However, people have many legitimate reasons to be anonymous online. Perhaps you’re looking up medical information. Or you have political or religious beliefs your parents (or boss) don’t approve of.
Maybe you need divorce advice without your soon-to-be ex finding out before you’re reading to have that difficult conversation.
People who are famous may want to have accounts under a different name (ironically, often their original legal name) so they are not recognized by the paparazzi. So, can you be anonymous online?
The short answer is “No.” Hackers and the government will always be able to find out who you are.
The long answer is a more nuanced “Somewhat.”
What Information Can You (And Should You) Hide Online?
Here is some of the information you may feel it is helpful to conceal:
- Your IP or Internet Protocol number. This gives a general idea of your geographical location. We have a longer post on hiding your IP here.
- Your name. While some networks won’t let you use a pseudonym, others, like Reddit, will. If you do choose to use a pseudonym, the more it sounds like a real name the less likely it is to be challenged.
- Your address and phone number. Never post your address or phone number online and avoid sending it in unencrypted email if you can. Consider getting a P.O. Box if you do a lot of business online to protect your actual street address.
- Your place of employment. Your boss is much likely to look past an embarrassing thing you say online if it is not easy to trace back to them.
- Your search history. Private mode in a browser helps deal with those creepy ads, but only provides minimal actual protection. Your ISP can still see what sites you go to and use it to target advertising.
- Your date of birth, which can be useful to identity thieves.
- Your social security number and other such identity details.
- Details of your movements. FourSquare may seem fun, but it tells everyone where you are. If you are playing an AR game, be careful who you “friend” if it gives access to your movements and take precautions to keep them from seeing where you are. Or where you are not – try to avoid telling the entire internet about your three-week California vacation until you get back.
- Comments about your employer, boss, coworkers, etc. Better yet, don’t make them at all.
How do you Stay Partially Anonymous?
Although you can’t actually be completely anonymous, here are a few things you can do to improve your anonymity and privacy online:
- Consider using Duck Duck Go rather than Google as a search engine. Duck Duck Go doesn’t store your search history, which may be less convenient but is much more secure.
- Use a different password on each website. If you find remembering passwords beyond difficult, use a password manager. Those security questions? Lie. Never use real answers as they are often things it is remarkably easy for a hacker to discover. Particularly mother’s maiden name.
- Clear your cookies reasonably regularly. Set your browser to accept only the cookies you need.
- Make a new email address just to use for online shopping, sign up for newsletters, etc. You can then avoid daily spam by not checking it regularly.
- Never post even part of your social security number online or send it in unencrypted email. It is often more secure to phone it. The same goes for credit and debit card numbers.
- Assume anything you post on social media may become public (glitches happen). Assume anything you post publicly may go viral. A simple tumblr post can end up looping back around to you on Facebook, quoted on news sites, etc. People love to screenshot tweets and share them around. In other words, don’t say anything on social media that would embarrass you if it was shouted in the town square.
- Use your real name only for services that you need and require it, or for circumstances (such as LinkedIn) where the intent is to allow people to find you for business and networking purposes. Avoid connecting any nicknames or handles you use with your real name.
- Always use private mode if browsing the web on a public computer, such as in a library. That way when you close the window, everything is deleted and you are logged out of anything you log into. The next user of the computer will not be able to see what you were up to. However, don’t rely on private mode alone to protect your sensitive information.
- Avoid using public WiFi as much as possible. Use it only for non-sensitive communication. Make sure you are connecting to the correct network. Hotel WiFi is never secure (I know of at least one hotel that secures its wi-fi behind a password…that has not been changed since the hotel was built).
- Encrypt your email. Ideally all of it, or at least all of it going to people who support the encryption, as encrypting only important email tells hackers exactly where to look.
- Use a VPN. By using a VPN you hide your IP from the internet and the sites you visit even from your ISP. It also encrypts your traffic so it can’t be as easily intercepted. Avoid free VPNs, which often finance themselves by selling the very data they are supposed to be protecting.
Staying at least partially anonymous on the internet is not just for bullies, but for their victims. We all have at least occasions when we don’t want our boss, our families, a particularly gossipy friend, or whoever to know what we are sending, what we are saying or even what we are reading online.
Whether you seek to be completely anonymous at all times or only part of the time, take precautions to protect your identity.