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Anonymous web surfing: tools and tips 

As you're viewing this page, my server is recording information about you. Don't panic, it's nothing out of the ordinary as just about every server does as part of normal logging processes. Here's an example of the kind of information my server is grabbing. - - [10/Apr/2009:07:20:59 -0600] 
GET / HTTP/1.1" 200 35938 
"Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-US; rv: 
Gecko/2009032609 Firefox/3.0.8"

The above shows me what time you hit a particular page, the browser you are using, where you came from and your operating system and a few other tidbits - I discuss server logs in more detail in my article on server log analysis. 

Something else it also shows me is your approximate geographical location through these numbers: This is an IP address; a unique identifier that is issued to you whenever you log on to the Internet or your local network. For Internet designated IP's, free tools can then translate those numbers to a geographical point. 

While most of us are used to this sort of recording and don't worry about it too much, others do take extraordinary lengths to protect their privacy; using anonymous proxies and other services to prevent others from attacking or scanning their system from the local network used to connect to the Internet and perhaps even encrypting all information sent to and receive from the web.

Get Total Net Shield direct from Anonymizer!

The case for anonymous surfing

Just because you want to surf the web anonymously, it doesn't make you paranoid or up to no good; as mentioned, it can just be a case of wanting a higher degree of privacy.

Anonymous surfing tools are also useful for hiding your IP address and bypassing firewall rules at a location that may prevent applications from accessing the Internet or block sites you need to use. Additionally, some sites may have filters in place that only allow users from specific countries or geographical locations to view content. 

In the latter, the filters usually operate on the IP address of the user - for example, a US video site may only allow people with US IP addresses to access the content - if your IP is Australian, you'll be locked out. As many Australians will tell you, this can be quite annoying :)

Anonymous surfing tools

At its most basic, to surf relatively anonymously you still access the web by dialing in or connecting to your ISP/network. but instead of using your ISP's proxy server and using a different proxy server, any web site you visit will see the anonymous proxy server location as the referrer instead of your true location. At this most simple level, other details will still be recorded such as search terms used to access the site, your browser and operating system type, etc. - to hide those and to encrypt transmissions, you'll need better tools.

So how do you find an anonymous proxy and what options are available? 

Anonymous proxy lists

This is probably the most hit and miss method and requires you to reconfigure your browser - sites such as Proxy 4 Free constantly scan for anonymous proxy server IP addresses that are "available" to use. As available proxies come and go, this can be a pretty frustrating and time consuming way to gain even a basic level of anonymity. Additionally, some of the proxy addresses in these lists may be private and not meant for public use.

Anonymous proxy web apps

There's a plethora of free online applications where you enter the URL of the site you wish to visit and off you go - no browser configuration required. These are quite handy for short surfing sessions and may include more advanced features such as encryption, the ability to block ads or certain page elements. Often the free services will display their own ads, throttle bandwidth or limit sessions to X megabytes to encourage you to pay for unrestricted and ad free access. There are so many of these services around, so you need to be a little careful as some are fronts for phishing and malware.

Computer based secure tunnel applications

Probably some of the best anonymity apps I've tried have consisted of a software client you install on your computer that create a virtual private network (VPN) between your computer or even iPhone and the provider's Internet gateway. After that, it's hands free operation.

Here's a few selections:

Hotspot Shield - a free application that's ad supported. Hotspot Shield provides you with a US IP address from their own network and Works quite well, although I have noticed some speed issues with streaming video in the early hours of the USA morning; probably due to the rest of the world trying to access video sites such as Hulu. Unfortunately Hulu seemed to cotton on to Hotspot Shield and last time I checked, I wasn't able to view movies on Hulu.

Anonymizer - Anonymizer Anonymous Surfing utilizes 128-bit Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) technology and also protects you from inadvertently visiting Web sites that are known to be phishing, pharming, or spyware sites. Anonymizer offers solutions for consumers, enterprise and government. Try a free trial

How anonymous?

Probably something worth clarifying is the claim to anonymity - these services offer far more in terms of privacy than just normal browsing, but remember that while the sites you visit won't know who you are, the service providing the anonymity will - and these services are subject to laws in their respective countries that require them to turn over server logs to law enforcement authorities under some circumstances; although they often destroy their logs within a few days. But unless you're up to something illegal or at best highly questionable, that is really no cause for concern.

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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In the interests of transparency and disclosure, please note that the owner of Taming the Beast.net often receives goods and services mentioned in reviews for free, or may receive payments or affiliate commissions for advertising or referring others to merchants of products and services reviewed.

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