VPNs protect you by encrypting your data, but having one installed doesn’t necessarily make you anonymous. There’s a big difference between online privacy and online anonymity.
If you’re reading this and believe that you’re completely anonymous online because you’re using a VPN, we’ve got some bad news for you. While they come close, VPNs don’t offer absolute anonymity but that isn’t to say you shouldn’t use one anyway.
There are a number of ways you can maximize your anonymity using a VPN. This will ensure that any digital footsteps or fingerprints that you leave behind will be difficult to trace back to you. Here are five ways to go about improving online anonymity.
Use Zero Knowledge File Storage Services – Not Prism Providers
In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed a list of PRISM providers to the world. PRISM is a mass surveillance program in which the United States National Security Agency (USNSA) collects communications from various U.S. internet companies.
These companies include the likes of YouTube, Microsoft, Facebook, Skype, Apple, AOL and, you guessed it, Google. Under PRISM, these companies are obligated to fulfill any reasonable requests that are made to them. You never have complete privacy if you use any of these services.
So what can you do? You can choose to use service providers that offer zero-knowledge file storage. Zero knowledge file storage is an alternative name for private end-to-end encryption and means that nobody can ever read your files as there are no circumstances that require these providers to hand your information over.
That also means that you better write down a safe place for your user credentials because if you forget them, your zero knowledge provider won’t be able to tell you what they are.
While zero knowledge services can never guarantee 100% anonymity (as this would depend on the set-up of their servers) they’re an assuring way of knowing your information can never be handed over to an organization that requests it.
So, the next time you’re thinking about using Google or Dropbox to transfer files, consider a zero knowledge provider instead.
Trust in Tor
Tor is anonymity software that’s designed to stop people from learning about your browsing habits online. Also known as the ‘Onion Router’, Tor works by wrapping your internet connection in multiple layers of protection – just like an onion’s skin.
It does this bouncing your internet traffic through ‘relays’ that are run by thousands of volunteers around the world. While this method of browsing will slow down your connection speeds, it in turn makes it incredibly difficult for anyone to pinpoint your location and identity.
Though it significantly reduces the likelihood of your anonymity being revealed online, Tor, like many other software providers and devices, can never guarantee 100% complete anonymity.
Accessing the Tor Network is easy; simply download the Tor browser which is available for Mac, Windows, Linux and even your mobile phone. Usage of Tor is considered controversial, however.
While many people innocently use Tor to protect their identity online from advertisers and surveillance companies, it’s commonly used by criminals who wish to mask their identity.
Many illegal websites through the dark web are only accessible using Tor. At the same time, some companies completely ban access to their websites using the Tor browser.
Be Careful With What You Post Online
Did you know that many hackers and online criminals are eventually caught by the clues that they leave behind on social media sites? This means that all of the precautionary methods they’ve used, such as browsing through TOR via a VPN, have been pointless as they’ve ultimately exposed themselves by being careless online.
Just look at the case of Ryan Hermandez, who built a reputation online as a hacker after revealing yet-to-be-released information about Nintendo’s Switch console in 2016.
After hacking his way into Nintendo’s website and posting malware onto the site – and despite the FBI tracing two previous hacking attempts back to his house and issuing Hermandez with a final warning – it was his actions on Twitter that led to his demise (as well as a folder full of child pornography on his desktop called ‘bad stuff’ when the FBI paid him another visit).
It goes to show that it doesn’t matter which VPN you’re using or what other methods of protecting your online anonymity you’re using if you’re being careless on social media websites.
If you’re looking to protect your anonymity, it’s time to stop using instant messaging apps like Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger and start using Signal instead. Signal is a cross-platform encrypted messaging service that’s focused on privacy and security.
It’s one of the most secure and easy-to-use instant messaging applications that’s out there at the moment and ultimately offers far more anonymity than any other messaging service.
You can use Signal on Android, OS or desktop devices. One of the reasons that Signal is so secure is the app was been created by experts that understand the importance of metadata-resistant communication.
With Edward Snowden saying the app is his preferred method of communication, you can be sure that Signal is safe to use – and certainly much safer and more secure than the other instant messaging apps that are out there.
Review Your App Permissions
So, you’ve installed a VPN to encrypt your information, you’re browsing the internet using Tor and you’ve ditched your instant messaging apps such as Whatsapp in favor of Signal. Great news, but when was the last time you reviewed the permissions you’ve granted to apps on your phone?
We’re all guilty of having apps installed on our mobile devices or desktop that we never actually use, but if you’ve granted these apps permission to access things such as your phonebook and microphone, only to forget about it years later, you could be in for a privacy shock.
It’s important to review all of the apps that you have on your devices and check their permissions. To do this, simply access your settings on your iOS, Android device or desktop device.
It goes without saying that if you’re still using Google and have any plug-ins installed, be careful about what permission you’ve granted to those plug-ins too.
Does 100% Anonymity With a VPN Exist?
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to be 100% anonymous online regardless of which VPN client you’re using. Even with one of the most secure VPN clients, there are so many different factors to take into account that could expose your identity.
That said, following the methods we’ve described, such as pairing your VPN with Tor and using zero knowledge services alongside secure apps such as Signal, significantly enhances your online security and your anonymity as a result.