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Basic Internet Privacy in a Nutshell (Condensed)

March 12, 2013

Who is tracking you? Why bother being anonymous? How do I do it? Privacy and anonymity go hand in hand on the internet. One is not possible without the other, and achieving any semblance of anonymity or privacy on the internet is quite difficult and potentially costly.

Who is tracking you? There are countless organizations tracking your every move, but for the sake of simplicity they can be divvied up into three groups: The government, advertisers, and other people.

What defines you on the internet? You are defined by a unique identification number whenever you access the internet, in any form, and there are no exceptions. Behind your router you are defined by your MAC address and to the internet you are defined by your IP address. You are further defined by your cookies and other temporary files, along with any personal information you unwittingly or otherwise post. For the most part your MAC address is irrelevant; it can only be seen and used to identify you from inside a network or from behind a router. Your MAC address is specific to your device and never naturally changes, unlike your IP address which changes whenever you change Wi-Fi hotspots or ISP. In other words a MAC address cannot easily be used by someone else to identify you on the internet. However your MAC address contains important information regarding your computer’s manufacturer and identification number, which can be used to identify you (by the government subpoenaing the manufacturer.) IP addresses on the other hand are very important; they are your de facto identity on the internet and incredibly easy to find. Your IP address is displayed to every single web page you visit. In fact, the IP addresses of every blog comment on WordPress is given to the post’s author in the “Comments” section of their dashboard. So if you’ve commented on any of my posts, I know your IP address. Why is showing your IP address problematic? It identifies you and can easily be used to find your location. Cookies and temporary files are rather harmless on the other hand, as long as you have a working anti-virus program to prevent viruses, trojans, and other malware from infecting your computer. These are primarily used by websites and advertisers to track you and tend to be harmless.

How do you browse safely? Safe browsing is fairly simple, all that’s required is an up to date anti-virus program.

How do you browse anonymously? Anonymous browsing is more difficult than browsing safely. As mentioned previously there are a number of ways to identify you on the internet, with the first and foremost being your IP address. The only way to avoid being identified by your IP address is by routing your internet traffic through another server or router, and essentially masking it with another IP address. This can be achieved through either a proxy or a VPN. When using these services your IP address, which is unique to your router (which multiple computers can be connected to and have the same IP address) and not to your computer, will be replaced with the IP address of your proxy or VPN. So the IP address displayed to websites like wordpress will be the IP address of your proxy or VPN and not your real IP address, which could be used to identify you as a person and your current location. The issue here often comes down to the question “How much are you willing to pay for anonymity?” A good VPN can run around $40 a year and will purge their data regularly, whereas a bad VPN can run from the same price to double and will log all of your data. Proxies on the other hand tend to be incredibly slow and do a poor job of masking your IP address from persistent snoopers. The one exception to that rule would be TOR, which does a rather decent job of masking your IP address but is still rather slow and is dangerous to download anything on. For the sake of basic anonymity, masking your IP address is enough. I will discuss more advanced methods to attain more perfect anonymity in future blog posts.

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  1. Advanced Internet Privacy (Paranoia-Level) | Matt B

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