Online Anonymity

I take online anonymity very seriously. It's not that I don't mind sharing data (if I did mind, I wouldn't be a part of any social networking site, nor would I be writing in a Blog). The reason why I take it seriously is that the user (you) should be able to dictate what you want people to see, and what you don't want people to see. The ethics of this is up for debate. Many people are fearful that an data you post online can and will be found. Although this is technically true, it's not as simple as Googling for someone and finding out the necessary information. Most identity theft occurs when a database of some sort is breached, or when someone knows enough about you that they can pretend to be you when they call your bank. This is why banks must always ask you the same questions over and over again, to make sure you are who you say you are. It's annoying, but it's better than the alternatives.

So, what is "online anonymity". Well, the phrase should be self-explanatory, but just in case: it's when your activities online are anonymous. 

Let's take an obvious example. You want to look at Facebook or another social-networking site at work, but your workplace has blocked the website so that you're unable to view it. There are several methods to do this, but the easiest would be a Firewall to block selected websites.


A firewall is a part of a computer system or network that is designed to block unauthorized access while permitting authorized communications. ...
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firewall
Essentially the place where you work knows what you're doing. Although 90% of the population won't care, there is that 10% of people who do care. It's not that they mind people knowing they go to Facebook, but they might be sending confidential data (such as business deals, or schematics for weapons, etc). The point is, a clever person can intercept the data, and know who the sender is.

Also, JScript (Java Script) is extremely dangerous in terms of privacy online. If you're sensitive about your data, then you should turn this off. But if you do, around 99% of the Internet will break, as most of the web needs JScript to work. This is why HTML 5 is a good thing, but I drift. That is another entirely different subject which I may get into in the future.

There are several types of ways to keep yourself anonymous online. I will briefly introduce them.


Proxies

What is a proxy? A proxy is basically an alternative gateway you use to get to the web.

A way to visualize this, is to pretend that whenever you look at the Internet, you look through a window. What a proxy does is essentially place another window in front of your window, thereby hiding the fact that you're looking through your first window.

But how does this help hide you? Again, a clever person can find you if you use just a proxy on its own. Proxies are usually using the 'same traffic' as you would if you access the web without. What it does is that it changes your access, usually bypassing filters and rules set by the system administrator.

If that is too technical, then how about this: it disguises the websites you access by pretending your accessing a legitimate one.

Most browsers come with the ability the add proxies natively. In Firefox, you can go to your preferences pane, advanced, and then click on the network settings tab. Or if you can't be bothered, Firefox has a bunch of proxy add-ons you can use. I recommend Foxyproxy as it is easily managed, but you need to learn how to use it. In Macs, Safari can only be modified via System Preferences.

There are many various types of proxies, some are more secure than others. I'm going to make it simple. There are 2 types of proxies. Web-based and IP based.

A web-based proxy is essentially a website you go to, and enter the website you want to see, and it voilĂ ! I don't recommend this type of web-proxy to log into anything as it is usually very difficult to verify if the data from the proxy is being stored or not. This is the better option if you're just planning to go and look around websites, maybe make a few anonymous posts, or just view some videos on YouTube.

A good place to see these types of proxies is here: http://proxy.org/cgi_proxies.shtml

IP proxies are a lot more secure, and safer. It also allows you to encrypt data, and transmit it on selective ports (if you know how). You need to physically enter IP's into a browsers settings in order to make this work. That is why you need a browser with that ability. Firefox is the easiest and by far the best browser to do this. Unless you have your own proxy, or pay for a proxy service (which to me is dumb because then you're missing the point of online anonymity), it's going to be significantly slower than your regular connection.

A good list of open proxies: http://www.samair.ru/proxy/ip-address-01.htm


Tor


Okay... no, not that one. The one I want is: http://www.torproject.org/

Tor is an online web anonymity network that shares everyone's connections to help hide who is looking at what and where. When you use Tor, you are connecting to a network of peers (similar to the Peer2Peer (P2P) concept) and are sharing bandwidth with one another. The Tor network is one of the safest ways to surf the web as it not only hides who you are, but also makes it impossible for anyone to trace back who is looking at what. 

Although Tor is safe, it's incredibly slow. So slow, in fact, that it's just not worth it if you're doing anything other than looking at text. This is great for users in countries who have blocked access to certain websites, which I believe to be extremely unethical. For example, if someone from China wants to look at something, they need not worry about their government filtering that data, and can safely look at it without fear of getting arrested.

If you are feeling generous, and want to 'help' the Tor network, you might consider becoming a peer. You will help distribute traffic and access, but only if you want to. You are under no obligation to do so if you use Tor. Tor allows users to access their network as and when they feel like. If you want to give this a try, and you're using a PC, then download the Tor Browser Bundle for Windows. It's got not 'install', and you can dump it on a USB stick. Mac... sorry, but you've got to install the whole thing.

Another browser (which I haven't really tried) is: XeroBank. Apparently it has all the presets for complete anonymous browsing already installed (no JScript, Tor, etc). If someone gets chance to try this and let me know, I'd be grateful.


Freenet

Freenet is conceptually a fantastic idea, but its ethical and social repercussions make is not only unsafe, but downright dangerous to normal users. However, since it does keep you anonymous, the chances of you getting in trouble are slim, but the fact that you have information in your computer that can get you into trouble is a problem.

What Freenet essentially does is decentralize the Internet. Websites, and pages are moved across to your computer making it accessible from multiple locations. When you install Freenet, you have to make some space on your computer to store data for other users as well as yourself. This distribution of data helps spread information, and keeps that information safe from censorship and is always publicly available. The flaw is that you don't get to choose what data is being dumped onto your machine. It could be images on how to build explosives, to how to make drugs, etc. If you don't mind stuff like that being stored on your computer, then this is a better option than Tor because it is so much faster since it doesn't use a seperate network from your own. Essentially, if disguises your IP as the broadcast IP (127.0.0.1) and end-users cannot trace you back because it goes through that decentralize process. Data being distributed everywhere at once, it is impossible to trace.

I would only recommend this to people who are extremely good with computers.


I2P

I2P uses the same concept as Freenet in that it uses the broadcast to submit data. How it differs is that instead of decentralizing the data, it decentralizes your connection instead. Because it switches to different proxies on a network that is hidden, it is relatively impossible for anyone to see who you are and what proxy you are connected to because the broadcast constantly changes. The longer you wait, the more proxies you are able to connect to, and the more proxies you connect to, the faster the network becomes. I2P is the only network fast enough to allow Bittorrent, and that is also anonymous meaning that when you download something, no-one can tell who you are because the IP is viewed as the broadcast IP.

I2P is essentially a combination of Tor and Freenet. Again, not for the non-technically minded. This is for people who know how to use computers. Also, recommend that you get Firefox for this one as you need to connect through a 'proxy' (essentially your broadcast address on port 4444).


Conclusion:

If you need to be anonymous for any reason, these options will help you achieve that. If you just want to play around, then by all means, do so. The best way to learn is to explore.

If you are interested, but are a technical challenged, then I recommend getting the Tor Bundle. Just install and run it, and surf the web like normal.



How to check if you're anonymous?

First, before you use any of the above, go to this website: http://www.whatismyip.com/

Then, after you've activated one of the above, go there again. If the IP address is different, you're now anonymously online. Pat yourself on the back, and give yourself a cookie. 

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