How to be a ghost (online)

By Omar L. Gallaga

Cox Newspapers

AUSTIN, Texas —

Why would you need to be anonymous online unless you’re up to no good?

There are actually very good reasons why you would want to be on the down-low online, from protecting yourself against identity thieves to making it harder for snoopers (NSA? Is that you?) to keep tabs on your private chats and emails.

Brenda Berkelaar, a faculty researcher at the Center for Identity at the University of Texas, said there are other, more important reasons for law-abiding people to remain anonymous online.

“Gender, race and other sorts of bias as well as informational threats impact people’s lives on and off,” Berkelaar said. In addition to warding off information thieves, people may wish to seek health information online for issues that are still stigmatized, such as mental health.

But how does one wear the cloak of invisibility online, or at least do a better job of covering digital tracks?

Berkelaar says it’s not just a matter of finding digital tools to help us (though there are plenty — we’ll get to that in a moment); we also need to improve our awareness and behavior online by not sharing certain types of information and knowing how our online actions can be replicated, aggregated and broadcast.

Baby steps. First, let’s take a look at some simple ways to begin covering up.

Web basics

Some of the most simple things you can do to start leaving less of a digital trail are right in your Web browser. You can start making it a habit of using the “Private Browsing” option while Web surfing. It may have a different name depending on the browser (in Google Chrome it’s called “Incognito Mode”).

This keeps the browser from storing information about websites you’ve visited (the dreaded Web history that has gotten many a cheater and curious teenager in trouble). But it doesn’t keep websites from knowing who you are if you log into your webmail or use any other online accounts.

You can also enable “Do Not Track,” which is supposed to keep websites from tracking you to serve ads or collect data about you. It’s an option in all the major Web browsers but unfortunately requires websites to play ball by supporting the feature, and many have not complied. You can go to donottrack.us to learn more about it and for instructions on how to enable it in your browser.

Tor’ing the Internet apart

Maybe you haven’t heard of “Tor,” but if you have any interest in anonymity, you probably should. Tor is a network, a framework really, for routing Internet traffic to improve privacy and security. You know how people used to call the Internet a series of tubes? Think of Tor as a secret set of pipes that send your information through a maze of misdirections that are nearly impossible to track.

Tor is also shorthand for a browser you can download, and many Tor-based tools work on mobile devices or as add-ons to existing apps, file-sharing (think Dropbox, but anonymous), Internet chat programs and Web browsers.

You can learn a lot more about Tor at torproject.org, where you can find many of these free, open-source tools.

Hardware and cellphones

Tor has been in the news recently as several Tor-based Kickstarter projects, specifically routers that were promised to make anonymous Internet use easier to set up, have been cancelled over inflated claims and the use of existing hardware.

But it appears a wave of gadgets that will make anonymity a more plug-and-play affair are on the way in the face of NSA fears. One such project currently on Kickstarter, “WEMAGIN,” is a USB drive that purports to unblock restricted websites in countries such as China, anonymize data from anywhere and connect to unlimited cloud storage with an added fee. It’s also, as the project’s page breathlessly proclaims, “so simple your grandmother can use it.”

One area where anonymity has not evolved as well as on PCs is on mobile phones and tablets.

Berkelaar says that when it comes to phones, “It is difficult to eliminate your digital trail, period.” She said that mobile devices do more tracking of not just our information but our physical habits, such as our location.

There are Web browsers that use Tor for mobile devices, and even semi-anonymous social networks such as “Secret” and “Whisper,” but as with many technologies, our habits are moving ahead more quickly than our regard for safety and, often, our knowledge of the implications.

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