How to Anonymize Everything You Do Online
One year after the first revelations of Edward Snowden, cryptography has shifted from an obscure branch of computer science to an almost mainstream notion: It’s possible, user privacy groups and a growing industry of crypto-focused companies tell us, to encrypt everything from emails to IMs to a gif of a motorcycle jumping over a plane.
But it’s also possible to go a step closer toward true privacy online. Mere encryption hides the content of messages, but not who’s communicating. Use cryptographic anonymity tools to hide your identity, on the other hand, and network eavesdroppers may not even know where to find your communications, let alone snoop on them. “Hide in the network,” security guru Bruce Schneier made his first tip for evading the NSA. “The less obvious you are, the safer you are.”
Though it’s hardly the sole means of achieving online anonymity, the software known as Tor has become the most vouchsafed and developer-friendly method for using the Internet incognito. The free and open source program triple-encrypts your traffic and bounces it through computers around the globe, making tracing it vastly more difficult. Most Tor users know the program as a way to anonymously browse the Web. But it’s much more. In fact, Tor’s software runs in the background of your operating system and creates a proxy connection that links with the Tor network. A growing number of apps and even operating systems provide the option to route data over that connection, allowing you to obscure your identity for practically any kind of online service.
Some users, in fact, are experimenting with using Tor in almost all their communications. “It’s like being a vegetarian or a vegan,” says Runa Sandvik, a privacy activist and former developer for Tor. “You don’t eat certain types of food, and for me I choose to use Tor only. I like the idea that when I log onto a website, it doesn’t know where I’m located, and it can’t track me.”
Here’s how you can use the growing array of anonymity tools to protect more of your life online.
The core application distributed for free by the non-profit Tor Project is the Tor Browser, a hardened, security-focused version of Firefox that pushes all of your Web traffic through Tor’s anonymizing network. Given the three encrypted jumps that traffic takes between computers around the world, it may be the closest thing to true anonymity on the Web. It’s also rather slow. But the Tor browser is getting faster, says Micah Lee, a privacy-focused technologist who has worked with the Electronic Frontier Foundation—one of the organizations that funds the Tor Project—and First Look Media. For the past month or so, he’s tried to use it as his main browser and only switch back to traditional browsers occasionally, mostly for flash sites and others that require plugins.
After about a week, he says, the switch was hardly noticeable. “It may not be entirely necessary, but I haven’t found it that inconvenient either,” Lee says. “And it does have real privacy benefits. Everyone gets tracked everywhere they go on the Web. You can opt of out of that.”
The simplest way to anonymously send email is to use a webmail service in the Tor Browser. Of course, that requires signing up for a new webmail account without revealing any personal information, a difficult task given that Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo! Mail all require a phone number.