"One's first step in wisdom is to question everything--and one's last is to come to terms with everything." ~ Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
The Invisible Pirate - Surf Anonymously
This edition briefly covers several free methods of surfing the web anonymously. They include: anonymizer websites, high anonymous public proxy servers, JAP, and Tor. These methods will all slow down your surfing, but just like in the real world, TANSTAAFL online. (See Robert A. Heinlein's novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.)
For the purposes of this edition, I will assume that you are using Mozilla Firefox. It is less vulnerable than IE, it is easily configured, and it offers almost unlimited customizing options by installing extensions. This edition represents my accumulated experience from a week of testing numerous anonymization methods, most of which are not yet ready for prime time, but those that appear here do work. As always, there are no guarantees, and your mileage may vary. Enjoy!
This method is the quickest way to surf anonymously. In general, this method requires you to enter every URL by hand, either by keying it into a form or by copying and pasting. Anonymizer websites typically do not allow you to use your Bookmarks, which becomes very old, very quickly, but if you only need to surf anonymously to several websites, this method is a viable option. If you need to surf anonymously for extended periods, this is not the method you want to use.
Caution: If while using this method to surf anonymously you inadvertently use your Bookmarks to go to another website, you will immediately reveal your real IP address. Doh!
A Google search on "anonymous surfing" or "anonymous toolbar" will quickly find you more of these websites and/or toolbars than you will ever care to use.
High Anonymous Public Proxy Servers
Public proxy servers come in three flavors: transparent, anonymous, and high anonymous, which is what you need to use for privacy purposes.
Public proxy servers are available all around the world, but they are not always available, some are faster than others, some are located in repressive regimes, and others are honeypots waiting for gullible users to key in their personal information so that it can then be abused by online criminals who setup proxy servers just for that purpose.
Users beware; you should not use them to conduct financial transactions online unless you use a secure SSL connection to a trusted website.
First, download and install the SwitchProxy Tool extension for Firefox.
Then download and install ProxyWay; it will enable you to fairly quickly find some good high anonymous proxies, which you can then enter into SwitchProxy, to configure Firefox to allow you to surf anonymously. Use Google to search for websites that track public proxy servers worldwide. Proxy lists are very dynamic, so if you use this method, you should update your list of good high anonymous proxies on a daily basis.
SwitchProxy will also allow you to build a chain of good proxies and automatically switch from one to another every 60 seconds or so, but I do not recommend this method because it briefly reveals your real IP address during the switch, which defeats the purpose of using a high anonymous proxy. Just find several good high anonymous proxies and use the fastest servers to surf anonymously. Remember to set SwitchProxy back to 'None' and then click on 'Apply' when you are done surfing anonymously.
JAP is a research project that is still in development, but it is available for use today and it works. Useful info from the JAP website:
"JAP uses a single static address which is shared by many JAP users. That way neither the visited website, nor an eavesdropper can determine which user visited which website. Instead of connecting directly to a webserver, users take a detour, connecting with encryption through several intermediaries, so-called mixes. Since many users use these intermediaries at the same time, the internet connection of any one single user is hidden among the connections of all the other users. No one, not anyone from outside, not any of the other users, not even the provider of the intermediary service can determine which connection belongs to which user.
"The intermediaries (mix providers) are generally provided by independent institutions which officially declare, that they do not keep connection log files or exchange such data with other mix providers. It is also planned, that independent watchdogs, who work in the name of the JAP users, will ensure that the mix providers hold to their official declarations.
"The first release of JAP is downloadable free of charge and already protects your privacy against most observers like your ISP, your network operator, or your boss. However, this version does not yet achieve the full security and anonymity that we strive for. It does not protect you against an adversary who has the capability to observe all communication links on the Internet."
In other words, Big Brother is still your worst nightmare when it comes to privacy online. Of all of the anonymization methods that I tried over the past week, JAP is the one that I liked the best. It is state-of-the-art, simple, easy, relatively fast, and it works.
Tor is an anonymous Internet communication system, originally sponsored by the Naval Research Lab, with support from ONR and DARPA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has supported Tor development since November 2004. Useful info from the Tor website:
"Tor is a toolset for a wide range of organizations and people that want to improve their safety and security on the Internet. Using Tor can help you anonymize web browsing and publishing, instant messaging, IRC, SSH, and other applications that use the TCP protocol. Tor also provides a platform on which software developers can build new applications with built-in anonymity, safety, and privacy features.
"Your traffic is safer when you use Tor, because communications are bounced around a distributed network of servers, called onion routers. Instead of taking a direct route from source to destination, data packets on the Tor network take a random pathway through several servers that cover your tracks so no observer at any single point can tell where the data came from or where it's going. This makes it hard for recipients, observers, and even the onion routers themselves to figure out who and where you are. Tor's technology aims to provide Internet users with protection against 'traffic analysis,' a form of network surveillance that threatens personal anonymity and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security.
"Tor aims to make traffic analysis more difficult by preventing eavesdroppers from finding out where your communications are going online, and by letting you decide whether to identify yourself when you communicate."
Tor requires using Privoxy concurrently, which also requires some minor configuration file editing.
This link includes directions for using SwitchProxy with Tor.
Using Tor resulted in slower surfing than when I used JAP. I haven't yet tried using them both together, but supposedly it can be done. Tor is also on the cutting edge of anonymous communications online, and you can't beat the price.
IP Address Checkers
You will need a way to check an IP address to verify that the anonymization method you are using actually works. There are plenty of them available, some more revealing than others. Try several of them, at least. Click on this link for a list of them. A Google search will find you many more.
"The PrivacyBar toolbar offers a complete set of privacy and security tools with Easy Access, providing Instant Security Controls with a mouse click. No more digging in preferences menus or editing complicated configuration screens. Just point to the toolbar, select the privacy and security options you require: light to paranoid, and surf."
This is a free, very useful, privacy toolbar that I recommend using while you are testing various methods of surfing anonymously.
This website not only offers numerous privacy solutions for sale, it also includes a comprehensive privacy tester. Click on the 'Privacy Test' link under 'FREE Tools.' Your privacy test results will be available instantly, but unless you have taken some other privacy precautions in advance, you probably won't like some of them.
See my related article: The Invisible Pirate - Secure E-Mail