1. Computing

Anonymous Web Browsing 101

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Are you concerned about privacy on the Web? Then anonymous Web browsing, the ability to surf the Web without being tracked, is for you. Here are some frequently asked questions about hiding your tracks more diligently on the Web.

Why would I want to conceal what I'm doing on the Web?

People have many reason for wanting to browse the Web privately, but they all boil down to the need to protect something or someone.

For instance, if you are in a country that has restrictive Web policies, you probably want to hide your browsing habits from the government if you are looking at sites that are contrary to their policies. If you are at work, you might not want your employer to see that you've been looking for another job. If you are at home searching for prescription drug information, you probably don't want spam emails sent to you offering the latest in drug advancements. It's all about privacy.

Who or what do you want to hide from?

Private Web surfing can take two basic forms.

Privacy from other people: You'd be surprised at how much information is available from your Web browsing habits.

For instance, by using simple "sniffers" (hacker tools), somebody who really wanted to could find out your IP address, cookies, what's in your browser cache, what kind of computer you're using...they could even connect to your hard drive and access your private files, including passwords and banking information.

Privacy from the Web: Say you're searching the Web for information on a drug to help with your arthritis. Your search keywords, IP address, time, etc. will probably be logged and tracked by the Web site that you land on.

The best case scenario is that you just start getting a lot of spammy emails in your inbox trying to sell you the new arthritis wonder drug.

The worst case scenario looks like this: your browsing information is sold to other drug Web site companies, you start getting telemarketing phone calls at dinner time (your phone number is easily accessible unless it is unlisted), you start getting junk mail at home, and lots more. Suffice it to say that there are a LOT of ways that unscrupulous companies can manipulate the information that you give them on the Web.

Web Browsers and Your Information

I've mentioned the fact that Web sites and other people can sniff out information about you including your IP address; well, what exactly does that mean? What is an IP address and why would you want to hide it?

Basically, your IP address is the signature address of your computer as it is connected to the Internet. The reasons you might want to hide your IP address are many, but here are the basics:

  • Tracking: you can be found and tracked using your IP address very easily.
  • Attacking: your IP address gives hackers an entryway into your computer.
In a nutshell, anonymous surfing works by putting a buffer between you and the Web site you want to look at, allowing you to view information without being tracked. There are two main ways by which this can be accomplished.

Web Browsing with an Proxy Server

Proxy servers work by retrieving Web pages for you. They hide your IP address and other important browsing information, so the remote server does not see your information but sees the proxy server's information instead.

However, there is a slight chance that the proxy is recording your data, and it is entirely feasible that a malicious proxy server can scoop up everything on your machine. Using an anonymous server with a good user rating and clear privacy policy should avoid this.

A list of proxy servers is available at a variety of different sites, including:

For much, much more detailed information about how proxy servers work and how to set up your browser to surf with an anonymous server, I invite you to check out Bradley Mitchell's excellent six-part tutorial titled Introduction to Proxy Servers. Surfing with an proxy site or service is simple: all you do is navigate to the proxy site, enter in the URL you'd like to visit anonymously, and you'll be able to surf leaving virtually no trace that you were ever there.

How Proxy Sites Work

Basically, when you use an anonymous proxy and enter in the URL that you'd like to visit anonymously, the proxy retrieves the pages BEFORE they are delivered to you. This way, the IP address and other browsing information that the remote server sees does not belong to you - it belongs to the proxy.

That's the good news. The bad news is that these services tend to slow down your lightning-fast browsing a bit, and there usually will be ads on the top of your browser window (they've got to pay the bills somehow!). But it's worth it if you really need to be invisible on the Web.

Proxy Resources

There are literally hundreds of free proxies out there; here are just a few:
  • ByPassIt: A free website that you can use to bypass work, school, and other firewalls to visit any website you want.
  • Anonymouse: This service allows you to surf the web without revealing any personal information.
  • HideAndGoSurf.com:You can choose which information you'd like stripped from the record here.
  • Tor: Using Tor can help you anonymize web browsing and publishing, instant messaging, IRC, SSH, and other applications that use the TCP protocol.
  • 250 Working Proxies: the biggest list I've ever seen of anonymous proxies.
Have more to say about anonymous surfing? Talk about it in the Web Search Forums.

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