How to protect yourself in a world seeking to extinguish privacy
Privacy is arguably one of the most important issues of our time. In today’s world, online privacy is all but completely non-existent. However, it is not completely gone, and there are some steps you can take to gain some back. While this is not a complete guide for total online anonymity, taking the steps listed below can help you recover a little peace of mind.
**PLEASE NOTE: This guide is for the LAWFUL application of these services only. I am not responsible for anything stupid or illegal you attempt. Always follow all local laws. Please be good!
The IP Address
One of the most frequently misunderstood topics in computer science is the IP address. I won’t completely cover IP addressing, save that for a later post, but I will clear up the basics.
Let’s start with what an IP address is not. An IP address is not static, it can be changed. And it does change often, everytime you connect to a new access point (WiFi hotspot, for example, or your pal’s wireless router) you have a new IP address. An IP address does not mark a physical address. You can’t pinpoint somebody’s exact location based on their IP alone.
However, you can still identify someone based on their IP address.
Your IP address is always exposed. This is a crucial part of how the internet functions. How can you write someone a letter and expect a response back without giving them a return address? Think of your IP address being your return address.
Your IP address is also frequently logged. This is usually done for debugging and security purposes, but it can be done for nefarious reasons as well (such as building advertising profiles). Your IP address can be tied to your account, and it usually is. Again, primarily for legitimate security purposes, but this can be used to track your activity since it then gives a name to the address.
If you have multiple services working together and sharing IP addresses, its not hard to see how this can be detrimental to privacy.
So what can we do to protect our IP address from prying eyes? We can use VPNs, Proxies, and TOR.
Proxies are the easiest to explain. If you are familiar with a proxy in the physical world, then you already know that it means having one object perform actions for another.
Think of it like a puppet and a puppet-master. The puppet-master controls the puppet from behind the curtain, meanwhile the world only sees the puppet performing the actions.
Web proxies are the same concept. You control the actions and the world sees the results of the proxy server. The proxy then relays the results back to you. Traffic appears be originating from the proxy’s IP address instead of yours.
Proxies tend to be used on application-by-application basis, and do not usually cover all of your traffic. Instead they tend to be used primarily for web browsers and torrent clients. Some proxies encrypt the traffic between the host device and the proxy, some do not. Try to use a proxy that does. Encryption is very important, and I will cover more on that later.
Be weary of free proxy services. The proxy service that you use needs to be trustworthy, otherwise you are putting yourself at risk of the owner of the proxy server performing a “man-in-the-middle” attack on your connection.
VPN is short for “Virtual Private Network”. When used for privacy purposes, they function in a similar fashion as a proxy, and the world sees the IP address of the VPN and not your own network. Unlike proxies, VPNs cover ALL of your traffic, and can perform more tasks than proxies since they are not designed just for routing traffic.
VPNs have plenty of other uses as well, for example you can setup a VPN to connect to your computer and file servers while away from them, however I will only cover a VPNs use for privacy.
By default, VPNs encrypt all traffic in between the host device (your computer, phone, etc) and the VPN. This keeps your data safe from snoopers, and can help fight against the dreaded “man-in-the-middle” attack.
Keep in mind, your VPN provider can see what you do (the same is true with proxies) if they so desire. Make sure you use a trustworthy VPN that doesn’t keep logs. Anonymous payment methods are strongly recommended. Avoid using free VPNs, they tend to have performance issues and a plethora of restrictions. Plus if you’re not being sold anything, then you’re the one that’s being sold.
When it comes to online privacy, using TOR is one of the most extreme measures you can take. If used correctly, TOR traffic is virtually untraceable back to you. Traffic through TOR is routed through several “nodes” before it reaches its destination. It’s encrypted and decrypted at each node, so the individual nodes do not have enough information to identify you and your activities.
Keep in mind, whomever controls the exit node (last hop, what actually connects to the web server and whose IP address is made public) can see your traffic, and whoever controls the entrance guard (the first node, where your host device connects to) can see your real IP address. If the two are working together, presumably under the control of a very large and powerful entity, you can be deanonymized. Keep in mind – this is not an easy feat. The chances of this happening are very very slim, however it is not entirely impossible either. It is still far easier to unmask VPN or proxy users.
Because of the way it is setup, TOR tends be very slow. However, TOR is completely free, the nodes are run by volunteers and anyone is allowed to join in, and it offers the greatest amount of privacy protection of the three.
There is no silver bullet
Do not use any of the services above and automatically think you are now completely private and free to do whatever you want without consequence. That’s just not how it works unfortunately.
If ultimate privacy is the goal, you need to change your online habits. Things like social media are a major no-no when it comes to privacy (how can you expect to remain private when you are literally using your real identity?)
Obtaining better online privacy means shrinking your online footprint as much as possible. This isn’t always an easy thing to do, and in some cases it can even be impossible. But you can take the first step today by picking up a VPN or proxy service and using it regularly, or by hopping on TOR.
Stay safe out there.