Among all the technologies that people use to maintain their online privacy, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and the Tor Network are the most popular. They prevent your ISP, your government, and even cybercriminals from monitoring your online traffic. Additionally, they cloak your real identity from the websites and online services that you use.
At first glance, it may appear that these two technologies help you achieve online privacy the same way. They are, however, quite different. Even though some of their functions overlap, their core functions are different. Let’s take a look at each.
The primary functions of VPNs include:
- Ensuring your online privacy by preventing your ISP and government from monitoring your online activities.
- Getting around censorship from your ISP, the government, the school, or an employer.
- Disguising your location so that you can access online services that are not available in your geographic region.
- Keeping you safe from hackers when you use public Wi-Fi connections.
- Enabling you to safely make P2P
You get VPNs from commercial VPN providers, from which you buy a subscription typically costing five to ten dollars a month with the prices discounted when you buy a six-month or one-year subscription. To learn more about individual VPN providers and the suitability of their services for different VPN uses, read our numerous reviews.
Bear in mind that although a VPN service can offer you the highest level of privacy (by not logging any of your online data), it does not offer anonymity because the providers can always see your online activities, i.e., the websites you visit. To achieve true anonymity, you need to use:
The Tor Network
Tor offers high-level anonymity, although this comes at the cost of everyday usability. Tor works as follows:
- Your online traffic is passed through at least three “nodes” (servers run by volunteers).
- These nodes are spread out across the world.
- The data is encrypted over and over (each time it’s routed through a node).
- Each node is only aware of the IP address of the node “behind” it and the IP addresses “in front” of it.
- As a result, it is impossible to trace the entire path between your device and the website you visit (even if some of the nodes along the path are controlled by malicious entities).
One of the main advantages of Tor is that it’s free. But the real beauty of the technology is that you need not trust anyone because its design is such that it is impossible for anyone to discover your true identity.
It’s also a handy tool for getting around censorship. However, many governments around the world have taken huge steps to counter the use of Tor by blocking it, and some have been quite successful. Tor can be used in conjunction with a VPN to further improve your online privacy and security.
Tor is the most effective tool for ensuring maximum anonymity, whereas a VPN is the most suitable tool for privacy because you use the Internet on a day to day basis.
Additional Methods of Maintaining Online Privacy
Tor and VPNs are the most popular online anonymity, privacy and security tools. There are, however, other ways of making sure no one monitors your online activity or poses a security threat. As we examine each of them, bear in mind that while they are effective, they cannot be used as a good substitute for Tor or a VPN.
Other services you might be interested in include, Psiphon, I2P, Lahana, and JonDonym. Using these services together with Tor and VPN makes your privacy and security arsenal even more robust and impenetrable.
Staying Secure as You Browse the Web
The NSA is not the only one interested in knowing what you’re up to online. Advertisers are also greatly interested in your online activities—for different reasons, though. They have developed some nifty technology to follow you around the web and create an online profile of your behavior to know what stuff you’ll be interested in buying.
You probably know about website cookies and how and why to clear them. All major browsers have a mode that allows for private browsing in which cookies are blocked and your browser doesn’t save your browsing history. Private browsing is always a good idea, as long as you remember that it does nothing to stop your ISP and the websites you visit from monitoring your online activities. It only scrubs the history on your end.
Clearing Cached DNS Entries
To make your browsing experience faster and seamless, your browser caches (or temporarily stores) the IP addresses of the websites it obtained from your default DNS server. You can view the cached DNS data by launching command prompt and typing in “ipconfig/displaydns”.
Below are the commands to clear the DNS cache in Windows and OSX.
- Windows: Type “ipconfig/flushdns” and hit enter.
- OSX 10.4 and older versions: Type “lookup - flushcache” and hit enter.
- OSX 10.5 and newer versions: Type “dscacheutil - flushcache” and hit enter.
Clearing Flash Cookies
Among the most intrusive web tools are Flash Cookies, which cannot be blocked by the standard method of disabling cookies on your browser, although the latest build of modern browsers can. Like regular cookies, flash cookies can track your online activities. You can manually find and delete them in the following directories:
- Windows: C:Users[username]AppDataLocal\MacromediaFlash Player #SharedObjects
- OSX: [User directory] /Library/Preferences/Macromedia/Flash Player/#SharedObjects
and [User directory] /Library/Preferences/Macromedia/Flash Player/macromedia.com/support/flashplayer/sys/
However, the most effective way of doing it is by using the CCleaner tool available for both Windows and OSX. It cleans out Flash cookies along with a host of other junk that slows down your computer, but for it to be effective, you need to configure it correctly.
Thankfully, the use of Flash cookies is declining because an increasing number of people have become aware of them (in addition to zombie cookies, small Flash codes that create more regular cookies even after they’re deleted) and advanced browser technology that disables Flash cookies along with regular ones. But that is not to say that they are no longer a serious threat.
Other Technologies Used for Tracking Your Online Activity
Online companies have enormous budgets so they’re not going to sit back and passively watch as users find ways of protecting themselves against online tracking. For those reasons, they’ve funded the development of various other clever means of tracking the activities of Internet users. Let’s take a look at four.
- Browser Fingerprinting
Your unique identity can be identified with a shocking level of accuracy thanks to the mechanics of your operating system and the manner in which your browser is configured (especially the way plugins function). In an ironic twist, the uniqueness of your browser’s fingerprint increases with the number of measures you take to prevent yourself from being tracked online.
It turns out that the most effective defense strategy is to use the most common and unsophisticated browser and operating system. However, this leaves you open to a different variety of threats and diminishes your device’s capacity to carry out day to day functions to the degree that this strategy may prove to be impractical.
In simple terms, the more browser extensions and plugins you employ, the more unique your browser becomes. A partial solution to this problem is using the Tor browser but having disabled Tor so as to make your Tor look identical to numerous other Tor users. This way, you benefit from the additional protection of the Tor browser.
There are other forms of fingerprinting, the most prominent of which are canvas fingerprinting and “audio and battery” fingerprinting.
- HTML5 Web Storage
Web storage is built into HTML5, Flash’s much-praised replacement. The storage, referred to as Document Object Model (DOM) storage, is far more powerful and insidious than cookies as it is an analogous means of storing information on a browser. Moreover, it has a greater capacity for storage and is more persistent than cookies.
It cannot be read, monitored, selectively deleted from your browser. Every browser enables it by default, though you can turn it off in Internet Explorer and Firefox. To automatically remove web storage regularly, Firefox users can configure an add-on called Better Privacy for this purpose. Click&Clean is the equivalent browser extension for Chrome users. As mentioned earlier, bear in mind that using these add-ons makes your browser’s fingerprint more unique.
Etags are part of the Internet protocol HTTP. They’re the markers that your browser uses to track specific URL resource changes. Websites can construct your browser’s fingerprint and, therefore, track your activities by comparing these resource changes to a database. Moreover, Etags can recreate HTML5 and HTTP zombie-style cookies which, once set on a particular website, can be used by associated sits to monitor your traffic.
Preventing this type of tracking is extremely difficult because there’s no way of detecting it. You can try clearing your cache whenever you leave a website or disabling your cache altogether. Taking these actions can be daunting, though, and will diminish your browsing experience. Firefox users can use the Secret Agent add-on but, again, it may or may increase the uniqueness of their browser fingerprint.
- History Theft
This is where it gets a bit scary. Also referred to as history snooping, history stealing takes advantage of the design of the Internet to allow the websites you visit to find out your browsing history. Combined with your data on social networking sites, this information can be used to profile you and preventing it is nearly impossible.
Thankfully, even though social network fingerprinting is worryingly effective, it’s not reliable. Masking your online data with a VPN or Tor goes a long way in disconnecting you from your tracked web behavior.