Staying Safe - Being Anonymous on the Internet

Every person who wants to use Internet today should be aware of possible privacy and personal data issues. Governments of many countries want it to be controlled and companies strive to collect personal information and track users. Then this data ends up being used for targeting ads. Even if the use of such data is considered secure, there's always probability of a threat. The data could be stolen or it could become public. Nobody could gurantee absolute safety.

A very good example of such issues is China. Since the Internet became popular, the government tries to take full control of it. Users are blocked from accessing a lot of famous resources such as Twitter, YouTube and even Github. The only solution available to them is VPN and even then there's no guarantee as VPN could also be blocked.

It's only natural for us to care about our privacy, and it certainly applies to online activities. And when there's demand, there's offer. There are many ways of hiding your personal profile, but none of them is a complete solution. So, you'd be better off using some or all of the techniques at the same time.

So, there are tools that establish secure connections and it's all based on cryptography. The main goal is obvious: protect private information from being stolen by a 3rd party. Below we explain what users can do and what tools they can use. To be fair, even all those technologies combined cannot provide absolute security ("if you want complete security, then unplug").

When it comes down to stealing information, the only question that rises is how much resource is needed to pull it off. So, this article is merely aimed at making your data as hard to steal as possible, so that the culprits would have to spend a fortune to get their hands on it. Here a very important aspect, by the way, is maintaining your tool up-to-date.

A lot of web sites record information about connections and not everyone likes it. Then, often some resources are not available in some countries and the only way to access them is use an anonymizer. Another example of using privacy protection technologies is securing public network connections like public WiFi access points.

1.1 Proxy

Proxy is a server that listens to a connected user's requests. It relays the received requests to their destination. Then the server sends the replies back the same way, to that respective user. Proxy servers can have features to anonymize user's data. There are different types of proxy servers for a lot of situations.

Proxies are used for anonymous surfing on the Internet. Companies use it for security purposes and for user control in order to secure the network and the data, etc.

Apart from good use, proxy servers can be used for illegal activities such as spam, scam, fraud, hacking and so on.

Proxy servers often have caching and logging functions. This way, user data may be stored at a third-party's proxy. Needless to say that you need to be absolutely sure that the proxy is secure and the owner will not put your data to bad use.

There are several types of proxies. Basic web proxy does not offer any anonymizing functions and simply relays requests. It is easy to detect users behind such proxies and reject their requests. To avoid such issues other proxy varities exist that hide the fact of proxy use. They are called anonymous proxies. Some proxies may offer real non-public IPs which is required by some web resources. SSL proxies provide encryption for all the data.

Another type of proxy is SOCKS 4 and 5. It has support of UDP data and DNS lookup requests.

Caching proxies could be used for speeding up local network and for making access control list for some web resources. There are a plenty of other usage scenarios as well.

1.2 Tor

Tor (The Onion Router) is a project whose main purpose is to provide high anonymity and secure access to web resources. Tor is software which works as a proxy server on a local computer or a network and provides the ability for a user to safely surf the Internet. Tor is a distributed network consisting of a bunch of servers. It is very hard to block and to hack. When users install a proxy server, it also becomes a hop in the Tor network and it also works as a router receiving and sending data from the same clients. From this point, the speed of the network depends on how many users are connected to it.

From recent news about Silk Road and its creator Ross Ulbrikht, Tor couldn't be considered as a completely secure network. It doesn't mean that it's absolutely insecure, but everyone who uses it must be very careful. It is still possible to determine and find person who uses the network.

Some websites could block Tor users, because the associated IP addresses are available to anyone and can be used by anyone.

Tor is the simplest way to stay anonymous online for anyone without special knowledge. Tor Browser is a bundle of Tor, Mozilla Firefox web browser and few extensions & tools, available for download and install with a few mouse clicks on the Tor project web site. It works separately from the already installed browsers.

Exemplary usage here is anything that shouldn't be tracked by the ISP and anyone else. Of course, it is not recommended to send some private data such as company documents or anything else.

1.3 VPN

Virtual Private Network is a technology that provides the functionality for creating tunnels that are secure and hard to break with simple techinques. The main purpose is to make the connection between the hosts secure and not availabe to anyone behind such a connection. It works as point-to-point topology.

VPN works over the network level, so it provides for the use of TCP and UDP protocols. Generally speaking, it is possible to send all data through one VPN connection, so all of it will be secured.

VPN uses available resoures such as the Internet or a local network for making a tunnel. There are different types of it at different layers with different sets of protocols.

VPN is often used by companies to create secure network connections between its departments.

A lot of companies provide VPN services for home users for anonymous Internet surfing. They could be used to avoid governmental survelliance and to access resources that are not available in some countries.

Use cases of VPN. Here is an example of how to use VPN and where this usage is most appropriate.

VPN for home usage requires some additional software. The most famous open-sourced solution for this is OpenVPN. It's available for a lot of platfroms, including Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and even Android. Android also has native support for establishing VPN connections. There are some requirements for it like user must use PIN or Lock key to secure their device. OpenVPN is available as an additional package and is used mostly by advanced users.

To use VPN user needs to connect to some VPN provider. It could be some public or private VPN server, or you can setup your own one. Both ways have pros and cons. Your own VPN server has some limitations, i.e. your external IP is the only one available, etc. Specialized VPN services provides some external IP addresses in many countries. This could be useful to access resources limited to certain countries. Private VPN server is often used by companies to access internal resources from outside.

As explained above, VPN allows for encrypting any data. It could be HTTP traffic, BitTorrent, media content of some services, game connections, etc. Home use provides encryption for data that user doesn't want to show to the ISP. It’s useful when ISP blocks some resources like some TCP or UDP ports, filters traffic, block some types of traffic like BitTorrent, YouTube traffic, Skype data, etc. User could encrypt all data so they wouldn't be tracked as a BitTorrent user (because many users use torrents for legal downloads).

Another use case for VPN is public hotspots. Sometimes users don't have many options, and then it's better to encrypt all the data. In most cases users check their email, pay for goods and services online and all it works through Internet. Then it's very smart to secure such private information.

Some professions require responsibility for information. It could be journalists, political activists, opposition, doctors, programmers, spies, etc. Then VPN is the best option for encrypting all data between the user and the server.