THE BLOG

Staying Safe: To Be (Anonymous) or Not to Be, That Is the Question

13/10/2014 15:39 BST | Updated 13/12/2014 10:59 GMT

The rise of the internet and social networks has rapidly changed our expectations of privacy and anonymity, and as we've witnessed over the last few years, this has high implications for businesses, governments and individuals.

As a society, we have a plethora of choices. We are able to choose when and where we digest information, watch television, connect with people from around the world, or just simply surf the web - discovering weird and wonderful information.

Broadband technology has increased both the speed and the capacity at which we can access and use online resources. Alongside our almost instant consumption of data comes the expectation of anonymity and privacy as well as transparency. Of course, this has to be when it suits us and depends on the situation.

Better to be safe than sorry

The awareness of identity theft and other illegal activity online ebbs and flows through the media almost constantly, leading to concerns surrounding internet privacy in particular being highlighted beyond the realm of internet hackers. The rise in theft has steered us towards anonymity, and although there are functions such as private browsing and secure sites, we know that for most of us there is no such thing as true anonymity or privacy online. However, sometimes the tools marketed to us as protecting our identity may be the very ones used to undermine it. In my opinion, the golden chalice is not just to be inconspicuous, but to be as safe as possible. To use an analogy, we have lived with cars for over 100 years and have largely learnt how to use them safely. The Internet is still very much a brave new world with the majority still only having had access for less than 10 years.

It all starts with your IP address which is the gateway to potentially revealing everything about you and it is important to remember that your personal IP address is transmitted every time you access a website. Although the site you visit doesn't know who you are, per se, it will have records of every IP that accessed the website. In other words, records are kept on file for years and no matter how much you delete your cookies, any site you have visited will know that a device on that IP address visited it and what browser was used. As the subscriber of that internet connection, you are responsible and legally liable for everything that goes through it, and it is therefore your job to secure your own connection. Your broadband provider can help in providing some tools, but for the money we pay them each month they are a long way from becoming our own personal protection personnel.

Tor - the privacy tool

A few of us may know of anonymous networks that give the user almost complete anonymity online. The free software known as 'Tor' (The Onion Router), which enables online anonymity and resists censorship, can be used by those who want to avoid issues they've had with stalkers who can't track your ISP address whilst using the software. It has however, become somewhat infamous in recent years for enabling an online black market in a range of illegal activities such as selling drugs, money laundering and identity fraud. Yet it does have its upsides, and could be considered by those who genuinely need to remain anonymous. Consequently, some news publications have started allowing their sources to publish to their sites through the network.

While the big privacy tool still means you need to careful, for example using a login that you have also used when NOT using Tor, it can help a site to cross reference your 'anonymous activities' with all your day to day activity.

But with so many dangers on the anonymous side of the internet, which is often referred to as 'the dark web', it doesn't offer a great alternative to what we have already. So, with many of us spending vast amounts of time online, using multiple devices, what basic precautions can be taken to help us stay safe online by hiding or disguising our identities in this digital age?

How to stay safe online

Get a good firewall - this is a basic requirement to help protect yourself. A firewall is software that helps screen dodgy sites and traffic online. Almost every broadband router has a basic firewall, but a layered approach with a firewall running on your PC is recommended.

Use secure passwords - use at least twelve characters, uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers, and characters. Avoid at all costs things like birthdays, anniversaries and pet names.

Consider using multiple email addresses - this helps you to identify which site may have sold on its address book.

Change your passwords frequently - that is all.

Be wary of pornographic and file sharing sites - these are notoriously infected.

Delete tracking data regularly - your web browser keeps track of where you go, what you type, and any other data it can capture about you. A basic security measure is to regularly delete this data, by removing cookies and clearing the cache.

Don't post any personal information online - like your address, email address or mobile number.

Change which search engine you use - the majority of search engines track what you search, as well as other information they can gather about you. Use search engines that don't do this, like DuckDuckGo.

Use a VPN - a virtual private network reroutes your traffic to another location before heading on to its final destination, masking your identity and location. Carry out research on the VPN provider, since they may be the weak link in the privacy battle.

Use a proxy - proxies are similar to VPNs but are less secure. They are great for basic browsing but don't encrypt traffic.

Watch out for public Wi-Fi - anyone can start a fake Wi-Fi hotspot and harvest information being passed across it. Avoid accessing banking services over public Wi-Fi.

Most of all -do not panic. The online privacy and security world may seem a nightmare but it is just about learning the common sense approach in a digital age. The con tricks invariably have not changed, they are now just online. The moral being to never take a photo or post something online (even if you think its stored in your own private cloud) that would embarrass you if your family or employer saw it.

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