Category Archives: Privacy

Tor, VPN or Proxy – Which is Right for You?

Records of an average person’s browsing history may not be worth much, but when you add every citizen of the U.S. to the equation, the value becomes millions of dollars.

ISPs want your personal data so they can sell it to the highest bidder (if law allows). Advertisers and titans of Web search want it so they can display products they know you’re interested in. Finally, the government wants access to your activities, incase they find a reason to spy on you.

These players are becoming a bigger threat to your online privacy by the day, and it’s about time you stood up to this menace. It starts by protecting yourself, namely with Tor, a VPN or proxy. There’s no perfect solution, however it should be said they’re not all in the same league either. So let’s look at the pros and cons of each of these technologies.

Tor

What is it?

Known as “the onion router,” Tor is free software that allows you to join their anonymity service. Tor directs traffic though a network of thousands of relays run by volunteers around the world. It makes it very difficult if not impossible for someone to monitor your online usage, and also prevents site owners from seeing your true location.

Tor Browser requires no setup, however it wont hide activities in other apps such as email, FTP, torrent client, etc. Only accomplished tech aficionados should tackle their Expert Bundle which is the standalone flavor of Tor. It allows you to manually configure programs to work with it.

Pros

  • Not only is this free software, but also a free service which is pretty amazing.
  • Tor Browser is really easy to use.

Cons

  • In terms of speed, expect varying degrees of slow. Considering all your browsing data is bouncing around various relays worldwide, it’s understandable why. The other reason is advancements in the network and software are dependent on altruistic contributions, which are short in supply.
  • Since launching in 2002 it has created a reputation for being a favored tool of cyber criminals, spammers and dissidents. Attempts to hide yourself with it can backfire as Tor users are viewed with suspicion; it may be a red flag for someone with power or savvy to monitor what you’re up to.

View Tor Project site.

VPN

What is it?

A VPN extends a private network across a public network. It acts as a fast, secure bridge between your computer and the internet, encrypting your data as you browse the web.

Sites you visit and other prying eyes won’t be able to see your real IP address; instead they’ll see the IP associated with the VPN service. VPNs also allow you to bypass geographic restrictions by allowing you to assume an IP associated with a different country.

VPN access is a service, and just like internet access you’ll be billed monthly to use it.

Pros

  • Paid service so servers are robust, reliable and fast.
  • Quality VPN services have huge networks of servers located around the world.
  • Used for professional applications by IT professionals, so VPN users are generally granted far more trust than Tor or proxy users.
  • Services offer extensive software for use with any OS (desktop or mobile), and with any application.

Cons

  • Need to subscribe to a service with associated monthly fee.

View a comparison of top VPNs.

Proxy

What is it?

Before VPNs exploded in popularity, proxy servers and web proxies were the go-to method for hiding your identity. Similar to a VPN a proxy is a gateway between your home network and a public network such as the internet.

When viewing lists of proxy servers published online you’ll come across three types: anonymous, elite and transparent. Basically the slower the proxy type, the more secure the connection. So transparent is the fastest, least secure, anonymous is in the middle, and elite is every secure, plus even tries to hide the fact you’re using a proxy, but is the slowest type.

Unlike VPNs which allow you to setup one centralized app that will anonymize all your activity no matter which application you’re using; proxies require extensive configuration. You’ll need to learn the the proxy options well in each app as you’ll likely need to change servers often in search of a solution with decent speeds.

Pros

  • Both free and paid proxies are available although most will want a VPN if they choose to pay.
  • Free proxy lists are plentiful, many of which are checked continuously to ensure the list is fresh and that the proxies are indeed online.

Cons

  • Free proxy servers are run by individuals not companies that operate with at least some ethical standards.
  • Free proxies are used and abused by spammers and malicious users so you may find the proxy server IP is banned by the site you wish to use.
  • Each app is configured separately, which can get time consuming and frustrating due to the probable need to change proxy server often.

View a free proxy list.

The Final Verdict

Free proxies and Tor are fine for dabblers. However, if you wish to hide your identity on an ongoing basis you’ll almost certainly lose patience with the unreliability, slow speeds, or hoop-jumping (in the case of proxies) associated with these methods.

The top VPN services recommended here on LetMeBy are fast, trustworthy and generally a better option for nearly everyone. The only downside is you’ll need to pay for it, but since VPNs have come down in the price and are now available for just $5 per month, this isn’t much of a drawback anymore.

Photo: Ed Ivanushkin

Privacy-Respecting Search Engines That Don’t Track Your Activity

Chrome calls it Incognito Mode. In Firefox and Safari it’s Private Browsing, while IE labels it InPrivate. It’s easy to be fooled that your activity is fully hidden when such options are enabled in your browser, but in reality the security changes occur on your end (regarding cookies, history, etc.), while data is still collected by the sites you visit.

The most reliable way to stop search engines such as Google, Bing, Facebook and Yahoo from tracking your usage is to stop using their service altogether.

Undoubtedly private search engines that promise better security have other shortcomings. Say goodbye to a personalized experience based on past activity, plus the ability to login and customize settings for future visits. Of course Google will always be ten steps ahead in terms of their search algorithms. But if beefed-up privacy is what you need it’s a small price to pay, and by sticking with a major search engine for usage you don’t mind being public, you’ll get the best of both worlds.

Likely many of these names will be new to you. Maybe it’s about time more users open their minds about search engines and give the small guys a chance.

1. DuckDuckGo

Not tracking their customers’ usage in any way is DuckDuckGo’s calling card. The emerging search engine doesn’t collect your data, store it, or share it. As advertisers are notorious for using data collected from searches, this also means you won’t have to look at annoying ads for the electric lawnmower you just researched two minutes ago.

2. WolframAlpha

It’s a “computational knowledge engine,” and if that means nothing to you, it pulls from a massive database of knowledge and does its best to tailor that data based on your search. So rather than asking Web pages for the answers, WolframAlpha is a solution in itself. No, it won’t replace a traditional search engine for everything, but it sure beats Encyclopedia Britannica.

3. Startpage (by Ixquick)

Startpage trumpets itself as “the world’s most private search engine.” It takes advantage of Google search technology while tossing out the company’s privacy rulebook. There is also a proxy feature to increase anonymity even more; by enabling it none of the sites you visit can see your IP.

4. Yippy

With Yippy you can filter out results that aren’t relevant to your interests by selecting categories, using tag clouds, and sources. This may be a breath of fresh air for users that are tired of sites attempting to guess what you want all the time rather than just asking.

Yippy doesn’t track searches and doesn’t display customized ads either.

5. Hulbee

Grossbay A. G., the Swiss-based software company behind Hulbee, utilizes a data cloud for a more intuitive connection to information and for quicker load times. It manages to provide intelligent, relevant results without probing its users.

By encrypting searches Hulbee protects you against third party attacks and data leaks. It doesn’t leave any tracks when you search on the site: topics, IP addresses and personal information are not stored. And for those put off by the gutter of the Web that can sometimes show its face at inappropriate times, it’s family friendly too.

6. Disconnect Search

With a little help from DuckDuckGo, plus the giants at Bing and Yahoo, Disconnect Search piggybacks on great existing search technology but doesn’t record your IP or your history.

For higher levels of security Pro (blocks trackers and malware) and Premium (masks location, IP with a VPN) services are also offered.

7. Lukol

This one is simple: it’s Google, but with a proxy server added to the chain to hide your identity. Lukol keeps tabs on fraudsters and shady sites, safeguarding you from attacks you might not see coming.

Visual learners will appreciate that results have images pulled from corresponding Web pages next to links.

8. MetaGer

Privacy comes naturally to this German outfit; every search is completed with respect for your privacy. They don’t save your IP, and the fingerprint of your browser. Cookies aren’t used nor are tracking pixels. Data is encrypted though the HTTPS protocol so your ISP can’t see your searches either.

Options to browse with a proxy or through the anonymous TOR network are available to those willing to put in the effort.

Photo: jpbr