From a security and anonymity perspective, our data driven world is absolutely terrifying, to say the least. The average user doesn’t understand just how much information the government, ISPs, criminal organizations, and foreign parties can collect when you browse the Internet without a VPN tunnel. Even though a VPN tunnel will make it impossible to intercept and read your data, they are in some ways fallible. VPN tunnels only protect data with encryption between the user’s device and the VPN server.
Though it may sound like something out of a hacking or action film, there are undoubtedly many governmental organizations around the world whose sole purpose is to police the Internet and look for people who post offensive, sacrilegious, and anti-governmental messages. The world is filled with diverse people; unfortunately, not all of those people are tolerant to foreign ideas and values. And the world is growing smaller everyday with the advent and rising popularity of social media.
This is especially important to remember when you’re traveling abroad on holiday or interacting with foreign web resources and organizations. It doesn’t matter if you’re a journalist, blogger, or a common social media user. If you break the rules of a foreign country and get caught, you’re going to pay the price. There have been countless stories from countries all over the world where social media users, bloggers, and others have been imprisoned, physically attacked, fined unfathomably large sums of money, and even murdered for their beliefs. Sometimes, such a small action as “liking” a post on social media that doesn’t align with the local government or belief system has landed people into very hot water and dire consequences.
These issues are all centered around the idea of free speech. But the problem is that each separate country has their own laws, rules, and regulations that determine what can and can’t be said or accessed online. Many times, foreign governments have constitutions and other vaguely worded legislation that doesn’t draw a clear line in the sand, leaving the judgment of whether or not someone was engaged in wrongdoing completely up to governmental officials. Whether you’re a political activist, human rights advocate, a member of the LGBT community, or a religious crusader trying to share your beliefs with the world, you need to exercise great caution to remain anonymous online.
In order to protect your identity, remember to use the following tips to stay safe and fly under the radar.
Don’t Underestimate Eavesdroppers
So much of wiretapping and data analytics happens behind the scenes, far outside the view of the public. As such, many people incorrectly assume that “it’s never going to happen to them,” when, in fact, it already has. For example, millions of Americans were shocked to discover that the NSA had stolen and collected their data through the PRISM program that was brought into the public view by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Even by taking the preceding precautions, you could still be discovered. So remember that it is always better to err on the side of caution. The first step is to be aware of what you are sharing, and presumably with whom.
Use a Logless VPN Service or Tor Browser
Encrypting all inbound and outbound web traffic through a VPN client is the first layer of security that should be employed. It not only masks your traffic, but also hides your real IP address and can make you appear to be somebody else. However, if the service provider keeps any actual data logs for any amount of time, it should not be considered safe enough to be used for privacy and online anonymity. There are plenty of logless VPN services that promise not to keep any web traffic data whatsoever.
Additionally, or alternatively, using Tor Browser is also a great way to mask web traffic in order to make it near impossible to trace it back to you or your device. The downside of using Tor is that it slows down your internet speed greatly when compared to a VPN tunnel. However, if privatizing your online presence is your goal, it would be most beneficial to employ both a VPN connection combined with the Tor Browser. Multi-layered security will usually cause a heavy speed loss, but becomes exponentially more efficient at anonymizing your traffic as an end result.
Public Networks and Endpoint Security
Though VPNs are great for increasing endpoint security on public networks such as the Wi-Fi found in public cafés and airports, you should still exercise great caution. Even something as simple as accessing a censored website in public could land you in a boatload of trouble. For example, if a country blocks access to Facebook, make darn sure that you only access it in the privacy of your own home. You never know who may be able to see your screen in public, or which organizations those around you belong to!
Use Several Different Online Account Names, Pen Names, and Personas
If all of your social media accounts and blog content is under your first and last name, it’s going to be incredibly easy to track you with a simple Google search. That said, you may want to make sure that your various social media accounts are under different personas. That way, if one account becomes compromised or victimized under the scrutiny of governmental forces, your other accounts won’t be easy to find. It helps to segment and separate your different online social groups, posts, and activity.
But realize that we’re not just talking about social media sites. Even forums and payment accounts (i.e. Bitcoin and Paypal) should use different names (and perhaps even different email addresses) to make it more difficult to be tracked. Though it would be a nightmare to remember all of the different usernames and password, you can easily use a password manager like KeePass that encrypts all of your login credentials.
Don’t Volunteer Information That Would Lead Back to You
Revealing personal information that other people have no way of knowing is a sure fire way to arouse suspicion. Even if others know the information you are sharing online, it could be that only a rare few other people are privy to said information, making it easier for authorities to create a list of suspects and start knocking on doors. Though you may think you are doing the world a kindness by revealing corruption via investigative journalism, make sure you do it from a safe distance (if you do it at all). Also, make sure that you don’t link leaked information to your social media accounts, your personal blog, or any other web resources that link back to you.
Diction, Phrasing, and Tone
There are many sophisticated tools that can be used to determine whether two pieces of text were written by the same person. You see, there are many subtle patterns in a person’s diction, phrasing, and word choice. Furthermore, the use of complex language structures like idioms can be used to identify the likelihood that a user comes from a specific country.
Language is so dynamic that it can act as a kind of fingerprint. But with a bit of caution, it can become harder to identify who wrote what on the Internet. For example, if you’re a grammar and spelling purist, you could intentionally misspell words on social media posts to throw pursuers off you’re scent.