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Surfing the web behind a cloak of invisibility

We’ve talked at length in the past about how the Internet is becoming less free and more restricted, with governments and private industry both eroding our privacy by tracking everything we do online and even monitoring our communications without our knowledge, or permission.

Privacy advocates have been raising the alarm for the last several years about the problem, but it falls largely on deaf ears. Most people who surf the web are blissfully ignorant of the amount of their personal information that is being collected.

There was a recent survey done by a firm called GlobalWebIndex where they asked people around the world their opinion about online privacy, and 56% of the respondents felt that their privacy was being eroded by the Internet. Another interesting fact came of the research.  It appears that some people are starting to fight back by using tools to disguise their online activities and remain stealthy. In fact, 28% of the population, around 415 million people, are using these tools to hide their identity or their location when their on the Internet.

The primary tool used by those that want to protect their privacy online is Tor, which is a software application that allows anonymous access. It’s free and pretty easy to use.  Once you download and install it on your computer you can surf the web without being tracked by anybody using a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world. I’m eternally fascinated by the people out there who devote their free time to supporting these open source, free services on the Internet. They are passionate about promoting the democratic nature of the web and about protecting personal privacy.

Another interesting factoid is that some of the countries where privacy rights are most at risk are also the countries where large segments of the population try to hide their online activities. For example, 34% of Chinese Internet users admit that they use tools to disguise themselves so that can bypass the filters the Chinese government uses to block and track Internet traffic, the so-called Great Firewall of China. Do you know that the Chinese government employs up to 2 million “Internet analysts” to review and block content that they consider to be inappropriate.

In addition to the Tor anonymous software, a couple of other techniques people used to hide their online activities are virtual private networks or VPNs and proxy servers. A VPN is basically an encrypted tunnel that connects a user to a remote, anonymous location from which they can surf the web safely, without being tracked.  Proxy servers are similar but require less configuration.

I like to use a VPN on my laptop and tablet when I travel and connect to public WIFI services, not only to protect my privacy but also for security.  As I mentioned before, a VPN encrypts the traffic as it travels from your device to the hosting service, which makes what you do on the web untraceable and helps keep the hackers who like to prey on unsuspecting users of public WIFI.  We’ve all too many stories about that happening!

The anonymizing tools I’m talking about are currently being used in Western countries far less frequently than in other areas, but their use is growing as those web users start to feel their privacy being threatened. And it’s not just for their laptops and PCs; these kind of tools and services are available for your tablet and smartphone, too.

Nobody likes to be watched and as people across the world learn how easy it is to track their online activities, they too will start looking for ways to hide on the web.

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