Are All Tools That Claim to Protect Your Anonymity Online Actually Secure?

In recent years we have seen a boom of discussions about online privacy, while at the same time the privacy itself is ever declining. We are being increasingly spied on by advertisers, ISPs, hackers, cyber criminals and our own government agencies. Dealing with it may seem like fighting a losing battle, but none of us can afford to ignore privacy issues as that only helps those who look to exploit our personal information.

One of the key methods to protect yourself from being tracked online is hiding your IP address, which, if exposed, can be traced back to your ISP, which in turn, could help ID you. Another, arguably even more important step in ensuring your anonymity online is encrypting all your online communications to ensure they are kept secure and private.

We’ll take a look at three web anonymity tools that help to hide your real IP address available today, examining their pros and cons and considering their best uses.

Use web proxies if hiding your IP is enough

Using an anonymous proxy such as Hidester or Hola allows you to disguise your IP address online. The proxy acts as an intermediary, routing communications between your computer and the Internet while replacing your IP address with its own in every outgoing request. Web proxies are usually simple browser extensions and require no additional downloads and installation.

Are All Tools That Claim to Protect Your Anonymity Online Actually Secure?Proxies may be useful if you want to hide your browsing activity, access blocked content at work or school, or view a website from behind a firewall. They are also normally free. Note that each browser needs to be configured separately.

However, even when web proxies do offer some encryption, which often isn’t the case, it is relatively weak. With no encryption, government and ISPs can still see what you’re doing online. Besides, proxies only secure your browser, leaving the rest of your online activity vulnerable, and even when browsing, websites can detect your IP with increasingly common Flash or JavaScript tricks. Finally, developers of free tools usually want some kind of compensation, which may come in the form of advertising or exposing users’ data to third parties.

To conclude, web proxies are free, easy to use and offer some basic privacy features, such as unblocking geographically restricted content. However, they can only be recommended in situations when privacy and security aren’t the primary concerns and should always be used with caution.

Get VPN for more thorough protection

Unlike web proxies, which only secure your browsers and require setting up each piece of software separately, a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service, such as NordVPN creates an encrypted tunnel, securing all your internet access and replacing your ISP routing for all applications. Your ISP or government can only see that you have connected to the VPN server. However, your activities, websites you have visited, data you have sent or downloaded and other information is completely hidden behind strong encryption. For example, one of the security protocols NordVPN uses is the ultra-secure IKEv2/IPsec, combining AES-256-GCM and SHA2-384 ciphers, which are both postquantum secure.

Are All Tools That Claim to Protect Your Anonymity Online Actually Secure?VPN services allow you to choose among hundreds of servers in various countries, helping to bypass geographical restrictions while maintaining reasonable connection speeds. Some services go a step further and facilitate borderless online TV streaming and/or are P2P friendly. They may offer various extra security features such as protection from DNS leaks and DDoS attacks, kill switches that automatically close applications when the VPN connection drops, and more.

The only drawbacks are the fact that full-featured VPN services are paid, and comparatively slow speeds on busier servers. Regarding the price, you can shop around, look for discounts or choose annual billing to save. The speed problem can also be addressed by experimenting with different servers and finding less popular ones.

VPN clients also require downloading and setting up but all companies we’ve researched had comprehensive tutorials for all operating systems and devices. Our favourite was NordVPN, who stand out with a strict no logs policy and a good balance between unblocking capabilities (they still offer Netflix workaround) and a large number of security features.

Verdict: Download VPN client right now if you can afford it and look for discounts if you can’t. For usually less than $10 per month, VPN services provide great value for money, securing your entire online activity and shielding you from prying eyes.

Is free VPN a thing?

Somewhere in-between a full-featured VPN service and a free proxy, a free service such as Opera VPN may seem like a nice compromise option. It promises to hide your IP address, unblock regional content and encrypt your web traffic, while also blocking ads and trackers. Too good to be true? Let’s examine the catch.

Unfortunately, most free VPN options come with the usual caveats, which reduce their offered cost advantage to an ordinary marketing stunt. In the case of Opera VPN, the desktop app is really just a proxy, securing your activity on the Opera browser but leaving all other applications exposed. Plus, free VPNs tend to collect your usage data for advertising purposes. The Opera iOS and Android apps are likely to feature ads as well, as confirmed by Chris Houston, president of SurfEasy, Opera’s VPN division.

Other “free” services require you to purchase premium options to get rid of advertising, expand the list of available countries and remove data/bandwidth limits.

Ultimately, a “free” VPN might be a good enough choice for casual users, who don’t mind privacy gaps, advertising and limitations on data or bandwidth. However, if you want to avoid all tracking and secure your data or if you live in a country with heavy internet regulation, you will need a full-featured VPN service.