There are many reasons why you may be inclined to stay anonymous online these days. Governments utilize the personal data they collect on their citizens to achieve political, or social goals. On the other hand, corporations take full advantage of your personal data to serve you targeted ads based on your online identity and previous activity.

On a personal level, you also risk getting hacked and having your personal or payment information exposed. Unfortunately, online identity theft and fraud are somewhat of a common occurrence. Their impact extends to businesses as well. PwC’s Global Economic Crime and Fraud Survey shows global business losses in 2020 add up to a whopping US$42 billion.

Data has never been more valuable than it is today. That’s precisely why you must protect your online identity and activity. The fact is, you’re exposing your personal data, either through social media platforms, mobile applications, online shopping, or just casual web browsing. Basically everything you do online is being recorded and stored somewhere with the intention of monetizing it.

It is admittedly very difficult to achieve complete anonymity online in 2021. With everything being connected and dependent on some sort of online activity. However, it is achievable and absolutely worth the trouble. Besides, there are basic and easy steps you can take depending on your specific use of the internet.

In this article I will discuss your rights to privacy and freedom of expression in cyberspace as well as some of the basic security features you can start applying immediately to stay anonymous online.

Know your rights to privacy and freedom of expression

Online anonymity is an integral part of your right to express yourself however you may see fit without fear of repercussion, or retaliation. As we all know, governments around the world are constantly trying to restrict anonymity and encryption methods for a number of reasons. Some of which are true areas of concern and should be addressed with caution. For example, the use of anonymity in unlawful behavior or acts of Terrorism.

However, these issues cannot be solved by allowing governments to track every citizen’s move. Nor by weakening encryption standards to the point where they’re rendered useless. On the contrary, such policies are counterproductive. Government crackdowns on encryption tend to increase cybercrime and place the public in an even more compromising position. Basically at the mercy of two-bit hackers and greedy corporations.

Article 19, a British human rights organization, argues that the right to remain anonymous online promotes freedom of expression and freedom of information. They mention the following quote in their report “Right to Online Anonymity”.

An open and secure internet should be counted among the prerequisites for the enjoyment of freedom of expression today, and must therefore be protected by governments. Encryption and anonymity must be strongly protected and promoted because they provide the privacy and security necessary for the meaningful exercise of the right to freedom of expression and opinion in the digital age.

UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression

Internet freedom by the numbers

Freedom House, a reputable US-based non-profit that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, released a report in 2019 classifying countries in terms of internet freedom according to a unified index. The report is sectioned into three main regions that are Asia Pacific, Middle East/North Africa, and the Americas.

Internet Freedom In The Asia Pacific Region graph
Source: Statista
internet freedom in the Americas graph
Source: Statista
internet freedom in Middle East and North Africa graph
Source: Statista

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that countries like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and many others deploy heavy censorship on the internet. In addition to weakening encryption standards so that they ensure they have access to all the data they want. Ultimately violating people’s privacy and freedom of expression.

Private Internet Access challenges the US congress

Private Internet Access (PIA) is a US based VPN company, one of the very few that are headquartered in the US as VPN companies tend to choose locations with minimal or no data retention laws like Panama. However PIA has been a staunch defender of internet privacy, online anonymity, and the protection of user data.

In fact they once took out a full page ad in the New York Times calling out US senators for attempting to pass a law that would monetize internet user’s personal data.

PIA's Stay Anonymous Online Campaign
PIA’s New York Times Full Page Ad

What can I do to stay anonymous online?

There’s a lot of steps you can take to build up a wall around your online identity where only you choose who can see you and control what they see.

Your very first step is to analyze your current usage of the internet in order to identify the weakest points. In other words, you should get familiar with the risks you’re already taking in your everyday use of the internet. For example, If you shop online frequently, you might want to consider additional protections for your payment information. On the other hand, if you live in a heavily censored country and wish to express your views online. You’d be better off hiding your true identity and avoiding retaliation.

After you’ve figured that out, you can move on to the implementation phase. You can set up several security tools and features to best protect your sensitive information. Your starter kit for internet privacy will almost definitely include a VPN, and you’ll see why in the sections below.

Virtual Private Network (VPN)

A VPN has many uses, but its main objective is to keep users anonymous online. VPN providers present their product as the single most effective solution for online security and anonymity, and they are absolutely right.

VPN applications combine security protocols, server networks and encryption techniques to keep your connection safe and secure. Elite VPN providers like NordVPN offer some additional features that are extremely useful, and provide extra layers of security. Let’s dissect how these features help you stay anonymous online.

Security protocols

A VPN security protocol is basically a set of rules and guidelines that govern the way a network transfers data across it’s end points. Commonly used security protocols like PPTP, L2TP, OpenVPN, and others were specifically designed to create an encrypted tunnel through which your data is transferred from one place to another securely.

Global server network

Server networks provide the ability for the user to appear as if he was physically located somewhere else. That is by connecting to one of many VPN servers your provider offers. Simply by connecting to a VPN server in Berlin, Germany for example, you are assigned an IP address designated for that specific region. Therefore, as you commence your online activities, you hide your actual IP address/location and appear to be somewhere else entirely.

Encryption

VPN providers deploy highly efficient encryption algorithms to secure your data while connected to their servers. While there are many encryption algorithms available for commercial use, the most secure and impenetrable solution is the AES-256 bit encryption algorithm. AES-256 is a military-grade encryption technique that hides your data in a cipher using a single key to encrypt and decrypt messages. This approach is known as a symmetric key algorithm. Learn more about the technicalities of AES-256 bit encryption.

Additional security features

NordVPN is one of the most highly respected names in the VPN market specifically for their dedication towards user security and privacy. The company’s focus on security is evident in the features they offer including kill switch, leak protection, and adblocker.

The adblocker blocks all unwanted pop ups while your visiting websites with ads. It also works on YouTube and other similar platforms blocking in-video ads as well.

Other features that help you stay anonymous online:

  • No-logs policy: The company does not keep any record of your online identity on their servers.
  • Split tunneling: This feature allows you to select specific apps to secure with a NordVPN connection while excluding other apps. This is particularly useful in instances where you want your actual location to be known for e-banking activities or social media but not by all your apps.
  • ISP protection: Connecting to a VPN server allows you to remain hidden from your ISP or any third party.
  • Anonymous torrent downloads: Through P2P servers, you can use torrent clients to download files anonymously.
  • Money-back guarantee: It’s a risk free endeavor since you can ask for a full refund within 30 days of your purchase.

Disable location services

Websites and apps can request your location data from your browser or phone, and therefore expose your geographic location. This option is usually turned on by default. You have to go in and disable it yourself if you want to obscure your location data from prying eyes.

If your using a Windows PC, all you have to do is the following:

  • Go to Settings > Privacy > Location.
  • Select “Change“.
  • Switch slider off.
  • Scroll down to Location History.
  • Click on the “Clear” button and you’re all done.

If your using MacOS, follow these steps:

  • Choose Apple menu > System Preferences.
  • Click Security & Privacy.
  • Then click Privacy.
  • Click Location Services.
  • Then click the lock icon to unlock it, then enter your username and password.
  • Deselect Enable Location Services.

If your using an Android phone:

  • Go to Settings.
  • Then Security & Location.
  • Proceed to Advanced.
  • Select Location.
  • Finally Turn Off.

If your using iOS devices:

  • Go to Settings.
  • Then Privacy.
  • Select Location Services.
  • Then choose which app to modify location services for.

Check app permission settings

When you download apps on your phone, you usually give permissions for these apps to access sections of your data. For example, when installing a video editing app, it will ask for permission to access your video library. However, some apps require excessive permissions and access data they have no business meddling in.

You can easily check your app permission settings on both iOS and Android devices. If you notice something strange, like a photo app with permission to access your contacts list, switch it off to revoke permission.

Pay in Cryptocurrencies

Cryptocurrencies are more popular than ever. They provide a decentralized, and secure payment method where you can remain anonymous throughout the whole payment process. It is an advantage when purchasing a VPN subscription. Since you’ll will be able to hide your identity from the VPN company which will then hide your identity from the world. However, it’s not just VPNs that accept cryptocurrency payments, in fact nowadays most vendors do.

Some of the most used cryptocurrencies in 2020:

  • Bitcoin (BTC).
  • Ethereum (ETH).
  • TRON (TRX).
  • Stellar (XLM).
  • Binance Coin (BNB).

Disable browser extensions

Browser extensions may be useful to perform some tasks on the fly. However, with the security risk they present, it is certainly not worth it.

When you have some invasive browser extensions enabled, you’re exposing your data. These extensions record what pages you visit, or what activities you have done online and usually sells them to interested third-parties. All without your knowledge or consent. That is why you should avoid using browser extensions as much as possible.

Some of the known invasive data collecting extensions:

  • Hover Zoom.
  • SpeakIt!
  • SuperZoom.
  • SaveFrom.net Helper.
  • FairShare Unlock.
  • PanelMeasurement.
  • Branded Surveys.
  • Panel Community Surveys.

Stay anonymous online – Conclusion

In my conclusion I would like to reiterate that online privacy and anonymity are extremely important. In fact, the right to stay anonymous online is recognized by the UN as an essential part of freedom of expression and therefore is a human right.

With that in mind, you should use the methods and features discussed above to protect your online identity, sensitive information, and most importantly your right to remain anonymous online.

About the Author

Raymond is the primary author for Anonymistic. He's a computer scientist with extensive experience in development and cyber-security. He's also a big Marvel fan and a competitive gamer.

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