Think your online activities are private? Think again.
Not only are your surfing sessions tracked by websites, search engines and social networks, but often your Internet service provider (ISP), web browser, government and potentially hundreds of online tracking companies.
Whether it's to collect valuable (read: sellable) marketing data or prevent terrorist activity, movie piracy or kiddie porn, everything you think you're doing privately in the comfort of your home is anything but private.
But just because you want to spend time online anonymously doesn't mean you're a cybercriminal or have something to hide. Not only do regular folks want privacy, but remaining anonymous can also protect yourself from malicious types out to steal your identity for financial gain — from spammers and scammers alike.
And so there are a few things you can do to reduce the odds every click is tracked, archived and shared. The following are a few suggestions on where to start.
How does Facebook know to show you ads for your local gym, supermarket or college?
This is because your computer's unique Internet Protocol (IP) address, assigned by your ISP, reveals your geographical whereabouts. Even if your computer generates a different IP address every time you boot up or log online, this number (e.g. 126.96.36.199) can still tell of your general location.
And so there are many different solutions that can hide your Internet connection, allowing you to remain anonymous while online.
Some are websites, such as free "online proxy servers" that conceal your identity — simply point the web address (URL) to the proxy server and surf right from their website (check out proxy.org for a list of great options).
Others prefer Virtual Private Network (VPN) software that encrypts your online sessions. The browser-independent Hotspot Shield from AnchorFree, for example — available for Windows, Macs, iPhone and Android — channels all web activities through a personal VPN and secures all Internet communications by turning all HTTP traffic into the safer HTTPS (which is what your bank uses for a safe connection).
Free to use but with more features packed into the "elite" version ($29.95), Hotspot Shield is ideal for email and instant messaging, too, and reduces the likelihood of identity theft because you're not leaving a digital footprint -- including cyber-snoopers and rogue connections at Wi-Fi hotspots, hotels, airports, and so on.
Similarly, Tor is free software that defends you against Internet surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy. Short for "The Onion Router" — which gets its name for its "layered" approach to the encryption process -- Tor provides online anonymity as the software routes Internet traffic through a worldwide volunteer network of servers to conceal your location or online usage patterns.
USB Sticks, Too
In some cases, software to encrypt your connection is kept on a USB drive — therefore you can remain safe and secure even when using a public PC.
SurfEasy ($59.99) is a tiny USB key that fits into a credit card-shaped case to be kept in your wallet. When you plug it into a PC or Mac -- be it your own computer or a communal one -- it instantly launches its own password-protected browser and you're good to go -- no proxy or network settings to configure.
Your browsing session is handled through SurfEasy's fast and secure private proxy network. Your IP address will be masked throughout the session.
A free alternative is called Tails, which can be downloaded and installed onto a USB stick to run independently of the computer's original operating system.
Like SurfEasy, it lets you browse the web anonymously -- on virtually any computer — as all connections are channelled through the aforementioned Tor network.
Anonymous proxy software is a great way to mask your IP address online, but there is still plenty of information about your web surfing habits stored on your computer — which could also be viewed over a network, say, at the office, by your IT department.
At least it's somewhat easy to control your privacy settings directly in your web browser — unless your business forbids non-administrators from making changes to your browser settings, that is.
You can disable cookies — tiny text files stored on your computer with information about where you've been online, passwords and other info — and you should also delete your browser history to cover your tracks. All major web browsers — such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome or Safari -- allow you to delete your surfing history: simply go to the Options or Settings in your favorite browser and you'll see how to do this.
You might want to turn off auto-complete or someone on your computer could type in a few letters in a search engine or web address (URL) bar and any recent places you visited could fill in automatically. And don't click to allow sites to "remember my password" or someone could gain access to your private or financial information.
The easiest thing to do, however, is to see if your web browser has settings for surfing incognito — most of the major browsers do today. By enabling these privacy settings, your browser won't save any history (and download history), search queries, cookies or passwords.
On a related note, Twitter recently announced a "Do Not Track" feature that prohibits the service from collecting info about its millions of users. Nice. And Microsoft, in June 2012, said its upcoming Internet Explorer 10 browser -- expected to launch alongside Windows 8 later this year -- will not collect data about the online activity of its users by default.
'Do not track' tools, plug-ins
Therefore, if you search for recipes in Google Search you might be presented with cooking-related videos on YouTube. Handy? Sure. Invasion of privacy? Debatable.
You could choose not to log into your Google account when using these services (er, or not use them at all) or you might want to install one of the free browser plug-ins that tell Google and other advertisers to back off.
One called Do Not Track Plus from Abine blocks marketers, search providers and social networks from tracking your online activity — and it's compatible with all major web browsers. After it's installed, a small icon will appear to the right of the browser's address bar to tell you if a website wants to send data from your visit to other companies.
Speaking of requiring a login name and password on a variety of sites, some web-based services like Anonymizer can automatically generate temporary email addresses with unique usernames and passwords for any site you wish to access (excluding your bank or shopping sites, of course, or you can't access your account).
Similarly, another solution called BugMeNot lets users post free usernames and passwords for shared access to popular websites like video sharing sites and newspapers.