With the rise of the World Wide Web, our privacy went down the drain. Until email passwords get leaked in plain text, we don’t even care that much. Apps and websites are following you wherever you go, no matter if it’s online or your real-time real-life location. While location tracking isn’t what I’m going to address here, it’s worth learning more about. New York Times has one of the best interactive articles about it, and it’s very much worth a read. While the best way to avoid being always watched by your apps and the advertisers that sell your data is to manually check the location settings on your devices, making sure that your online activities are as private as possible is not as simple. This is precisely why this article will go over some of the most efficient ways to stay anonymous on the web.
First of all, let’s go over some of the ways you are being tracked online:
- IP address. It is always being monitored; this is how you receive ads targeted to your specific location, it also shows not only where you are, but also what device and OS you are using;
- Cookies. Marketers can track your website activity and store some information about it, all of that is also a factor in you getting personally targeted ads. The most troubling ones being third-party cookies and zombie cookies;
- Browser extensions. Even though they can be beneficial, it shouldn’t be forgotten that browser extensions collect and store extreme amounts of your private online data. And you most likely agreed to it. Remember that thing you probably have never read in your entire life – terms and conditions/services? Yeah, spooky. Just the fact of data storing wouldn’t be the worst scenario, but not securing your data is exactly that;
- Search engines. They know everything that you are looking for, and they share that data with advertisers who pay them.
All this sounds scary, right? Most websites you visit know precisely where you are from, how old you are, and probably even some things you like or are willing to buy. Maybe you have been lurking around shoe sites for a couple of days, and then start getting ads for sneakers that look far too similar to the ones you have in your cart in that other website… Maybe all those free apps and free browser extensions and free websites with no subscriptions are not as free as one would have assumed? Probably, but money is not the currency here, your private data is.
All this bright light on the negatives was essential to make you – the avid internet surfer – to pay attention to how recklessly you are treating your personal data on the web. From time to time delete your cookies, you know. But as the name of the article mentions, I will discuss some ways to stay as anonymous as possible on the internet. You probably have heard already about VPNs and proxies, but these are the main web privacy solutions I will talk about slightly more in-depth about.
What is a proxy?
A proxy server, more commonly known as a proxy, is a middle man who stands between the user and the web, this way protecting the user’s identity by changing their IP address. It sends the request to the website under its own IP, this way keeping you anonymous. The whole process goes through the proxy server, hiding the user’s information. Proxies are well known for their high anonymity. All you have to do to achieve it is to make a responsible, well thought out choice of a proxy service provider.
Yes, a provider, because while there are many free proxy services out there, they can be more dangerous than not using a proxy at all. Wouldn’t it be ironic, if while trying to keep your experience on the web private, you would give up all that personal information to hackers? There have been many instances where this exact situation happened, so don’t forget – nothing is free.
But even with the right proxy service provider, you have to choose the right kind of proxy for that web anonymity you are looking for:
- Dedicated (private) proxies – proxies that belong only to you, you are not sharing them with anyone else. Obviously, the most anonymous and the safest option, which makes it also the most expensive one;
- Shared proxies – proxies that you share with other users, as safe as the free proxies are, so even though they are the cheapest option, you are not getting a great deal whatsoever;
- Semi-shared proxies – if you don’t have the budget for dedicated proxies, this option might be for you. While they still are shared proxies, you only share them with a couple of people, which makes it many times more secure than fully shared proxies, it is also the more affordable option than fully private proxies.
Any of these three categories will also be a part of two other categories – either residential or data center proxies:
- Residential proxies – safer, slower, more expensive. These proxies have this name because they have been assigned to private devices by their Internet Service Providers (ISPs), these proxies are your best choice if you are looking for the highest anonymity;
- Datacenter proxies – faster, more affordable, stable, but less secure. These proxies have IPs from data centers – usually, when used in bulk they can be easily traced back to a single user or a company, they also get abused more, so can be already blocked sometimes.
What is a VPN?
Probably the most popular solution for personal use. Virtual Private Network, most commonly known as a VPN, is a private network that is constructed over a public infrastructure, which allows end-users to send and receive data across public networks as if their online devices were directly connected to the private network. Same as a proxy, it hides your IP address completely, but it also encrypts your data. The main difference between proxy servers and VPNs is that the latter is usually a solution only for personal use.
Your private data should be kept a secret, but even the US government doesn’t think so. Since 2017, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can sell your private data without your explicit consent. This means that the user is the only one taking care of their own privacy and security online.
Out of the two ways I talked above, both grant anonymity, except if you choose to use free proxies. But proxies are mainly used in bulk by both businesses and individuals for web scraping, data extraction, and other more significant actions where anonymity is critical. A VPN is intended for personal use, to keep your data and connections to the web private and safe. Choose wisely, make sure you are taking into consideration all of your privacy needs, and stay safe online!