Is Truly Anonymous Internet Browsing Possible?
Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics published figures detailing the prevalence of identity theft from 2005 to 2010. The report’s conclusions uncovered a 33% increase in identity theft cases across the country over a five-year period. In 2010 alone, 8.6 million people in the U.S. were victims of identity theft and credit card fraud, accumulating direct financial losses in excess of $13.3 billion dollars.
As online privacy concerns continue to mount today, anonymous internet browsing solutions are quickly becoming a popular topic of discussion among Internet users who highly value their privacy on the World Wide Web. The truth about private, anonymous Internet browsing is that no single standard solution exists. Rather, online privacy practitioners have a broad swath of free and paid software products from which to choose. Aside from the many variations of free and paid secure web browsing applications, deploying a virtual private network (VPN) or a web proxy service are the two primary means of protecting sensitive information online.
Proxy Servers: The Most Basic Online Privacy Protection Strategy
Utilizing a proxy server was one of the first private Internet browsing strategies deployed as the World Wide Web expanded exponentially over the prior two decades. In 2001, PC Mag published one of the first articles that discussed the usage of proxy services that attempt to shield an end user’s public information. The average Internet surfer, in all likelihood, lacks a rudimentary understanding of wide-area network architecture. Simply stated, websites, employers, Internet service providers, and even law enforcement agencies have the potential to monitor or censor sensitive personal information transmitted over the World Wide Web.
Every time an end user visits a website, he leaves a digital fingerprint in his wake. Computers are identified on the World Wide Web via an IP address, a standardized protocol that allows the transmission of data over a network. Nearly every website logs and tracks an end user’s IP address for marketing and advertising purposes. With this private information in hand, unethical webmasters could possibly geo-locate an end user’s precise residence as well as determine which Internet browser requested the website’s content from the web server. In the worst case, sensitive financial data such as banking transactions or credit card purchases can be intercepted by hijacked web servers.
Proxy servers provide a means to circumvent these risks; but to be fair, proxies are only effective to a certain degree, depending upon the level of protection an end user requires. By utilizing a web proxy-based anonymous browsing application, end users no longer have to reveal their IP addresses and locations to the Internet. In essence, web surfers visit websites indirectly via an intermediate server, which forwards the data request to the appropriate URL destination. Then, a proxy server retrieves and transmits the requested data back to the web surfer without exposing the end user’s IP address to any tracking software, also known as spyware and adware. The proxy method is the most simplistic way to mask an IP address, but it is still widely used today. The drawback of utilizing a standard proxy technique is that simple proxies do not encrypt website content or URLs from Internet service providers or local-area network administrators.
Virtual Private Networks: The Latest Anonymous Browsing Solution
VPNs allow Internet users to tunnel into a third-party secure service, which then shields and encrypts an end user’s personal data. VPNs are most often used in corporate private networks that demand the highest security measures possible. Large international financial transactions via the World Wide Web would not be possible without the advent of secure networks such as VPNs. Also, without VPNs, remote employment in a virtual office environment would not be feasible due to online security concerns. In one manner of speaking, all VPNs are proxy-based services, but the differences between these two private web-browsing techniques outweigh their similarities.
For example, a VPN’s greatest asset is its ability to encrypt data well. Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption has grown into the private browsing industry’s standard encryption protocol, but IPSec (Internet Protocol Security), an even more secure web traffic protocol, is quickly exceeding SSL encryption in popularity. Other encryption protocols exist but have little application in the anonymous browsing industry at large.
As a matter of fact, VPNs rank among the most popular private browsing services today. Theoretically, even Internet service providers and employers would not be able to trace web traffic through a VPN-based anonymous browsing service. Secure smartphone browsing applications may also use VPN technology in order to protect an end user’s private data from mobile information hijackers. As the proliferation of mobile devices progresses, VPNs are positioned to play an even larger role in the mobile Internet security market. Today, mobile web security (or the lack thereof) is a growing concern among online privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project.
Freeware Versus Paid Anonymous Browsing Software
Not surprisingly, paid anonymous web-browsing software is far more reliable than freeware versions. Products such as Anonymizer and CyberGhost VPN, two of the best-selling paid private browsing applications today, offer a free basic trial period; 100% free private web browsing software is still effective nonetheless. The decision to purchase top-of-the-line anonymous browsing software hinges on the level of security an end user needs. Casual, occasional web surfers would do well simply to install free HTTPS extensions into the web browser of their choice. On the other hand, Internet users who relay financial information on a daily basis would be best served by a highly reviewed VPN-based safe browsing product.
Every Internet user is personally responsible for protecting his privacy while online. Millions of casual web surfers continue to delve into the World Wide Web unaware of the very real threat to their privacy. As the unprecedented rise of social media continues, these threats will only multiply as millions more freely and willingly expose their most private information to the entire world. Not surprisingly, anonymous browsing software is poised to become standard-issue protection over the coming decade.