7 Important Principles for anonymising your online activity

By default, almost everything you do online is tracked. Your browsing activity is linked to an Internet Protocol (IP) address that’s associated with your physical location and your internet service provider (ISP). And the accounts you create to access online services are often associated with your real identity.

Not only does this allow private companies to surveil your online activity but there are usually no technical barriers in place that prevent them from willingly or inadvertently sharing this data with others.

Public transparency reports from just three of the many tech companies that have access to this data (Apple, Google, and Microsoft) show that data from hundreds of thousands of user accounts is handed over to governments each year. And this is just the tip of the iceberg according to whistleblower Edward Snowden who published leaked documents in 2013 that claim the United States (US) National Security Agency (NSA) has direct access to the servers of these companies.

The fact that this data is collected also creates the potential for data breaches which allow bad actors to scoop up this data. In the first half of 2021 alone, 18.8 billion records have been exposed as a result of data breaches. To put this in perspective, in these six months, the number of records exposed via data breaches has already surpassed the total number of records exposed in 2019.

As the internet becomes increasingly prevalent in our modern lives, the amount of data collected and exposed through data-sharing agreements, government surveillance, and data breaches is likely to continue increasing.

One of the best ways to protect yourself from this growing encroachment on your private data is to learn about the various ways you can anonymize your personal data and implement online anonymity principles whenever you don’t want your online activity to be surveilled.

In this post, we’ll be giving you both beginner and advanced online anonymity principles. The beginner principles will show you how to anonymize most of your data without having to make significant changes to your online browsing habits while the advanced principles will show you how to anonymize almost all your data by making bigger changes to the way you use the internet.

Beginner principles for achieving online anonymity

Most of your online activity is tied to your real identity through your IP address, your email address, and your online accounts. It’s relatively easy to anonymize all three of these data points, regardless of your level of technical expertise. These beginner principles will focus on this low-hanging fruit and highlight the small changes you can make to browse and create online accounts anonymously.

1. Separate your anonymous activity and your real identity

Regardless of the methods and tools that you use to achieve online anonymity, failing to be properly separate your anonymous activity and your real identity can result in you being unmasked. For example, if you sign in to an account associated with your real identity while using a virtual private network (VPN) or mention your real name while communicating from one of your anonymous accounts, you’ll have blown your anonymity.

Therefore, when you’re implementing the other online anonymity principles in this post, don’t do anything that could reveal or point to your real identity such as sharing your real name, signing in to accounts that are tied to your real identity, communicating with people that know your real identity from your anonymous accounts, or using the same IP address to access both your real and anonymous accounts.

Likewise, when you’re operating through your real identity, don’t do anything that could compromise your anonymity such as signing in to or mentioning your anonymous accounts.

The key to maintaining your anonymity is to always consider how what you’re doing could impact your anonymity, consider the best way to keep your real identity and your anonymous activity separate, and operate accordingly.

Since modern devices, browsers, and apps retain a lot of personal data by default and keep you signed in to your accounts, one of the most effective ways to separate your anonymous activity and real identity is to setup dedicated device user accounts or profiles for each purpose.

Once they’re set up, only install the apps that you need for anonymity (such as the tools that help mask your IP address which we cover in the next section of this post) on the device user accounts that are dedicated to anonymity, only use these accounts when you’re operating anonymously, and don’t do anything connected to your real identity from these accounts.

When you’re operating as your real identity, only use the device user accounts that are dedicated to your real identity and don’t do anything or reference anything related to your anonymous activity from these accounts.

If you want to maintain this separation at the hardware level, you can take it one step further and get dedicated computers and phones for each purpose. Install the apps you need for anonymity on your anonymous computers and phones and use them exclusively for operating anonymously. When you want to operate as your real identity, switch to the computers or phones dedicated to your real identity.

2. Mask your IP address

By default, your real IP address is transmitted whenever your computer or phone connects to the internet. This real IP address reveals your ISP and your location to any websites or online services that you connect to.

Additionally, your ISP, which already has your real name, exact address, contact information, and billing information, can see every website you visit by default. In many countries, ISPs can be legally required to retain this data for extended periods. For example, under the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, ISPs can be compelled to retain their user’s browsing histories for up to a year.

By masking your real IP address, you can prevent websites and online services from seeing this data point and also stop your ISP snooping on your browsing history.

There are two main tools that can help mask your IP address – virtual private networks (VPNs) and Tor (The Onion Router).

VPNs create an encrypted tunnel between your device and the VPN server which routes all your traffic to the VPN’s servers and encrypts it before it’s transmitted to the internet. They also let you choose to route your traffic through a range of VPN servers which are located all around the world and each have their own unique IP address. Since these unique IP addresses are shared with other users of the VPN service, your web traffic is essentially anonymized to third parties because it’s mixed in with the traffic from lots of other users.

When you use a VPN, the websites and online services you connect to can only see the IP address of the VPN server you’re using. The encrypted tunnel also prevents your ISP from seeing the websites you visit.

If you use a VPN, it’s best to use a provider that lets you pay anonymously with cash or cryptocurrency (we cover anonymous cryptocurrency transactions in the “Use cryptocurrency for anonymous payments” section of this post) so that the VPN provider won’t have financial information that ties your VPN account to your real identity. ProtonVPN and Mullvad VPN both meet this criterion.

You can get a free ProtonVPN account here and a MullvadVPN account here.

Tor routes your web traffic through the decentralized Tor network which is comprised of over 6,000 Tor nodes or relays (servers running the open-source Tor software) which each have their own unique IP address and are located all around the world. Your web traffic is relayed and encrypted three times as it passes over the Tor network before it’s transmitted to the internet via an exit node. Your web traffic is also mixed in with the traffic from the millions of other Tor network users and Tor automatically switches nodes every 10 minutes.

When you use Tor, the websites and online services you connect to can only see the IP address of your current Tor exit node which is constantly changing. Your ISP also can’t see the details of the websites you’re visiting, just that you’re using Tor.

You can download the Tor browser here.

If you want to route all your device’s web traffic through Tor, you can use Orbot on Android or Tails on desktop (a portable Linux distribution that we cover in more detail in the “Stop your OS sending data to Big Tech” section of this post).

Using a VPN and Tor together is generally discouraged. The non-profit that maintains the Tor network, The Tor Project, advises against it unless you’re an advanced user who knows how to configure both in a way that doesn’t compromise your privacy.

Anonymity: If you choose a VPN provider that’s located in a country with strong data protection laws and also lets you create an account without handing over personal data, both VPNs and Tor will provide you with more anonymity than your ISP. However, the way Tor routes your traffic across a decentralized network multiple times makes it more anonymous than VPNs which do have the technical capability to see your web browsing data, even though most promise not to log or share this data.

Total users: While Tor is technically more anonymous than VPNs, it has less than three million total daily users. VPNs have a much larger user base with an estimated 142 million users in the US alone. Therefore, you’re less likely to blend into the crowd when using Tor than a VPN.

Speed: Your internet speed will generally be slower when you use a VPN or Tor. However, VPNs are usually much faster than Tor.

Ease of use: VPNs are generally easier to use than Tor and most VPNs have intuitive apps that let you seamlessly route all your device’s internet traffic through VPN servers. Routing your browser traffic through the Tor network with the Tor browser is relatively easy but routing all your device’s web traffic through the Tor network is more technical. Using Tor also triggers more CAPTCHAs and results in you being blocked from accessing websites more often than when using a VPN.

3. Mask your real email address

If your main email address is associated with your real name and you use this email address every time you sign up for an online account, you’re letting multiple companies have access to a data point that can be used to identify you. Masking your real email address gives you the flexibility to choose whether you want to be anonymous every time you’re asked to hand over an email address.

To mask your real email address, you’ll need to set up an anonymous email account with a provider that doesn’t require personal information and consider using burner emails.

ProtonMail and Tutanota are two providers that don’t require personal information to sign up. Both also offer end-to-end encryption for added privacy. With both services, all you need to do is choose your email and choose a password to create your new anonymous email account.

One thing to note is that you should use separate email and VPN providers to boost your anonymity. If you’re using ProtonVPN to mask your IP address, don’t use ProtonMail for your anonymous email account. If you’re using ProtonMail for your anonymous email account, don’t use ProtonVPN to mask your IP address.

You can get a free ProtonMail account here and a free Tutanota account here.

You may also want to consider using burner emails to prevent this single anonymous email address from leaving a potentially revealing data trail that could be used to surveil the interests and activities associated with the email address if it were shared or leaked.

Burner emails let you create a new unique email every time you sign up for an online account. Each of these unique burner emails forwards messages to your anonymous email and can be disabled at any time. If any of these burner emails are shared or leaked, they won’t link to any of your other online accounts.

While burner emails are great for minimizing the digital footprint that’s left by your anonymous email account, there are some caveats.

First, the burner email provider will know your anonymous email and be able to link all your burner emails and the associated accounts to this single anonymous email.

Second, you’re relying on two providers (your burner email provider and your anonymous email provider) to sign up for online accounts instead of one.

If you want to minimize the number of companies you rely on for managing your anonymous email, burner emails may not be for you. However, if you want to minimize data profiling based on your anonymous email, burner emails are worth considering.

AnonAddy is one of the best burner email tools for maintaining your anonymity because it lets you create unlimited aliases for free, you only need an email and password to sign up, and it supports cryptocurrency payments. For maximum anonymity, use AnonAddy’s shared domain aliases. You get 20 shared domain aliases for free and can get 50 shared domains for $1 per month or unlimited shared domains for $3 per month.

You can learn how to start setting up burner emails with AnonAddy here.

4. Mask your personal online accounts

Most of your online accounts have strong ties to your real identity and likely store data such as your real name, your real email address, your real physical address, and your financial records. By creating anonymous accounts that don’t have this personal information, you can enjoy the functionality they provide anonymously.

The vast majority of online accounts will let you sign up with just an email. By following these beginner principles, you’ll be able to set up most types of online accounts without revealing your real identity.

However, if you need to create an account that requires a phone number, address, or payment method, check out the “Advanced principles for achieving online anonymity” section to discover how to set these up anonymously.

Advanced principles for achieving online anonymity

While the beginner principles let you browse and create accounts without revealing your true identity, these advanced principles will let you go much further by anonymizing your OS and showing you how to set up phone numbers, make payments, and get an address anonymously.

These advanced principles will require a lot more effort on your part. To implement them fully, you’ll likely need to get new hardware, change the way you interact with your devices, and seek legal advice. However, once implemented, they will increase the scope of your online anonymity beyond what is possible with the beginner principles.

1. Mask your real phone number

Some online services will require you to submit a phone number before you can create an account. Since your main phone number is tied to your real name, submitting this number will unmask you.

By masking your real phone number, you have the freedom to choose privacy and anonymity when an online service requests your phone number.

Prepaid SIM cards are one of the easiest ways to get an anonymous phone number. If you buy them from stores such as Walmart, 7/11, or Target with cash or gift cards, there’ll be no digital payment linking you to the purchase. While there may be surveillance footage of the purchase, many stores don’t keep this forever. If you buy the SIM card at least a month before you plan to use it, you greatly improve the chances of the purchase being anonymous.

Another option to get a prepaid SIM card anonymously is to ask someone to buy it for you as a gift and then collect it from them in person.

Before buying or requesting the SIM card as a gift, consider whether you’re going to be using one of the privacy-focused mobile operating systems that we cover in the next section of this guide. If you are planning to use a privacy-focused mobile OS, make sure the prepaid SIM that you buy is unlocked and compatible with a device that supports your chosen privacy-focused mobile OS.

Once you have the prepaid SIM card, you need to consider that when you activate and use it, it will ping cell phone towers and reveal your rough geographic location. While this won’t unmask you because the service provider doesn’t know your real identity, if you only use the prepaid SIM card from your home, it will give the service provider a rough idea of where you live. Therefore, you may want to activate it away from your home and use it from a variety of locations.

Ideally, you should only use this anonymous phone number when you need to register for accounts that require a phone number but if you are planning to communicate via this anonymous phone number, only communicate with people that don’t know your real identity and don’t say anything that could reveal your real identity in any of these communications.

You may also want to consider using burner phone numbers to stop your anonymous phone number leaving a digital footprint that ties multiple accounts to a single number.

Burner phone numbers let you create a fresh number for each online account you sign up for. These burner numbers won’t be associated with any of your other online accounts and help to prevent profiling based on a single anonymous phone number.

However, there are several things to consider before using burner numbers.

First, some online accounts won’t accept numbers from burner phone number services so you will need to test each account and may have to use your anonymous phone number for some accounts.

Second, unlike burner email services, which let you generate unlimited burner emails for free or for a low monthly fee, burner phone numbers charge you for additional numbers. If you’re using more than one burner phone number, the monthly fee will likely be higher than the fee you pay for unlimited burner emails on other services. And if you’re using more than three burner phone numbers, the cost will be significant.

Since relatively few online services require you to hand over a phone number when creating an account, a single anonymous phone number will suffice for most use cases. But if you do want to split your online footprint between multiple phone numbers, getting a single burner phone number is relatively affordable and provides you with the flexibility to distribute your online presence between two numbers.

Hushed is a great burner phone number tool that can be accessed on a computer and phone via the web. It also lets you pay anonymously with cryptocurrency.

You can sign up for Hushed here.

2. Stop your OS sending data to Big Tech

Google Android, Windows, macOS, and iOS dominate the OS market and all four regularly send data back to their creators – Apple, Google, and Microsoft. By using a privacy-focused OS, you can cut off the data flow from your OS to these Big Tech companies and boost your anonymity and privacy.

If you have been using a Big Tech OS, making the switch to an alternative OS will likely require you to make some notable changes to the way you use your computer and phone.

The scope of the changes will depend on several factors including how deeply embedded you are in these Big Tech ecosystems, how many of the OS level features you use, and which privacy-focused OS you switch to. If you use lots of the OS level features and rely heavily on Big Tech services, you could lose access to or have to find alternative solutions for app stores, apps, cross-device data syncing, push notifications, and payment services such as Apple Pay and Google Pay.

Some privacy-focused operating systems will also only be compatible with specific computers and phones and require more technical expertise to use than Big Tech operating systems.

On desktop, the open-source Linux community is the most popular provider of non-Big Tech OS software and there are numerous distributions (distros) available. None of the major Linux distros send your data back to Big Tech, so they’re all more anonymous than Big Tech OS software. However, some focus on usability while others are more technical to use but focus specifically on anonymity, privacy, and security.

If usability is your main priority, Ubuntu is easy to use and navigate, it has an active community, it works on a wide range of hardware, and it’s highly customizable.

You can see if Ubuntu is compatible with your current computer here and download Ubuntu here.

If you want to use Tor as your main IP masking tool and are willing to try an OS that isn’t as easy to use, there are two privacy, security, and anonymity-focused Linux distros that you should consider – Qubes OS and Tails.

Both of these distros let you run Tor system-wide and both have been recommended by National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Qubes OS is a privacy and security-focused Linux distro that can also integrate the private and anonymous virtual OS Whonix. It’s less complex than Tails but it does have limited compatibility.

You can see if Qubes OS is compatible with your current computer here and download Qubes OS here.

Tails is a portable Linux distribution that can be installed on any USB stick with at least 8GB of storage space. It works with most computers that are less than 10 years old. By default, it wipes everything whenever you shut it down, although there is an option to store some files in encrypted persistent storage. However, it’s more difficult to boot and use than Qubes OS. You can download Tails here

On mobile, two of the best ways to strip Big Tech from your OS are using de-Googled Android distributions or using Linux phones. De-Googled Android is the easiest to use for regular users and will support most Android apps. However, if you have lots of experience with Linux, you may prefer a Linux phone.

GrapheneOS and LineageOS are two of the top de-Googled Android distributions that emphasize privacy. LineageOS can be installed on a wider range of phones but GrapheneOS has more privacy features built into the OS (such as fingerprinting protection and Wi-Fi and Global Positioning System (GPS) sandboxing).

You can get more information on GrapheneOS here and LineageOS here.

We also have a GrapheneOS installation guide here.

The Librem 5 (which runs the Linux distro PureOS) and the PinePhone (which ships with Manjaro Linux distro, uses the Plasma Mobile graphic interface, and supports all major Linux phone projects) are two of the top privacy-focused Linux phones.

You can get more information on the Librem 5 here and the PinePhone here.

Regardless of the operating systems that you choose, disable GPS, cellular, Bluetooth, and any other location services until you need to use them. When you do need to use these services, you may want to use them away from your home since they’ll ping your approximate location to cell phone towers and share your exact location with any apps and services on the device that have access to your location.

5. Use cryptocurrency for anonymous payments

Card payments, bank transfers, payment services such as PayPal, and most other online payment methods are linked to your real identity. This setup allows these payment providers to monitor everything you buy. Cryptocurrencies are one of the few online payment options that let you make purchases without third parties being able to tie those purchases to your real identity.

The caveat is that this anonymity varies depending on the cryptocurrency that you use and is contingent on acquiring your cryptocurrency without revealing your identity and ensuring that no one ever finds out which cryptocurrency wallets you own.

Almost all cryptocurrencies use public blockchains. Some cryptocurrencies, such as Monero, obfuscate data such as the sending and receiving address and the transaction amount. However, most cryptocurrencies, including the most popular cryptocurrency Bitcoin, display all their wallet addresses and all the transactions sent and received by those wallets on a public blockchain.

This means if you’re not using a cryptocurrency that has privacy and anonymity measures in place, anyone can analyze the blockchain and easily see all the funds that have been sent and received by any wallet. While this wallet address is anonymous by default, if you inadvertently reveal your ownership of one or more wallet addresses, all of the transactions from these unmasked wallets will be visible to the world.

In theory, using Monero for all your cryptocurrency transactions would solve this problem. However, many sites that accept cryptocurrency, only accept more widely used cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. Therefore, you need to know how to obtain cryptocurrency anonymously and keep your ownership anonymous, regardless of the privacy protections any specific cryptocurrency has built in.

Your two main options for obtaining cryptocurrency anonymously are mining it or buying it with cash or gift cards.

By mining cryptocurrency, you can obtain it without relying on any third parties and without any transaction trail. However, mining has a higher upfront cost (because you have to invest in the mining hardware) and a steeper learning curve.

You can get more information on mining cryptocurrency here.

Buying cryptocurrency with cash or gift cards has a lower upfront cost than mining (because you’re just paying for the cryptocurrency you need) and it’s easier than learning how to mine cryptocurrency. But, you are having to transact with third parties and although there’s nothing that ties these transactions to your real identity, there is still a payment trail.

To buy cryptocurrency with cash or gift cards, you’ll need to use an exchange that doesn’t require Know Your Customer (KYC) verification and doesn’t collect any personal information. Exchanges such as HodlHodl and Bisq meet this criterion.

You’ll also need to make sure that the specific exchange lists the cryptocurrency that you want to buy before signing up, sending funds, or connecting your wallet.

You can see a list of cryptocurrency exchanges that don’t require KYC here.

Once you’ve obtained your cryptocurrency, you’ll need to keep it anonymous. If you’re using Monero, you can use one of the recommended wallets on its downloads page to transact anonymously.

You can download one of Monero’s recommended wallets here.

If you’re using another cryptocurrency, then you’ll need to follow best practices to ensure that no one can link your anonymous wallet addresses to your real identity. These practices include never using a wallet that’s associated with your real identity (such as a Coinbase wallet) to send funds directly to one of your anonymous wallets, never using your anonymous wallets to send funds to a wallet associated with your real identity, and never posting or referencing your anonymous wallet addresses anywhere that’s linked to your real identity.

Some cryptocurrency wallets also have built-in privacy features that can help boost your anonymity. For example, several Bitcoin wallets will rotate your addresses to obfuscate your transactions.

You can check out Bitcoin.org’s wallet selector here to review the privacy features of various Bitcoin wallets.

For other cryptocurrencies, you’ll need to research the wallets that are available and determine which have the best privacy and anonymity features to match your use case.

6. Mask your identity with an anonymous limited liability company (LLC)

For some tasks, such as receiving packages, you’re going to need some form of real world identity. With an anonymous LLC, you can obtain this real world identity without any personal ties to you.

The viability of an anonymous LLC will depend on where you live and your individual circumstances. You will need to seek legal advice, consider the tax implications, and explore the specifics of how well an anonymous LLC will protect your privacy before setting it up. However, some areas, such as the US states Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming will let you set up an anonymous LLC without recording the owner.

Once you have the anonymous LLC, you can set up a mailbox that’s linked to the anonymous LLC and then use this mailbox to receive packages without revealing your identity.

Final recommendations for achieving online anonymity

As we’ve reiterated throughout this post, while these principles and tools can help you mask your real identity while using the internet, how you use them is really what counts.

No matter which principles you implement, stay vigilant and always focus on operating in a way that keeps your anonymous activities separate from your real identity.

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