Anonymous browsing is the process of browsing the internet while keeping any personally identifiable information secret. With the help of the IP address, the physical location of your computer can be determined, indirectly leading to the revelation of your identity.
When you browse without anonymous browsing tools through a standard internet service provider, your computer is identified via an IP address, and sends out a request to the server on which the web page is served. The basic principle behind all anonymous browsing tools is the routing of communications through a third server that is committed to protecting the identities of the end user. Hence, anonymous browsing is basically the art of routing web page requests and other packet information over the internet over various lines so that an external observer is unable to track from the source to the user. There are two basic methods to browse anonymously. These are
- Web based proxy services such as https://www.snoopblocker.com.
- VPN and proxy clients such as Tor and Hotspot shield.
On snoopblocker.com, the central field is where you should type the address of the web site you wish to browse. After this has been done, click on ‘surf!’ to visit the webpage. Also, there are several fields that you check or uncheck depending on your needs.
- Java: Checking this enables web deployed Java-based applications such as Java applets, programmes such as stock tickers or even new Gmail and Hotmail versions to run through snoopblock. However, these programmes can gather significant information and hence compromise on your anonymity.
- Cookies: Cookies enable the webpage to perform certain essential web-based functions such as keeping the user signed in at all times and remembering his browsing record. However, some malicious web sites post cookies known as tracking cookies, which gather information about your activities.
- Active X: Allows Microsoft active X content to be displayed. Poses no major threats to anonymity buy may slow down the loading process due to higher bandwidth requirements.
The second popular method for browsing the internet anonymously is the usage of virtual private network clients such as Tor, Java Anon Proxy and Hotspot shield. We will look at how to install Tor, which is available for download from www.torproject.org as a 10-MB file. The bundle contains four components, namely Tor, Vidalia, Privoxy and Torbutton.
Tor is the basic tool that helps in setting up a VPN node on your computer so that you may connect to other users of Tor for anonymous browsing. Tor being a command line tool, it is supplied with Vidalia, a Graphic User Interface utility that allows you to quickly and easily set up Tor and get it running.
Privoxy is a filtering tool that monitors every web page and other internet service request from your computer and filters it off all personal data, adding an extra layer of anonymity. Torbutton is an add-on toolbar for Mozilla Firefox that allows you to quickly turn anonymous browsing on and off, without having to go to Tor.
Privoxy and Torbutton are optional while you will find that Vidalia simplifies the job of getting Tor running to such a large extent, you would prefer to install it.
The Vidalia Control Panel
Once installed, the Vidalia control panel appears in the system tray (a yellow onion icon while connecting, black when not connected and green when fully connected). Double-clicking on this opens the control panel.
To start Tor, one must click the Start Tor button on the control panel. Once clicked, it starts connecting to Tor. Various status messages are displayed till the green bar reaches full, at which point you are completely connected to Tor and the status changes to “Connected to the Tor network”. At this point, you may start browsing the internet and all your actions will be anonymous.
If you have difficulty connecting, or the progress of the green bar is too slow, it may be due to the fact that your ISP requires you to use a proxy, or you may be part of a local area network in which the local computers connect to the internet through a local proxy. If this is the case, click on the ‘settings’ button, go to the ‘Network’ Tab and tick I use a proxy to access the internet. In the fields that appear upon the ticking of this option, you have to provide the proxy information given to you by your ISP. Tick/Untick the remaining options as per your preferences.
The “Use a New identity” Button on the Vidalia control panel changes your IP address on the Tor network in such a way that any new browsing/other service request you make appears as if it is coming from a totally new computer. This provides you with an added level of anonymity.
These settings make you a participating member of the Tor network.
Now you know how to enjoy anonymous browsing using Tor. However, your role in the Tor network is not just limited to this. As you know, the anonymity of Tor users is maintained by rerouting the communications around the network through its various nodes until it becomes untraceable. You may choose to help Tor network by making your computer a node through which others can route their requests. This is a process called relaying. This can be done by clicking on the “Set Up relaying” button on the Vidalia control panel. In the menu that pops up, you are given three options. While you can choose to remain a passive user of the Tor services by choosing the first option (Run as client only), the second option (Relay Traffic for the Tor network) makes you a full part of the Tor network. This makes your computer a node through which other users may browse anonymously. You are encouraged to use this option as it is through other volunteers like you that you are able to utilize the Tor network. If you choose the second option you are given the option of specifying what type of connections is allowed through your computer. You may also choose to give an anonymous email id. You may also set bandwidth limits on the connections routed through your computer.
The third option, (Help Censored users reach the Tor network) makes your computer an encrypted Node of the tor network so that anyone (Maybe an ISP) trying to impose content restrictions upon one of the Tor users routed through your computer fails in his schemes.
To view a list of computers that are connected through you and computers that you connect to Tor through, click the “View the Network” button on the Vidalia control panel.
A word of caution
Anonymous browsing remains anonymous only due to the commitment on the part of providers such as snoopblocker.com, the various computers on the Tor network to keep it anonymous. Every time you make a connection request to these servers / computers in order to access a web site or a file on the internet, these activities are logged. However, these logs are kept secret as a matter of principle by these very providers.
Many programs available on the internet claiming to be tools for anonymous browsing are exactly opposite of that - they compromise your security and assist individuals in perpetrating crimes such as identity theft.
Also, the providers maintain the services and their assurance of anonymity only because of a belief in the right of every individual to have online privacy (and commercial interests). Any attempt at misusing this anonymity and freedom given to you online for malevolent purposes (stalking, blackmail, anything illegal) could adversely affect that commitment. It is also possible for an individual to have a court subpoena the connection records of a server to obtain user specific information, if the court is convinced that the network has been used for illegal purposes.
All said and done, anonymous browsing is mainly a boon, especially to our oppressed brethren in countries such as China and the Middle Eastern ones, where content control and censoring are a very real part of life.