Browsing Safely and Anonymously

Information is becoming more valuable and the harvesting of data from our online activity is in itself, becoming big business. Our browsing habits are collected, analyzed, packaged and sold for reasons including targeted advertising, credit risk assessment and direct marketing, often without the our knowledge or permission. Luckily, this data is usually anonymized and does not contain personal identifying information, but not having control over what information is being taken, or how its being taken and how it is being shared makes us feel vulnerable. How then can we regain a measure of control? We'll explore some options below.

Using a Browser's Incognito Mode

Private browsing, or using the incognito option of a browser, does not provide full anonymity because it does not hide your IP address, and your IP address can reveal a lot about you. It can reveal your location -- city, state, country -- and information about your Internet Service Provider, or the company you work for, if you are browsing from your office network.

This may not sound like much information, but in the current age of data analytics, websites using sophisticated tools can often deduce a lot about you and what you do on their websites with just the IP address, even without tracking cookies.

Browser Finger Prints and Tracking

In addition to your IP address, the browser you use can also be used as a source to gather additional information about you. When you visit a website, the site itself may be able to identify you, by using information it gathers from your browser. Even if you have installed software to protect yourself. The following are examples of the types of information stored in your browser or on your computer that can used by tracking software:

  • Content stored in cookies and local storage
  • Content stored in the cache of your computer
  • Browser plugins and installed applications
  • Browser type, functionalities, and version

You can check how well your browser is protecting your privacy by using the tool, developed by the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, which focuses on defending digital privacy, free speech, and innovation.

Options for Safe and Anonymous Browsing

Applications and browser plugins combined with, or without, browsing in incognito mode, are all measures that offer varying degrees of protection while browsing. The problem however, is knowing which ones to use, when to use them and in what combination they should be used. It would be far simpler if there was a single simple solution you could use that would provide the required protection and anonymity. The Startpage search engine may be one such simple solution... fire it up in your browser by typing https://www.startpage.com/, use the Startpage search interface to search for the terms or the sites you wish to visit, then access the sites you want to visit by selecting the "Anonymous View" option for the returned results that you wish to view.

By selecting Anonymous view, the website you visit cannot see who you are or place cookies on your computer or and start tracking your behavior.

The Startpage Search Engine

Startpage is a company based in the Netherlands that provides a web search engine designed around maintaining and protecting the user's privacy. It uses the Google Search engine do the search, but measures are taken to "sterilize" the search such that the identity and the privacy of the searcher is hidden and protected. This all happens seamlessly to the user.

It is important to understand that Startpage privacy protections only apply to searches you conduct through their website. The EU and Dutch privacy laws are far more developed and demanding than the US. Startpage does not retain any personal data and their servers are located in countries that have no obligation to retain personal data. The Startpage search engine is a simple and effective way to accomplish anonymous and safer browsing.

An example of where Startpage is most effective is when using an unknown network such as the wifi in an airport or a local coffee shop. Even if the websites you visit are secured over an HTTPS connection, eavesdroppers could still identify the sites you visit by looking at the DNS requests sent by the browser to connect with the target website. These connections can for example, be intercepted and a bad actor could use the information nefariously.

Protection Features inherent to the Startpage Anonymous View

  • A secure tunnel is created using strong encryption protocols between your browser and the Startpage servers.
  • Your search query is not only secure, but also anonymized. The search query runs through servers that are owned and managed by Startpage. All identifying information from your search, including your IP address, is removed. This means that Google only sees the address of the Startpage server and, not that of the individual user.
  • Your browser and operating system is masked and other browser functions that might be used as a fingerprint are disabled.
  • JavaScript functions are rewritten and redefined so that they work, but with privacy safeguards to protect your personal information.