User Unknown: Just How Possible is Online Anonymity, Really?

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We all browse the web – for clothes, for Christmas presents, for the next hit TV show – and when we do so we tend to leave tracks. Our PCs and browsers, not to mention companies and governments, keep track of the websites we visit and the things we tend to enjoy. Why? For many different reasons. Your surfing data is a valuable marketing tool, first and foremost; there’s a lot of money that can be made from it and a lot of things that can be learnt from it. Then there’s national security, the issue of malware, the issue of censorship etc. So when it comes to keeping your tech private online, wherever you are around the globe, there’s bound to be a little backlash.

In this modern world of cybercrime, of cookies, of tracking and security, anonymity is a very precious thing. But is it even possible in the first place? With so many forces determined to know what you’re up to, keeping data private is no easy feat.

The Very Basics

Step one to privacy is changing how you access the internet to begin with. The first thing you can do is set your browser to incognito mode (if you’re using Chrome). That way your browser history, cookies and site data will be safe from prying eyes. What incognito mode can’t do, however, is hide activity or information from your employer, your ISP or the actual websites themselves. To do that, you’ll need an upgrade.

Source: Pexels

Cue VPNs. VPNs or ‘Virtual Private Networks,’ are a conglomeration of various technologies which aim to add a further layer of security to your online experience. VPNs can mask your location, prevent the data you’re sending and receiving from being intercepted and even bypass the online suppression of websites and information. Pretty smart, but not perfect.

Safety and Security

The thing is, VPNs are still fallible, be they professionally sold or homegrown. If you really want information to remain anonymous – which some companies especially do – a combination of antivirus, VPN and more complicated services are your best bet. Large-scale companies are now required by EU guidelines to enforce user and data security across their systems, and the techniques they use might be of help to those of us at home, too. From a business perspective, privacy and anonymity of data can now mean heavy fines and drastic consequences if breached. From a personal user perspective, there are similar yet more personal concerns.

A technique called ‘data masking’ is a kind of camouflage for your online identity and information. It identifies and anonymizes sensitive documents and the like before they can even be glimpsed by others on the web. It’s a useful general protection and great against specific malware, too, like ransomware, which targets this data in the first place. Data masking is just one of many services that can be used to protect and anonymize yourself, on both a micro and macro level.

The Whats and Whys

Privacy has all kinds of uses, from peace of mind to protection from malicious attacks. It protects customers, individual users, romantic partners looking for a ring and health conscious individuals Googling up their symptoms. It can prevent targeted advertisement, the taking and selling of your information but most importantly of all, it can keep your most precious documents precious.

Anonymity online is certainly hard to achieve, but the more we try, the better and safer everyone gets. In other words: we’re a long way from an easy one-click 100 percent, but there’s no reason not to get yourself to 80.