proxy servers encrypt only your device’s IP address, not your web traffic, making them less secure (but often free).
- Check for HTTPS. If possible, only go on websites whose URLs start with “HTTPS” rather than “HTTP.” HTTPS, which stands for “hypertext transfer protocol secure,” uses a secure sockets layer (SSL) to encrypt all of the communication between your browser and the websites you visit, while HTTP does not.5
- Disable cookies. Remember when we mentioned those ads that follow you around the internet like a stalker ex-boyfriend? Cookies are the data about your online activities that shape targeted ads; sometimes they’re anonymized and aggregated, but sometimes they’re not. Here’s how to disable cookies on the most popular web browsers (if you’re still using them, that is):Chrome
- Go to Settings.
- Click “Content Settings.”
- Click “Cookies and Other Site Data.”
- Select “Block All Cookies.”
- Toggle on “Clear Cookies and Site Data When You Quit Chrome.”Firefox
- Click “Menu.”
- Click “Preferences.”
- Click “Cookies and Site Data.”
- Check off where it says “Delete Cookies and Site Data When Firefox Is Closed.”Microsoft Edge
- Go to Settings.
- Click “Privacy and Services.”
- Click “Clear Browsing Data on Close.”
- Check off what you want to be deleted when you close your browser.Opera
- Go to your Settings.
- Click “Privacy and Security.”
- Click “Cookies and Site Data.”
- Toggle on “Clear Cookies and Site Data When You Quit Opera.”Safari
- Go to Preferences.
- Click “General.”
- Click “Remote History Items After One Day.”
- Go to Privacy.
- Check off “Block All Cookies.”
- Don’t use Google. We’ll say it again: Google tracks everything you search online, which can be very personal information. Instead of Googling, browse the web with a search engine like DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t harvest your personal information to create targeted ads. Rather, the service creates ads based on what you search, and all search data is anonymized, as are IP addresses.6
- Use a password manager. If you’re using the same password for every account, you’re making the goal of online anonymity very hard for yourself. Instead, create a unique and secure password for all of your online accounts.
- Use a secure operating system. If your online anonymity is a building, then your operating system is the foundation. Even with secure email servers, browsers, search engines, and the like, if you’re using an operating system from a major tech company, your data could still be logged. In contrast, an open-source operating system like Linux walls off each user. Tails and Whonix are some other secure OS options.
- Use anonymous cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency is an increasingly popular payment method, but contrary to popular belief, it’s not always anonymous. With Bitcoin, for example, all payments are completely transparent. If you want to make anonymous payments, use a cryptocurrency like Monero, which hides the sender, receiver, and amount sent using three different privacy technologies.7
- In Microsoft Edge DevTools, select Control, Shift, and P on Windows or Linux, or Command, Shift, and P on macOS.
- Go to Preferences.
- Click “Security.”
- Avoid spam. Spam emails may be phishing attempts to get your PII, so don’t click on any unfamiliar messages, emails, or websites.
- Use a file shredder. When you delete a file, is it really deleted? Often, the answer is no. To delete your files permanently, use a virtual file shredder to rewrite files’ binary data multiple times, making them irreparable. File Shredder, for example, is a free desktop app that lets you choose from five shredding algorithms to destroy files completely.9
Anonymity vs. Privacy: What’s the Difference?
Many people use the terms “anonymity” and “privacy” interchangeably, but they’re actually very different. Privacy is the ability to keep things to yourself by choice, while anonymity means that you want people to see what you do, just not your identity. For example, while internet users may want privacy for their web searches, whistleblowers want anonymity, meaning their identities are protected but their information is still shared.10 Learn how whistleblowers can protect themselves while still relaying important information.
Is Incognito Mode Anonymous?
Maybe we’re overcomplicating things. After all, our Chrome browser has an incognito mode; isn’t that sufficient to protect our privacy online? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Unlike a VPN, incognito mode isn’t anonymous. All it does is wipe your history and cache after you close the browser so the next person on your device can’t see what you did online. However, your ISP can still see everything you do online plus your device’s IP address. And unlike VPN servers, incognito mode won’t change your IP address or help you watch Netflix in another country, so it is a poor solution for online privacy.
Can There Really Be Anonymity Online?
Although it’s hotly debated, we believe that true anonymity is possible on the internet. However, it takes a lot of effort, from using new browsers, operating systems, and messaging apps to paying only with anonymous cryptocurrency. If you’re willing to put in the work, yes, you can use the internet privately on any device.
The Consequences of No Online Privacy
Privacy is a fundamental human right, but online privacy isn’t guaranteed; you have to work for it. The consequences of a lack of privacy can be dire, including the following.
- Identity theft: Sharing too much personal information can lead to identity theft, which could mean financial losses, difficulty getting loans, blows to your credit score, etc.
- Data collection: Large tech companies harvesting a ton of personal data from millions of people has its consequences. Need we mention the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018?
- Tracking: Companies use customers’ data to track them online, showing them targeted advertisements designed to squeeze every last dollar out of them.
The internet was created to be a place where people could search for information freely, without fear of repercussions. However, with the monetization of our attention comes a total lack of privacy, as we’re surveilled online constantly. That being said, you can have complete anonymity online — if you’re willing to work for it in 22 steps.