Almost every internet user is easily identifiable on the basis of their IP address, but it is possible to have a bit of privacy when it comes to browsing. In this article, we’ll compare four options for anonymous browsing to see how they stack up in keeping you incognito online.
Note: The basis for all anonymizing services is concealing a user’s IP address. Your IP address is the unique numerical code assigned by your respective internet provider. Like a phone number, an IP address guarantees a specific connection between two devices online. Literally every user can be identified via their IP address when combined with connection data collected by your service provider.
Tor masks your IP address using several connected proxy servers; your PC only communicates with the first proxy server in the Tor network. From there, the service forwards the data using a different IP address. For web pages, the identity of the visitor (by IP address) can't be traced.
Tor runs in the background and redirects all internet traffic from your browser upon request via the Tor network. It operates using a graphical interface named Vidalia. You can install Vidalia separately or use it in conjunction with the Tor Browser Bundle, which, in addition to Vidalia, installs a version of Mozilla Firefox optimized for security. If you're not tech savvy, the Tor Browser Bundle is probably the best choice.
A simple click of the mouse after installation and that's it- you can surf safely using Tor. The Vidalia software will start running and automatically establish a connection with the Tor network, loading the Tor optimized version of Firefox.
Another click and you can disconnect the Tor network in Vidalia (at this point, Tor Firefox will no longer work). You can run the Tor browser with Vidalia alongside a normal version of Firefox, only accessing Tor when needed.
In addition to anonymizing the IP address, using Tor browser with optimized settings, as well as HTTPS-Everywhere and NoScript add-ons, ensures additional safety. Instead of Google, it uses other secure search engines like DuckDuckGo. You can use advanced features and adjust settings using the toolbar.
Tor allows for reasonably quick surfing, but for large downloads, video streaming or file sharing, Tor is very slow. In our download test, the browser maintained an average download speed of 240 KB / sec. The speed changes depending on the data being transferred and the number of people using the Tor network at any given time.
If you aren’t running from the FBI or Interpol, Tor is a really safe option. A comprehensive security test at ip-check.info shows how well it hides your real identity.
Having said that, there is a possible risk of traffic interception from inside the proxy server network. Tor shares its data load among a network of unknown volunteers, and virtually anybody can turn their PC into a Tor-Node (you can set your PC as a proxy for the Tor network in Vidalia's settings). This division of data is the reason behind Tor being a free service.
Theoretically, its possible that monitoring institutions, like the much talked about NSA, participate actively with computers in the Tor network to get access to transmitted data. In 2007, for example, a hacker demonstrated the vulnerability of Tor and gained access to sensitive connection data with only five computers participating in the Tor network. All data that wasn’t transmitted via HTTPS/SSL was particularly easy to pick-up. The decryption of SSL connections is also technically possible.
JonDo, also known as JAP or Java anonymous proxy, also uses interconnected proxy servers to disguise your IP address. In contrast to Tor, however, it only uses certified partners as nodes. There are several proxy-mixes available for you to choose from to get access. You can see the country location of those proxies and choose accordingly for increased security and faster access. In addition to free access, JonDo offers a paid service for increased speed.
Like Tor, JonDo relies on changing the IP address associated with your connection. After installing JonDo, you can access the web using any browser. For increased security, JonDoFox offers an optimized profile for Firefox, as well as its own Firefox-based browser called JonDoBrowser. The connection between the JonDo-anonymizer and the browser must be set up manually in the browser's proxy settings. We recommend using JonDo and JonDoBrowser in combination with each other.
The JonDo proxy software and the JonDoBrowser must be loaded separately. Using JonDo, you can choose which proxy network you want to use; the location of each network can be identified by country flags.
Clicking 'On' starts the anonymization process. In contrast to Tor, you can turn off JonDo and still surf using the same browser (without anonymity). Similarly, it's not necessary to have multiple browsers running parallel with each other using JonDo. As an additional option, you can purchase data for increased surfing speeds.
The JonDo browser, similar in layout to the Tor browser, is also a customized version of Firefox. In addition, add-ons such as HTTPS Everywhere and No Scripts are also integrated. As for default search engines, the JonDo browser offers a wider selection than Tor. As well as Duckduckgo, Startpage and ixquick, you can also find encryption profiles for both Wikipedia and Google.
In free mode, JonDo speed is limited to 50 KB per second; that’s only one-fifth of the speed of Tor. Although you’ll have to pay for it, you can increase the speed to about 600 KB per second.
The JonDo network only works with proxy servers from certified partners. A breakdown of the data load across members isn’t possible with JonDo (as it is with Tor). As a result, JonDo is slower but safer. Theoretically, it's only possible to identify a user by collecting the connection data of all proxy networks they have used. Thankfully, the majority of partners don’t collect connection data.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and is a simplified protected network connecting two computers online. Everything that users send and receive goes through an SSL-VPN-Server. For website owners, the IP address of the VPN server is visible, not the IP address of the individual user.
Anonymizing VPN services typically apply to paid subscriptions. A good overview of different service providers can be found on Best VPN Service.
Installation and Operation
VPN providers either work with their own software or will redirect traffic through a proxy server which is directly accessible on the web. For VPNs, a special browser isn't necessary, although it is possible to use the Tor and JonDo browsers in combination with VPN services.
Since VPN services don't redirect data across many servers, they’re relatively fast. With an adequate data plan, you can surf almost as quickly as you usually would.
In theory, it’s possible to analyze packets transmitted through a VPN in a way that reveals the connected websites. Some estimate that this interception method is up to 90% accurate. Although a high level of privacy is ensured through encryption, VPNs don't guarantee anonymity.
Additionally, there’s the risk that VPN services might collect and share your connection data, get screened, hacked, or steal your data. There’s also the possibility that the provider's server isn’t adequately secured and monitored. You must weigh these risks with your use of VPNs.
If you still want to opt for using a VPN, you should take into account the server location of the company. Services in countries such as Germany or Switzerland tend to be a better choice than an operator from the United States, for example.
In addition to the above mentioned services, a web proxy is another option for offering anonymity. Instead of relying on a web browser, it accesses web pages via an input field from the web proxy, which renders the content on its own site. The popular VPN provider Hide My Ass offers a similar web proxy.
For secure and anonymous surfing, JonDo is really the only option worth considering. Tor is slightly faster, and theoretically, is also anonymous, but the risk of large-scale monitoring of Tor by intelligence services should not be underestimated after the PRISM scandal. VPN services can only reliably ensure privacy, which can hardly be recommended for anonymous surfing! As for web proxies – avoid them at all costs!