How to Shield Your Online Activity and Protect Your Identity
Written by: Kristy Welsh
Last Updated: April 19, 2017
With the growth of online government surveillance and prevalence of cybercrime, people are increasingly concerned about protecting their privacy on the Internet. Fortunately, there are a number of simple things you can do to shield your online activity, all of which are legal and recommended:
- Hide Your IP Address
- Encrypt Your Email Connections
- Encrypt the Content of your Emails
- Protect Your Email Address
- Encrypt Instant Messages
- Shield Your Credit Card Number When Making Online Purchases
- Encrypt Your Connection With Every Website You Visit
- Protect Your Anonymity When Downloading From a File Hosting Site
How Do I Hide My I.P. Address?
An IP address, or Internet Protocol address, is a number unique to your computer or any other connectivity device. Online activity and geographic location is most easily traced through this number, thus the importance of masking it if you are interested in online anonymity.
There's more than one way to shield your IP address. Take a look at your options, try one or more out, and go with the one you're most comfortably using:
- Use a Proxy Server. Your connection gets re-routed through a different server than the one you're actually on. An online search for "free proxy servers" should turn up plenty of options, though you may want to start with the proxy server extensions offered by whatever browser you use.
- Use a VPN. A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, connects remote sites/users together, masking individual IP addresses. Suggestions for providers include BolehVPN, Astrill VPN, Hamachi, Private Internet Access, Witopia, and AnchorFree's Hotspot Shield or Easy-Hide-IP.
- Use the Underground Internet. TOR, or The Onion Router, is a network that utilizes hundreds of proxies to mask the identities of its users. As stated on its website, TorProject.org, the network prevents anyone from learning your location or browsing habits.
How Do I Encrypt My Email Connection?
When checking your email in a web browser, make sure the URL includes 'https' as opposed to 'http' (minus the 's' at the end). The 's' indicates that Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption is active. If you do not see the 's' at the end of 'http,' add it. This should work if your email provider supports SSL/TLS encryption. (If not, think about switching providers.) So that you don't have to type an 's' into the browser every time you check your email, search the settings of your email account for a default encryption option going forward. As for desktop client email or email apps on your phone, look for encryption default options in the settings menu.
How Do I Encrypt the Content of My Emails?
Beyond any encryption already built into your email provider's service, you can further encrypt by downloading PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) software.
How Do I Protect My Email Address?
For communication with people or organizations that you don't want having your email address, you may want to try setting up a new email address used exclusively for such purposes. Keep it indefinitely or delete it after it has served its purpose.
How Do I Encrypt Instant Messages?
Try TOR Chat or Cryptocat, both of which encrypt IM content.
Shield Credit Card Number When Making Online Purchases
First of all, only provide your credit card information to websites displaying 'https' in the web browser, an indication that that Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption is active. For added protection, however, you may want to try shopping with a virtual or single-use credit card number. Check with your bank to see if they offer such a service. If not, as of this writing, Bank of America and Citibank reportedly do.
Encrypt Connection With Every Website You Visit
If you use Firefox or Chrome, you can encrypt your communications with all websites by downloading HTTPS Everywhere software. As stated on its website: "Many sites on the web offer some limited support for encryption over HTTPS, but make it difficult to use. For instance, they may default to unencrypted HTTP, or fill encrypted pages with links that go back to the unencrypted site. The HTTPS Everywhere extension fixes these problems by using a clever technology to rewrite requests to these sites to HTTPS."
Protect Anonymity When Downloading From a File Hosting Site
Without taking steps to hide it, your IP address is made visible when you download from file hosting sites. Protect yourself by using a proxy server or VPN (as explained above in how to hide your IP address). If you are using BitTorrent, BT Guard is specifically recommended.
Note, none of the suggestions outlined above eliminate the need for anti-virus, anti-spam, and anti-phishing software.