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Technology Untangled: Regain some Internet privacy and anonymity

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technology-bourThe issue of online privacy, or rather the lack thereof, seems to be in the news almost every day. The depth and scope of the NSA surveillance scandal continues to be revealed in the headlines on a regular basis. Along with government snooping, retailers trying to sell you something are always looking for ways to gather data about you so they can sell you even more stuff, Google being one of the worst offenders.

While no one should operate under the illusion that total Internet privacy is obtainable, there are at least a few things you can do to keep from being a complete open book when using the Internet. Today’s article looks at several software solutions and one hardware device to help improve your privacy.

The first and easiest defense is don’t use Google as your Internet search tool. Google retains a massive database of every search everyone performs, including the computer address (IP address) of the computer that performed the search. It also leaves behind retrievable history information (tracking cookies) on your computer about, for example, what you may be shopping for online. It helps them to target popup ads and work toward selling you more. While the main purpose of this database is for use by marketers, others such as government entities, criminals and hackers have ways to gain access to this search data, which can reveal a surprising amount of information about you.

For safer searching, use an anonymous, non-tracking search engine like Startpage. Startpage actually uses the Google search database, but performs the searches for you. This places your computer once removed from the process. But be aware that after you click on a search result, an individual Web page can connect with your computer and personal information could be passed on. To prevent this, you can use the proxy service feature. In this mode, Startpage goes to the website you select, retrieves the page and displays it for you. The chosen website sees only the Startpage IP address, not yours. The response is a bit slower, and some website features may not function, but this method is more anonymous. For more detailed information, go to startpage.com and click on the About tab.

For continuous Web browsing without working through a search engine, you can try the free Tor Browser. The Tor Browser insulates your IP address from the browsing process by bouncing your communications through a series of intermediate computers and IP addresses both on the way out of and back in to your computer. The communications path is ever changing. This process prevents people from learning your location or browsing habits. The computers used for the bouncing are hosted by Tor volunteers who are big privacy advocates. Their nonprofit Tor project is dedicated to the research, development and education of online anonymity and privacy. According to the Tor website (torproject.org), the system was originally developed for the U.S Navy for the protection of government communications. Today it is used by the military, law enforcement officers, activists and regular citizens.

You can download the browser bundle at https://www.torproject.org/projects/torbrowser.html.en.

Note that Tor does not eliminate your existing Web browser software; it simply provides an additional browser choice besides Internet Explorer, Firefox or Chrome. Simply deploying Tor is not all you will need to browse anonymously. Tor advises that you will need to change some of your browsing habits to get the best effect with it. So read the list of warnings and instructions that come with the installation package. For example, Tor blocks some website features that could be used for data mining. This includes plugins such as Flash Player that often are used for YouTube videos.

If loading such software exceeds your comfort level, there is a similar hardware solution. Safeplug is a $49 black box that connects to your Internet router and shields your IP address from the outside world. According to the Safeplug website (pogoplug.com/safeplug), Safeplug sets up in 60 seconds and allows you to use your existing Web browser to surf the Internet with complete anonymity and peace of mind. After connecting to your router, you simply go online and register your device to begin safer browsing. There is no continuing subscription fee.

As I conducted my research on how the Safeplug device works, I was surprised to find that Safeplug actually uses the Tor network to secure your Internet connection. With that being the case, I do not see a big advantage with paying to use this device when you can download Tor itself for free. I suppose there is a small benefit to being able to use your existing browser interface, and perhaps there is some degree of technical support that comes with the Safeplug hardware. In addition, Tor can be a bit of a pain to set up and fine-tune while Safeplug does it all automatically. Plus, Safeplug provides a built-in ad blocker. The choice is yours.

While none of today’s suggestions are bulletproof methods to regain full anonymity on the Internet, at least they can help you gain back some small degree of privacy.•

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Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

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  1. He TIL team,please zap this comment too since it was merely marking a scammer and not reflecting on the story. Thanks, happy Monday, keep up the fine work.

  2. You just need my social security number sent to your Gmail account to process then loan, right? Beware scammers indeed.

  3. The appellate court just said doctors can be sued for reporting child abuse. The most dangerous form of child abuse with the highest mortality rate of any form of child abuse (between 6% and 9% according to the below listed studies). Now doctors will be far less likely to report this form of dangerous child abuse in Indiana. If you want to know what this is, google the names Lacey Spears, Julie Conley (and look at what happened when uninformed judges returned that child against medical advice), Hope Ybarra, and Dixie Blanchard. Here is some really good reporting on what this allegation was: http://media.star-telegram.com/Munchausenmoms/ Here are the two research papers: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0145213487900810 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0145213403000309 25% of sibling are dead in that second study. 25%!!! Unbelievable ruling. Chilling. Wrong.

  4. Mr. Levin says that the BMV engaged in misconduct--that the BMV (or, rather, someone in the BMV) knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged fees but did nothing to correct the situation. Such misconduct, whether engaged in by one individual or by a group, is called theft (defined as knowingly or intentionally exerting unauthorized control over the property of another person with the intent to deprive the other person of the property's value or use). Theft is a crime in Indiana (as it still is in most of the civilized world). One wonders, then, why there have been no criminal prosecutions of BMV officials for this theft? Government misconduct doesn't occur in a vacuum. An individual who works for or oversees a government agency is responsible for the misconduct. In this instance, somebody (or somebodies) with the BMV, at some time, knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged. What's more, this person (or these people), even after having the error of their ways pointed out to them, did nothing to fix the problem. Instead, the overcharges continued. Thus, the taxpayers of Indiana are also on the hook for the millions of dollars in attorneys fees (for both sides; the BMV didn't see fit to avail itself of the services of a lawyer employed by the state government) that had to be spent in order to finally convince the BMV that stealing money from Indiana motorists was a bad thing. Given that the BMV official(s) responsible for this crime continued their misconduct, covered it up, and never did anything until the agency reached an agreeable settlement, it seems the statute of limitations for prosecuting these folks has not yet run. I hope our Attorney General is paying attention to this fiasco and is seriously considering prosecution. Indiana, the state that works . . . for thieves.

  5. I'm glad that attorney Carl Hayes, who represented the BMV in this case, is able to say that his client "is pleased to have resolved the issue". Everyone makes mistakes, even bureaucratic behemoths like Indiana's BMV. So to some extent we need to be forgiving of such mistakes. But when those mistakes are going to cost Indiana taxpayers millions of dollars to rectify (because neither plaintiff's counsel nor Mr. Hayes gave freely of their services, and the BMV, being a state-funded agency, relies on taxpayer dollars to pay these attorneys their fees), the agency doesn't have a right to feel "pleased to have resolved the issue". One is left wondering why the BMV feels so pleased with this resolution? The magnitude of the agency's overcharges might suggest to some that, perhaps, these errors were more than mere oversight. Could this be why the agency is so "pleased" with this resolution? Will Indiana motorists ever be assured that the culture of incompetence (if not worse) that the BMV seems to have fostered is no longer the status quo? Or will even more "overcharges" and lawsuits result? It's fairly obvious who is really "pleased to have resolved the issue", and it's not Indiana's taxpayers who are on the hook for the legal fees generated in these cases.

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