Is your data valuable? Sure is. Otherwise, different government agencies, internet service providers, and advertisers wouldn’t always be on the prowl for it. To hide from these predators, you need to know how to browse anonymously. Then, threats like malicious ads, tracking beacons, and network snooping can be easily parried. So, let’s go through all the tools you need to become a ghost on the web.
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Anonymous browsing: What it means to browse anonymously
In theory, anonymous browsing means accessing and surfing the internet without a trace. However, that’s far from reality.
No matter what, you’ll always leave some breadcrumb trail when you browse the web.
But you can cover your tracks and hide from most threats, which is good enough for everyday use.
How to browse the internet anonymously (without leaving a trace)
Let’s try to leave as few traces as possible. Here are the best steps to start with:
#1: Use the Tor Browser
Tor is a browser used by the privacy-conscious crowd worldwide. It routes your traffic through a bunch of servers known as The Onion Network. In The Onion Network, servers do not know fellow onion servers, meaning that it is virtually impossible to trace where the connection comes from.
This makes you nearly impossible to track. I say nearly because there are cases where Tor’s exit nodes could be compromised.
Tor also allows easy access to the darknet, making it the king of anonymity online. At the same time, the Tor browser is terrible for streaming, torrenting, and tunneling through off-browser applications.
Drawback: The Tor browser is slow. That’s why, for convenience and everyday privacy, a VPN (Virtual Private Network) might be a better choice.
#2: Use a VPN
A VPN also protects you online. Similar in some ways, Tor and VPNs have a few differences as well. For example, VPNs aren’t limited to your online browsing activity.
Instead, they cover all types of traffic and anything else related to data transfer, such as:
- Connection logs;
- Traffic logs;
- Your IP address;
- Location data.
Good VPN services use strong data encryption protocols to hide the information above. These protocols take your information and scramble it into a random mess. To decrypt that data (or translate it into something useful), hackers require access to the cipher, and you can wish them good luck trying to access it.
Drawback: All good VPN services require paid subscriptions. Of course, there are free VPNs out there, but they’re more interested in selling your data than protecting it.
#3: Use Tor over a VPN
Combining Tor and a VPN is your best bet for those incredibly sensitive privacy cases. Doing both is also known as using Tor over a VPN.
To do so, you can follow these steps:
- Download Surfshark;
- Sign up for an account;
- Download the Tor browser;
- Activate your VPN and connect to any desired location;
- Double-click the Tor browser (go to settings and select “Safest” under security level);
- Start browsing.
Drawback: This solution isn’t ideal for everyday use as Tor is incredibly slow in most cases. So, if you don’t want to spend your days staring at a loading screen, a VPN alone will suffice more often than not.
#4: Log out of your Google account while browsing
Whenever you use Google, you are encouraged to create an account. Why? Because Google likes snooping on you as much as the next guy. Google even knows your location. So, not logging in while using Google prevents some data collection.
Here is some of the data Google will track with your account:
- Your city, state, and neighborhood;
- Browsing habits you have while using their accessible login features;
- Search history across multiple Google-friendly platforms;
- How you interact with different websites and other online features.
Google typically uses this information to show you targeted advertisements. So if you want to improve your online privacy, avoiding Google at all costs is your best bet.
Drawback: Unfortunately, it will sacrifice some level of convenience. Logging into different services with Google can be handy. Still, you do give up your online anonymity by leveraging these services.
#5: Use private search engines
Yeah, the best-known search engines (like Google and Bing) closely track your search history. Thankfully, there are alternatives. More specifically, at least nine private search engines that protect users from data-monitoring efforts.
Drawback: The search results you get with these engines might not be up to what you expect from Google. So, you’ll have to spend more time searching sometimes. However, the ability to protect your search history is well worth it.
#6: Use private browsers
Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome are not built for your security. The good news is that there are different privacy browsers you can use as an alternative for safe searching.
Privacy browsers are built to reject tracking cookies and delete your browsing history after use. These browsers are meant to prevent creepy websites from tracking your personal info, allowing you a bit more security.
Good privacy browsers block malware, are open source, and block fingerprinting. These include (but are not limited to):
To find out more, you can check out our detailed guide on privacy browsers.
Drawback: Some of these browsers aren’t 100% secure, and many of them require you to adjust the settings to be more private. Regardless, they are still much better than Edge or standard Google Chrome when it comes to privacy matters.
Ways you can get tracked online
Knowing how to browse the internet anonymously helps you affirm your online security. At the same time, knowledge of how third parties can track you online can help you avoid common security pitfalls like:
IP address tracking
Companies, governments, hackers, and even your own ISP (Internet Service Provider) can track your IP address to determine what sites you visit. Using both VPNs and Tor are the best-known ways to hide your IP address, regardless of using apps or browsing online.
When you create online accounts, you give people access to your personal information. If you want to surf without someone tracking your data, avoid using your name or credit card. You should also avoid using emails that have this information.
Cross-site tracking is when companies track your browsing history between websites. You can avoid this by using a VPN or not creating online accounts (especially Google accounts).
A tracking pixel is a 1×1 graphic that you download when accessing some websites. You aren’t meant to see it, but downloading it enables the offending company to track you (like with cookies). Disabling automatic image downloads on your browser prevents this issue.
Not delicious crumbly desserts, but text files that are stored by the sites you visit. They come in both first-party (those that keep basic details and don’t move between sites) and third-party (used for programmatic advertising) flavors. You can easily set it up on any browser to delete your cookies as you leave websites.
It’s when browsers or applications track you based on existing device details. You might not think about it much, but there is a lot of information about you on your devices. For example, just your screen size and device specifications help determine who you are with greater ease. Using the Tor browser (which changes sizes with each new session) or browser extensions can help avoid this hidden issue.
Is private browsing (Incognito mode) the same as anonymous browsing?
No. Despite being generally useful, Incognito mode (or private browsing) is not comparable to browsing the web anonymously. Instead, it tells your browser to delete your history and cookies after you close it.
You’ll find the option to activate Incognito mode under the browser settings. You might see something similar to a spy cartoon, but it might just be under “private browsing mode.”
All it does, however, is enable you to have your cookies deleted with each use. Privacy browsers like Tor do that and much more. So going Incognito isn’t enough to keep you secure, as it makes no effort to hide your information; it only removes your data after closing the browser.
Is being completely anonymous possible?
By the general definition of anonymous: no.
To be “not named or identified,” you would have to have magic powers. With IDs, social security cards, and other methods to identify you, it’s always in an online database somewhere. But knowing where it is and how to manage it is nothing to scoff at.
While complete anonymity is a lofty and impossible goal, trying to stay as anonymous online as possible isn’t a waste of time. By following the tips above, you can reduce your presence and online risk.
Final words: Controlling your presence on the web
There are plenty of reasons for you to want to be secure. However, you can’t do it alone.
To increase your odds and give yourself the best chance of online anonymity, services like Surfshark One are a must. The combination of a VPN, antivirus, and a private search engine provides a comprehensive set of tools you can use to protect your online identity. And even if your data were to get stolen, Surfshark One includes dark web monitoring to help you stay ahead of the curve.
Can I be anonymous with a free VPN?
The simple answer is: no.
You cannot be anonymous with a free VPN. First of all, a VPN alone will never make you completely anonymous. It is only one of the tools that will help. And more importantly, a free VPN will be unable to do even that. Free VPNs get by selling your data. This means that for every breadcrumb you hide, there is another that is being sold to third parties for profit.
What are the best anonymous browsers?
Tor. That’s it. Next question.
However, there are many reasons you might not want to use Tor. The speed drops you’ll experience, for example. In that case, do not fear. We ranked the most popular types of browsers for you.