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How to avoid being tracked online

Posted on 20 Jul 2012 at 16:52

Danvers Baillieu, COO of the firm, told PC Pro that it collects only the name a user supplied, how he or she paid, and the time a user logs in and out – but has to pass it over if required by UK authorities.

According to EFF’s Schoen, most VPNs are paid-for, making the subscriber easy to identify: the name is on the credit card. Second, the VPN itself can see the traffic.

“With a VPN, you’ve essentially moved the ability to intercept or spy on your communications from your local network and ISP to other service providers,” says Schoen. “In a sense, it just moves the problem from one place to another.”

With a VPN, you’ve essentially moved the ability to intercept or spy on your communications from your local network and ISP to other service providers

That doesn’t mean VPNs are useless: one with routers based in a different country can bypass local censorship or site-blocking, but users need to be aware the system has limits – and find out what data a company collects before signing up.

Many firms are aware of the potential weaknesses, so hold their servers in countries that don’t require logs; services such as Air VPN and Cryptocloud told P2P-watching site TorrentFreak that they don’t keep data on user activity, so can’t hand it over.

Onion routers

There’s a more comprehensive means of covering your tracks online: Tor – the onion router. It takes content and wraps it in an encrypted envelope with routing instructions. A web query, for example, is sent via three places, so the website or network provider can’t see where the traffic is coming from. “Tor separates who you are from where you’re going,” says Andrew Lewman, Tor’s executive director.

To use it, simply download the Tor Browser Bundle, and surf from the Tor version of the Firefox browser: it includes the HTTPS Everywhere extension, so content is encrypted inside the encrypted routing envelope.

It doesn’t mean you’re invisible, however. Lewman related an example of an abused woman who used Tor to access a victim support forum hosted on Facebook. As soon as she logged into Facebook, that site knew who she was – a fact she didn’t realise.

“Once you log in, Facebook knows who you are; it just doesn’t know where you are in the world.” While this may seem of little use to us, it gives people banned from accessing a site via their IP address a way to log in, such as when activists from Iran used Tor to access the social network.

The main downside to Tor is frustratingly slow browsing. “Your traffic is likely bouncing across oceans and going all over the world,” says Lewman. “It takes time. If your first relay is in Japan, your second is in Argentina, the third relay is in Germany, and you’re sitting in the UK, it means your traffic has to traverse the world three times, every time.”

Your traffic is likely bouncing across oceans and going all over the world

While Tor has 3,000 relays through which to divert traffic, the system has been downloaded 36 million times in the past year alone, with between half a million and a million users a day. “That scale, between 3,000 relays, means some really busy relays,” he says. To help out, you can either set up your own relay or donate to groups running them.

There are three types of relays: “bridges” to help people in heavily censored countries access the Tor network, plus non-exit and exit relays. “A non-exit relay can be either the first or the second hop of those three. As someone running a relay, all you’ll see is encrypted traffic coming and going,” says Lewman.

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User comments

Interesting but why?

I found this an interesting read. But I'm struggling to find a legitamate reason for needing to do it. Are there any?

By NR5674 on 23 Jul 2012

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