The concepts and practical applications surrounding internet anonymity have trickled down from specialist computer departments to the average consumer in the past years, as great technologies tend to do. Now, millions are aware of the dangers of cybercrime and privacy intrusions that take place daily across the span of the global internet. Put another way, internet anonymity has become just as important as being as anonymous and safe as possible with your financial, medical, and other personal online transactions. The reason for this is quite simple; the internet is out of control, literally, and no oversight system guarantees your privacy or safety while wading into the internet ocean. The internet network was much simpler back in the day of perimeter defenses, before the arrival of the cloud risks, third-party risks, and mobile app risks of today.
Primarily, when you start searching for the term ‘internet anonymity’ online you will be faced with the following results; a bunch of blogs on ‘how to stay anonymous online’, anonymity rights, ethics, and policies, and most often you will be hit with results pointing to VPNs (the ads are also everywhere). Virtual Private Network technology or VPN has been around for over a decade now but only recently has it been adopted and marketed by companies that target home users (consumers).
However, in 2021 the popularity of VPNs has started to wane slightly, likewise, consumers’ trust towards VPN applications has suffered the same fate. This is partly due to the technology being over-commercialized, and partly since trust towards VPNs has fallen as large companies have started to buy out small VPN specialist vendors. Lack of honesty and transparency as well as some VPN companies’ inability to protect customer data has added to that burning fire. Finally, the internet simply doesn’t like VPNs, nor do companies like Netflix, search engines, data collection agencies let alone authorities. One example of this is when you use a VPN and you are bombarded with ‘captchas’ to prove your identity.
As a result, this is why it is key to understand that there are some alternatives to using a VPN. This does not mean that VPNs should be avoided or that the technology is no longer viable -far from it. It just means that alternatives should be researched, and considered.
VPN technology, which is a tunneling technology with its foundations in PPTP or Peer to Peer Tunneling Protocol from the 90s, is being used by 150 million people in the U.S. alone. An estimated 30% of all internet users on Earth have used a VPN at some point, and usage of the 20-year-old technology is rising every year. If you are looking for an alternative to a VPN, this means that you have thorough experience and knowledge surrounding VPNs. It could also mean that you simply want to use something else, just like a lot of people nowadays replace Google’s search engine, Facebook as social media, or WhatsApp as a messaging service for more transparent alternatives. The same applies to VPNs, and there are a few solutions that the tech-savvy ‘insider’ community uses.
Fundamentally, VPN technology and VPN protocols are solid, and reputable vendors usually do deliver on their promises of anonymity, security, and no-logging. However, nothing is foolproof. There are indeed more technically secure and anonymous ways of connecting to the internet, but keep in mind they require a bit more effort to set up and/or they may incur additional costs. Some of these alternatives are;
Using a proxy service is an alternative to using a VPN, and some anonymity enthusiasts will chain proxies together, claiming that this technique does not allow DNS leaks. However, free anonymous proxy services found online should not be used as they can include trackers and malware.
Tor is a military-grade anonymity browser that uses several layers of encryption and nodes to completely block any browser fingerprinting and IP location queries. In most cases, using Tor is even better than using a VPN, except where speed is concerned. Combining Tor with bridges, Tails, and even with a VPN can boost anonymity to even higher levels.
Using virtualization/VM, or ‘sandboxing’, means running your entire digital environment on an isolated separate ‘instance’ that is not your local machine, rather a Virtual Machine. Running any of the above combos on a VM removes your physical computer from the equation, although it is difficult to set up and takes up system resources.
Which anonymity techniques you use completely depend on what you want to achieve. There is no simple one-click solution to simply disappear on the internet without a trace, but there are multi-step ways to do this with relative confidence that you are, indeed, invisible. In China, for example, where VPNs are not wanted, people are resorting to alternative tunneling techniques like Shadowsocks. Others who do not want to route their entire internet connection via VPN vendors like to use VM desktops that use Tor routing technology.
Another example is this; hardcore anonymity buffs will go for Tails software and something like ‘libreboot’ and use temporary accounts for communications. For most people (that are not hiding from the government) it is advisable to stick with reputable, no-log VPNs. The no-log part is the most important feature that a VPN vendor must respect. Thoroughly researching whether a VPN company has the external security audits to back up their security stance and promises is critical for any user who values their privacy and safety. Otherwise, a step up from VPNs is the Tor browser. Finally, some people have chosen to host their VPNs, although this process does require a bit of financial outlay and learning resources.
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