online privacy, how to be invisible online- hands over keyboard with levitating lock signs

Now you see me, now you don’t!

Today’s blog is all about online privacy and the magic of staying invisible online. I’ve spent more than two decades in the field of IT support services, and I love sharing my knowledge. This way you can quickly and easily become an expert too.

Online privacy is one of the most important topics out there and impacts each and every one of us. It’s all about keeping our data safe and ensuring our personal information stays private. However, there’s so much more to consider when it comes to online privacy too.

Join me as we go behind the digital curtain to where the magic happens! 

Welcome to the World of Online Privacy

In one of my recent blogs, I talked about Incognito Mode and Private Browsing, but there is so much more to protecting our privacy than using those tools. It’s true that our main window into the internet is, in many cases, a web browser. Still, that is not the only access point and there are many ways someone could find out more about us than we want it.

Welcome to the world of online privacy – it’s a huge topic and we’ll be going very in-depth on this one to ensure you’re fully informed. In other words, get ready for an epic blog in every sense of the word.

There are times when we want to be invisible online, or at least, not completely visible i.e., the equivalent of a car driving down the motorway with its lights flashing and its speakers’ blasting music at maximum volume. So how do we find that happy balance? First, let’s take about what online privacy actually is and what it really means (and takes) to be invisible online.

What is Online Privacy?

Invisible online privacy refers to the action of keeping your online activities and digital presence anonymous from third-party entities, such as tech companies and advertisers. This involves protecting your personal information, browsing history, and online behaviour from being tracked, stored, or sold without your consent. To achieve complete anonymity, you must take certain measures, including:

In this article, we will discuss in detail how to be invisible online for your privacy and how to safeguard your personal information from external sites and entities.

Why Should You Care About Online Privacy?

In today’s world, it’s increasingly important to be aware of online privacy and the risks associated with being visible online. With the rise of hackers and data breaches such as recent BBC breaches and those of other large corporations, it’s imperative to take steps to protect your personal information and online activity. But why should you care about being invisible online?

First and foremost, your online privacy is directly linked to your personal privacy. The information you share online, from your browsing history to your personal email address, can be accessed and utilised by individuals or entities that have malicious intentions. This could result in identity theft, financial loss, or even physical harm.

Furthermore, the amount of personal information that can be gleaned from your online activity is staggering. Tech companies collect data on your interests, location, and online behaviour. Then, then use that information to target you with advertisements or other content. Government surveillance can also monitor your online activity and potentially use that information against you in ways you may not be aware of.

Real-world examples of online privacy violations abound. In 2017, credit reporting company Equifax suffered a major data breach that compromised the personal information of millions of individuals. In 2018, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that the social media giant had been collecting and using personal data without consent. These are just a few examples that highlight the far-reaching consequences of being visible online.

As the data is viewed and analysed by an army of behavioural scientists a lot can be learned. This is mainly used to create targeted advertisements and personalised marketing. Although it doesn’t always get it right. There was a famous example when a woman started to receive advertisements for gay cruises via her work emails. This was entirely based on the data advertisers had gathered about her based on her online activity. The algorithm assumed she could be interested in a gay cruise and began sending her adverts. However, she wasn’t gay and the intrusion to her work email was completely inappropriate.  

So, what can you do to protect your online privacy and stay invisible online? One solution is to use a virtual private network (VPN) to encrypt your internet traffic and hide your IP address. We’ve covered VPNs extensively in a previous blog. It’s a great place to start if you want to find more: VPN Revolution.

For messaging, you could use Signal which is an Encrypted messaging app which can help protect your messaging and call data but that is not all. There’s much more to consider when it comes to online privacy. Let’s take a look at our privacy settings next.

Online privacy: What do we reveal about ourselves on the internet?

This is a fundamental question; what exactly do we share when we go online – knowingly and unknowingly? If you want to find out, you’ve come to the right place.

Here is the list of what we share:

Your more personal data can include the following:

Of course, some of this data we share directly and knowingly. For example, sharing photos from your holiday. Other information, such as your IP address meanwhile, is automatically shared unless you’re using a VPN (more on that later), while some data might be shared without your knowledge such as your preferences. Finally, there could also be data sharing that is a clear violation of your rights such as intimate photos or confidential information. 

Online Privacy: Organisations that want to know what we do online and offline

Now that we understand what information can be found about us online (spoiler alert – a lot!), we should consider who actually wants to access this information. There are generally three groups who are interested in our online privacy and each one has their own objectives.

1. Governments and law enforcement agencies

This is the most sophisticated group and the hardest to be completely invisible from as they possess powers to request information stored on servers which you have accessed. The good news is that the majority of democratic countries with strong online privacy laws protect us from abuse. That can’t be guaranteed if you live or travel through oppressive states, however. There have been instances where tourists who travelled through specific regions were forced to unlock their phones. Later after closer inspection it turned out that an app was installed with the ability to track and spy on users. This was done obviously without the user’s consent or even knowledge. Not to mention that user data was potentially copied too.

2. Criminals

Criminals, gangs, and other organised crime groups would eagerly want to gain access to our data in order to steal money, hijack our identity, and attack journalists and lawmakers who threaten to expose their organisations. These groups are not as powerful as governments when it comes to online privacy. However, they are becoming increasingly sophisticated and can be very effective. For more on the threat of cyber criminals and how to stay safe, read my previous blogs on cyber security and cybercrime: Cyber Security Done Right.

3. Tech and Advertisements

This group is the most prevailing, as they are the ones that create the systems that we, as users, want to access on a daily basis. Facebook or Twitter are prime examples. In the process (and in many ways, in exchange for) using these platforms, we are encouraged to share as much data about us and our lives as possible. To a certain degree, this group can be accountable as they have to obey online privacy laws, but they are still powerful and a key player in this debate. 

First, let’s understand Your Online Privacy Settings

Online privacy is a major concern for many individuals, given the vast amount of personal data that can be collected and used without our knowledge or consent. One way to protect yourself online is to understand your privacy settings and take steps to ensure they are optimised for your needs. We will explore the various online privacy settings that are available on most online services and provide tips on how to customise them to better protect your personal information.

Social Media Platforms

As we mentioned above, social media has become an essential part of most people’s lives. However, it has also become a hub for data gatherers who can easily access users’ information and exploit it for various purposes.

Here are some steps you can take to protect your identity and limit the information shared on various social media platforms:

1. Facebook:

This platform is infamous for gathering data and profiling individuals. To protect your identity, navigate to the “Settings” menu and select “Privacy.” From there, you can adjust your profile visibility settings, choose who can see your posts, and limit what others can see about you. You can limit it so only your friends can see your content.

2. Twitter:

Similar to Facebook, Twitter also gathers data on users. Navigate to the “Settings and Privacy” option and select “Privacy and Safety.” Here, you can limit interactions with other users, restrict your audience, and control who can tag you in photos.

3. Instagram:

Instagram is a highly visual platform that collects a lot of data about users’ activities. Navigate to the “Settings” menu, select “Privacy,” and limit the visibility of your profile, restricting your audience, and blocking users who make you feel uncomfortable.

4. LinkedIn:

This platform is primarily used for professional purposes but still gathers data about users. To protect your identity, navigate to the “Settings and Privacy” option and select “Privacy.” From there, you can restrict profile visibility, limit access to your connections, and block users who may be exploiting your data.

Protecting your identity and limiting the information shared on social media is critical to your online safety. By adjusting the online privacy settings on social media platforms and being aware of how data gatherers exploit users, you can stay safe online.

Online Privacy & Third-Party Cookies

Have you ever noticed how some ads seem to follow you around online? Or how some websites “remember” your preferences even if you’ve never visited before? This isn’t a magic trick – it’s the work of something called third-party cookies.

Third-party cookies are small text files that are stored on your computer by websites you don’t actually visit. They’re used by advertisers, analytics companies, and other third-party services to track your online activities and deliver targeted ads or personalize your experience on different sites.

If you’re concerned about online privacy, it’s a good idea to block and delete third-party cookies on your web browser. Here’s how to do it on some popular browsers:

A. Google Chrome

1. Open Chrome and click on the three dots in the top-right corner of the window.

2. Choose “Settings” from the drop-down menu.

3. Scroll down and click on “Privacy and security” on the left-hand side of the screen.

4. Click on “Cookies and other site data”.

5. To block all third-party cookies, turn on the toggle next to “Block third-party cookies”.

6. To delete third-party cookies that have already been stored, click on “See all cookies and site data”. You can then search for specific sites or delete all cookies by clicking on “Remove all”.

B. Firefox

1. Open Firefox and click on the three horizontal lines in the top-right corner of the window.

2. Choose “Options” from the drop-down menu.

3. Click on “Privacy & Security” on the left-hand side of the screen.

4. Under “Cookies and Site Data”, choose “Manage Data”.

5. To block all third-party cookies, check the box next to “Delete cookies and site data when Firefox is closed”.

6. To delete third-party cookies that have already been stored, search for specific sites or delete all cookies by clicking on “Remove All”.

C. Brave (or other alternative web browsers that remove 3rd party cookies by default*)

*It’s important to note that blocking all third-party cookies may cause some websites to function improperly. You may need to allow some first-party cookies in order to access certain sites.

In conclusion, blocking and deleting third-party cookies is a simple step you can take to help protect your online privacy. By doing so, you can limit the amount of data collected about you and ensure that your web browsing habits remain your own business.

Online Privacy: Tor Network & Onion Network

In order to achieve complete online anonymity, one popular option is to use the Tor Network, also known as the Onion Network. This free network of tunnels is designed to route web requests and downloads in a way that conceals the user’s identity and location.

The Tor Network operates by encrypting a user’s internet traffic and routing it through a series of volunteer nodes spread around the world. These nodes are chosen randomly and provide multiple layers of encryption, ensuring that the user’s online activities remain completely hidden from prying eyes.

By using the Onion Network, a user’s online activities are made virtually untraceable, as the network cloaks their IP address and conceals their physical location. This makes it an excellent option for individuals who are concerned about their online privacy, as well as those who may be accessing sensitive or confidential information online.

However, it is important to note that while Tor provides a high level of anonymity, it is not fool proof. In order to ensure maximum protection, it is recommended to also use Obfsproxy. This tool enables encrypted Tor traffic to appear like normal, unencrypted traffic, thus making it more difficult to detect.

Additionally, it is wise to use a VPN along with Tor to enhance your online security and achieve even greater anonymity. By masking your IP address and encrypting your internet traffic, a VPN adds an extra layer of protection to your online activities.

Finally, it is worth noting that using Tor and a VPN can also help you access location-blocked content, as both these methods enable you to circumvent geographic or content-based restrictions.

In summary, the Tor Network or Onion Network is a powerful tool for achieving online anonymity. By encrypting and routing your internet traffic through a series of volunteer nodes, your online activities can be virtually untraceable. However, it is essential to also use Obfsproxy and a VPN to increase your security and protect your online privacy.

However, using a combination of the Tor network and/or VPN and/or Obfsproxy can cause the speed of your connection to drop a lot, to such a degree that browsing becomes really – and I mean really – slow! If you’re a journalist working on a confidential project then using these tools is a great way to keep your work safe from prying eyes, but as a daily driver, this could be very challenging. 

There’s also one more issue which we need to cover when writing about the Tor network and that’s Exit Nodes.

Online Privacy: Exit Nodes

Did you know that Tor was developed by the United States Naval Research Laboratory? The Tor network is fascinating and could be a very long blog post on its own, but that is for another time! The Tor network is designed to ensure anonymity by routing internet traffic through a series of relays, including entry nodes, middle nodes, and finally, exit nodes.

Obviously, many authorities realised that the Tor network is a horrible tool (from the perspective of an authoritarian regime or other law enforcement agencies) as they would love to know everything about almost everyone. They then had an idea; if they were able to control the exit nodes then they would have a much bigger chance of finding out who was using the network.

Role of the Exit Nodes

Exit nodes play a critical role in the Tor network as they serve as the final gateway for user traffic to exit the network and reach its intended destination on the internet. These nodes are responsible for removing the encryption applied by the Tor network, which allows the traffic to be sent to the destination website in a readable format.

One of the key benefits of using exit nodes is the level of anonymity they provide. When data packets reach the exit node, it strips identifying information from the packets before forwarding them to their destination. This means that the user’s true location, IP address and any other identifying information are masked, making it difficult for third parties to track or monitor online activity.

However, it’s important to be aware that exit nodes, like any other network component, can potentially be compromised. There have been instances where exit nodes have been found to be operated by third parties with malicious intent, which can lead to the exposure of user data. Therefore, it is recommended to use reputable exit nodes that are known to be secure. This way, they are likely to be maintained by a trusted community or organisation.

One important side effect of using the Tor network is speed. As we briefly discussed earlier, due to the fact we are not using the shortest connections and there are multiple steps to mask our connection, the speed suffers. It can be very frustrating waiting for pages to load even if you are sacrificing speed in favour of online privacy. 

In summary, using exit nodes as part of the Tor network can greatly enhance online privacy and anonymity. However, it is important to bear in mind that there is always a risk of compromise, and users should be cautious when accessing sensitive information or accounts while on the Tor network.

Online Privacy & Incognito Mode

If you’re looking to maintain your privacy while browsing the internet, using incognito mode may be a helpful feature. This feature is available in popular web browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer, and helps users to stay anonymous while browsing the web. I’m only going to cover the basics here as I explored this topic in-depth in a previous blog which you can read here: Incognito Mode: Who Can See What I’m Doing Online?

Benefits of Incognito Mode:

When you use incognito mode in any of these browsers, your browsing history, cookies, and other browsing data are not saved. This means that you can browse the internet without leaving a trace on your device.

Moreover, the incognito mode can also prevent websites from collecting your personal information. Tracking tools such as cookies, ad trackers, and other small data files used by websites to remember your preferences and habits are blocked while in this mode. This can help to keep your data from being shared with third-party websites, which can target you with unwanted advertisements or even sell your data to other companies.

In addition, the incognito mode in web browsers also blocks third-party cookies. These are cookies that are placed by websites other than the one you’re currently visiting. By blocking these cookies, it becomes difficult for third-party websites to track your online activities.

Overall, using incognito mode in web browsers can be a helpful tool to maintain your privacy while browsing the internet. However, it’s important to note that while incognito mode can help to protect your privacy, it is not a fool proof method for complete anonymity online. Remember, you can read more about Incognito Mode (or Private Browsing as it is also known) in my recent blog on the subject: Incognito Mode: Who Can See What I’m Doing Online?

Proxy Servers & Online Privacy

Proxy servers can play a crucial role in ensuring your online privacy and anonymity. These computer systems or routers function as a relay between a client and server, which means that your online activity is routed through the proxy server instead of your device’s IP address. This helps to prevent outsiders from gathering information while you’re browsing the web. Additionally, proxy servers are often used to appear as someone else in a different location.

If you’re new to proxy servers, FoxyProxy is a great tool to consider for supporting online privacy. FoxyProxy works with major browsers and provides both proxy and VPN services. The process of using a proxy server through FoxyProxy is very straightforward, and you can easily switch back and forth between using and not using one. If you want to find out more about how to install and configure FoxyProxy check out this YouTube video.

Online Privacy & VPN

VPN services also function similarly to proxy servers but with the added benefit of accessing location-blocked content. VPNs can help you access content that may be restricted based on your location, such as BBC iPlayer or Netflix. VPNs are a popular choice among those looking for a more secure online presence.

However, it’s also important to note that while both Tor and VPNs aim to mask your identity, they operate differently. While VPNs use a single server to route all your traffic. Tor sends your traffic through various volunteer-run nodes or relays. This makes it much more difficult for someone to track your online activity back to you. While neither method of masking your identity is fool proof, Tor may be even more secure than VPNs for those looking for complete anonymity.

In summary, incorporating a proxy server or VPN can be beneficial for anyone seeking to improve their online privacy. FoxyProxy is a great tool for those new to proxy servers, while VPN services can provide access to location-blocked content. When comparing the two, Tor may offer more significant privacy benefits than VPNs. For more on the latter, keep reading for extra info on VPNs in a moment. Alternatively, you can also visit our blog for more in-depth explanation of VPNs- The VPN Revolution.

Online Privacy: Protecting Your IP Address and Physical Address

It’s important to take precautions to protect your online privacy. Two key components to consider are protecting your IP address and physical address (your home or office address). As we mentioned earlier, your IP address is a unique identifier that can be used to track your online activity and it can be geotagged to just a few streets in the town where you are located. By taking steps to protect both, you can help safeguard your online security and privacy. The simplest choice would be to use VPN or Tor network to hide your IP address. Additionally, never share your physical address i.e., when placing orders for delivery. As you can see, such behaviour can lead to some friction in our lives as when we try to order stuff from Amazon as we have to supply an address.

Public Wi-Fi Networks & Online Privacy

Public Wi-Fi networks can be found in many places, such as cafes, airports, and libraries. However, they are not secure and can put your personal information at risk. Cybercriminals can easily hack into public Wi-Fi networks and access your sensitive information when you connect to them. Therefore, it is important to be cautious and protect your online privacy while using public Wi-Fi networks.

One way to protect yourself is by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) like those we have discussed above. As I explained in previous paragraphs, a VPN creates a secure, encrypted connection between your device and the internet, making it difficult for cybercriminals to intercept your online activity. Remember – always use a reliable VPN when connecting to a public Wi-Fi network to ensure the security of your internet connection.

Steps To Take:

Make sure your device has the latest software updates and that you turn off automatic connectivity to Wi-Fi networks. This will prevent your device from connecting to unsecured public Wi-Fi networks without your knowledge. Additionally, avoid accessing sensitive information such as your bank account or credit card information while on public Wi-Fi. If possible, save these activities for when you are on a secure and private network.

Lastly, disable file sharing and AirDrop on your device to prevent unwanted access. These features allow other devices to access your files and information, making your device more vulnerable. By disabling them, you can ensure that your personal information stays secure.

In summary, public Wi-Fi networks can leave your personal information exposed to cybercriminals. However, by using a VPN, keeping your software updated, being careful with your online activity, and disabling file sharing and AirDrop, you can protect your online privacy and secure your internet connection while using public Wi-Fi networks. Alternatively, for more tips and guidance, you can read the extended version of this in our dedicated blog on the subject, which explains all of this in more depth Public Wi-Fi: The Essential Guide.

Online Privacy: More on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)

Okay, back to VPNs. In an age where online privacy is increasingly under threat, VPNs have emerged as one of the most reliable tools for protecting our sensitive online information. As we explained earlier, VPNs are software applications that allow you to create a secure, encrypted connection between your device and the Internet, making it much harder for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to track your online activities.

One of the primary advantages of using a VPN is that it conceals your real IP address and assigns you a new anonymous one from its database. This means that your web surfing is anonymised and encrypted. Making your online activities much harder to track by prying eyes. Without a VPN, ISPs can easily monitor your online activity, including your browsing history, downloads, and even the personal information you share online.

With its encrypted connection and anonymous IP address, VPNs offer unparalleled protection for your online data. By encrypting your online traffic, a VPN creates a secure tunnel through which your data travels, making it impossible for anyone to monitor your online activities. This not only ensures that your online privacy is protected but also prevents your sensitive data from falling into the wrong hands.

So, if you’re looking to protect your online privacy and safeguard your sensitive data online, using a reliable VPN is a must. With their ability to assign you a new anonymous IP address and create a secure, encrypted connection between you and the internet, VPNs are a powerful tool against online surveillance and tracking. Alternatively, you can read our extended version of this section in our blog that explains this in way more depth.

Using a specialised Operating System that focuses on online privacy

If you’re 100% ready to dive in and you’re certain you want to stay invisible online, then you could consider using an Operating System (OS) designed to be as private as possible. However, these Operating Systems are based on a Linux kernel. So, forget about Windows or MacOS. One good recommendation would be a Linux version called Tails. 

So, what’s special about this OS and why is it worth considering over Windows or MacOS?

Tails, which stands for The Amnesic Incognito Live System, is a security-focused Linux distribution specifically designed to preserve privacy and anonymity. There are several key features that make Tails unique and beneficial for those looking to remain invisible online:

  1.  Tor Integration: Tails routes all of its internet traffic through the Tor network by default, making it difficult for anyone to track or trace the user’s online activities. The Tor network helps anonymize the user by encrypting the data and bouncing it through a series of servers around the world.
  2.  Live Operating System: Tails is a live operating system, meaning it’s designed to be run from a DVD, USB stick, or SD card, rather than installed on a hard drive. When you shut down Tails, the system is designed to leave no trace on the machine it was run on.
  3.  Amnesic Feature: Tails is amnesic, meaning that it doesn’t store any information between sessions unless explicitly told to do so. Once you shut down Tails, all your actions on the system are erased and cannot be recovered.
  4.  Pre-configured with security-focused applications: Tails comes pre-packaged with a suite of applications tailored for secure and anonymous usage, like encrypted email clients, secure instant messaging, and office suite, among others.
  5. State-of-the-art cryptographic tools: Tails includes several tools for handling passwords, encrypting files, volumes, and email, and managing OpenPGP keys.

However, it’s important to remember that while Tails can significantly enhance your privacy and anonymity online, no system is completely impregnable. Good security practices are still necessary, like:

If you want a refresher on any of these topics, check out the range of IT support services offered by my friendly team. It’s our job to research all of this topics to help solve your problems and make your life easier.

Online Privacy: Practical applications

Now that you have a better understanding of what, how, and who wants to spy on you we can get an idea of what is possible.

Governments and law enforcement

Staying invisible online to all groups is very – and I mean very – difficult. Just ask those people who are serving long sentences for online crime!

Of course, just wanting to stay invisible online doesn’t make you a criminal. However, in order to test any theory, you need to check if it works. For that reason, if we use criminals and law enforcement as an example there is a clear desire for one group to stay invisible and another group to uncover their identity.

What we have learned, is that online privacy at such a level is a game of who is more pedantic and careful as all it takes is one small mistake to expose your identity. From a VPN that dropped and exposed a criminal’s IP allowing law enforcement to locate him, to an email address which was left visible on a post on the internet. But also, to a cached version of an encrypted file that was illegal. 

Staying invisible from governments, in the long run, is almost impossible and also very impractical. The good news is as long as you stay on the right side of the law there is no need for such extreme steps.

Staying away from criminals

If you are a journalist, lawmaker, politician, or celebrity then it’s true that your digital life can be harder as the cyber-criminal world might have a bigger interest in finding out more about you. However, applying some of the solutions here can be more than enough, such as using VPN or Tor network. But also, using web browsers like Brave, ensuring you don’t reuse passwords and you set up MFA or use Secure Key. This should all help keep you safe. If you are in such a high-risk group, you could also consider Apple Lockdown Mode.

The real-life application would be to utilise some of the solutions especially if you work on specific projects and the rest of the time work in our normal way. But as in the section above this game is about a pedantic approach. In order for the solution to work, you have to ensure that if you use encrypted communication via the Signal app then you don’t just send it in unencrypted email. Nor, keep it on a file that is located on your desktop.

Tech and advertising industry

This group needs to follow the law and it is the easiest to protect against. We have to change the way we think about sharing our data on social media and limit access on each platform. Using a web browser such as Brave and rejecting cookies will also help. However, if we are less organised and some data is shared with the tech and advertising industry then thankfully the consequences will be much less severe. As such, I wouldn’t recommend going all out on the security measures just to avoid tech and advertising. Instead, you can simply make a habit of online privacy good practices such as rejecting cookies, using browsers such as Brave, and sharing less of your private content online. 

Online Privacy: Conclusion

So, what do you think? Does staying fully invisible online sound like something you want to do? Should we all be fully invisible? Where do you stand on the subject of online privacy. Please let me know in the comment section as I’d love to hear your opinions 🙂

I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s super comprehensive blog on online privacy and found it useful. I’ve spent a quarter of a century working in IT, building up the knowledge and expertise to help YOU with your tech problems. As well as sharing what I have learned for free through this weekly blog, I have also assembled a friendly team of experts who specialise in IT support in London, nationally, and internationally.

If you need a helping hand, simply send us a message at [email protected] or call us on 0800 389 6798. Our IT support services for businesses include everything from cyber security, cloud computing, and IT compliance to IT infrastructure support, and more. We love working with our IT support clients and using our IT knowledge and experience to make their lives easier. We take care of the tech stuff so you can focus on what you do best. You can contact us by clicking here.

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