Updated March 4, 2019

Among all the technologies that people use to maintain their online privacy, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and the Tor Network are the most popular, and rightly so. Not only do they prevent your ISP, your government and cybercriminals from monitoring your online traffic, they cloak your real identity from the websites and online services that you use as well.

These two technologies achieve online privacy and have some overlapping functions but, they are, fundamentally, quite different.

VPN:

  • Traffic is routed through a private VPN server, often chosen by the user, which gets around censorship and geo-restrictions from ISPs, governments, schools and employers
  • This disguises the user’s location so they can access exclusive online services
  • Keeps users safe from hackers, and while accessing public Wi-Fi connections

VPN subscriptions are typically purchased from commercial providers, and the price differs – usually to reflect the quality of the service. To learn more about individual VPN providers, their pricing, as well as their features, read our numerous reviews here.

Tor:

  • Online traffic is passed through at least three nodes throughout the world, encrypting the data further with each node
  • As a result, it is impossible to trace the entire path between the device and website visited you
  • Can be used alongside a VPN to increase privacy and security

Many governments around the world have taken huge steps to counter the use of Tor, and some have been quite successful. Using Tor to access HTTP sites is unencrypted, which means whole connections can be manipulated. This will put users on the radar of their governments and ISPs.

Other Ways of Staying Secure as You Browse the Web

Clearing Cached DNS Entries

To make your browsing experience faster and seamless, your browser 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: [Userdirectory]/Library/Preferences/Macromedia/FlashPlayer/#SharedObjects [Userdirectory]/Library/Preferences/Macromedia/FlashPlayer/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, it needs to be configured correctly.

Thankfully, the use of Flash cookies, as well as zombie cookies, small Flash codes that create more cookies even after deletion, is declining because an increasing number of people are aware of how to deal with them. Advanced browser technologies can disable Flash cookies along with regular ones, but this doesn’t mean they’re no longer a threat to online privacy.

Other Technologies Used for Tracking Your Online Activity

Online companies set aside enormous budgets to make sure their adverts reach users. Rather than sit back and watch consumers bypass their promotions, they’ve funded the development of various modern methods of tracking user activity. A few of them can be found below.

  1. 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’s 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 or 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.

  1. Etags

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 sites 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 not increase the uniqueness of the browser fingerprint.

  1. History Theft

This is where it gets a bit scary. Also referred to as history snooping, history theft is done by companies exploiting the design of the internet 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 goes a long way in disconnecting you from your web behavior.