How to Browse the Internet Anonymously
Follow these expert tips to surf the Web without being tracked.
At this point, it’s no secret that Google is watching. If you’ve ever looked up anything on the Internet—from the name of that guy in that movie (you know the one) to the best sneaker sales—you’ve probably been inundated with ads related to the topic. Thanks to cookies, websites remember us and give us a personalized experience, but that comes at a cost to our privacy. The creep factor alone sends many an Internet explorer on a quest to find ways to do an anonymous search without tracking.
“Anonymity is an important aspect of freedom of speech. Many people want to hide their identity when they search the Internet,” says Anurag Gurtu, chief product officer at cybersecurity company StrikeReady. Maybe you have political, personal, or business reasons to search anonymously. Maybe you want to make it harder for data brokers to buy and sell your personal info (and people to use it in doxxing attacks). Or maybe you’re concerned with more malicious spyware.
With hackers becoming more sophisticated than ever and online security a growing concern, you may be tempted to disappear completely from the Internet. Thankfully, there are less-extreme ways to prevent the online privacy risks that can come from tracking. In addition to being aware of the signs your computer has been hacked, follow the pros’ lead and install security apps while also clearing out apps that might be doing you more harm than good.
For more expert tips for doing an anonymous search without tracking, read on.
How am I tracked online?
Face it: It’s not a question of if the Internet is spying on you but how the Internet is spying on you. “Extensively is the best description of how you’re tracked online,” says Tony Anscombe, chief security evangelist for digital security company ESET.
“If I use the Chrome browser for anything, Google knows about it,” says D. Greg Scott, a cybersecurity expert for the software company Red Hat. “Google knows everything I do with my Android phone. When I log in to Google with any browser, Google also follows me there. When I shop at Amazon—or anywhere—and they drop cookies, other websites also pick them up.”
Some of the methods by which we are tracked online are obvious, Anscombe says, pointing to data requested through forms, browser cookies, and account log-ins. But while you might not think about it quite as often, your IP address is hands down the greatest tracking method. Sites can also use fingerprinting to learn about your computer and browsing history. Some stores even monitor visitors’ actions, like clicks and keystrokes.
Fill out a form with your information—say, your shipping address for quicker checkout—and you’re providing data to a site.
Cookies store information about how you interact with a website—your preferred language, for example—and are another way your Internet history is tracked. They’re often used for advertising and targeted ads, but they also store financial data and social security numbers, which could lead to identity theft if the wrong person gets ahold of those personal details.
And while websites ask you to reject or accept cookies, many make users jump through a ton of hoops to reject all. (Naturally, the “accept cookies” button is super easy to find.)
When you’re logged into an account, the company can track where you are and can access the information it has on file about you. “You might be surprised just how much data companies like Google and Facebook already have about you,” Gurtu says. “Like your age, location, interests, and more.”
There are many ways the Internet tracks us, but one of the primary methods is via IP address, a unique code assigned to your device. “Your IP address can reveal a lot about you,” Gurtu says. “You can find out what country, state, and city you’re in just by looking at it. If you want to keep your location private, this isn’t great.”
Let’s say you log out of your Facebook account—something Anscombe recommends doing “so they may not be able to attribute the browsing history to you.” That doesn’t mean you’ll avoid tracking altogether. If a website uses Facebook’s tools for advertising purposes, he says, “they may be collecting browsing data based on your IP address.”
Sound scary? You can learn how identifiable you are on the Internet by viewing your browser fingerprint at AmIUnique.
Do Internet companies know what sites I visit?
If you’re worried about your online privacy, you’re probably concerned about more than just Google looking over your shoulder. Chances are, you’ve also wondered: Do Internet companies know what sites I visit? The shorter answer: Yes.
Internet service providers (ISPs) track your activities through your IP address, cookies, and other means. “This is why privacy is such an important issue when it comes to the Internet,” says Magda Chelly, the chief information security officer at Responsible Cyber. “There are ways to avoid having your activities tracked, but it takes effort and vigilance. You can use a VPN to browse the web anonymously, but even then, your activity can be monitored by your ISP or the government.”
Your Internet service provider can see what websites you visit and other information, such as how often you visit a site and how long you stay there. It can also see your IP address, which reveals your physical location. But there’s a limit, at least on some websites. “If you use encrypted connections like https,” Gurtu says, “the provider cannot see what pages on each website you visit or what videos or images you view on those websites.”
How can I browse privately without being tracked?
You know you’re being tracked, and frankly, you’re not a fan. It’s time to take action. We asked cybersecurity experts how to do an anonymous search without tracking. Here are the top methods for avoiding cookies, keeping your search history private, and getting as close to anonymous as possible.
Use a private search engine
It does this: Lets you search without being tracked.
It doesn’t do this: Prevent tracking elsewhere on the web.
Google is great from a search perspective, but if you’re concerned with online tracking, turn to a private search engine, which is generally more trustworthy. If it doesn’t track and store your data, it can’t hand over your information to government authorities.
- Mojeek: This independent search engine doesn’t track you and provides unbiased results.
- Gigablast: This search engine uses encryption to ensure privacy and doesn’t track you.
- DuckDuckGo: One of the most popular private search engines, DuckDuckGo doesn’t store user information and doesn’t share or sell user information to third-party companies. The search engine shows ads, but they’re generic and related to the keyword you searched, not based on your personal information or search history.
- StartPage: This is currently considered one of the most private search engines. “StartPage doesn’t track, log any user data, or share information with third parties,” says Artur Kane, chief marketing officer with the cloud service company GoodAccess. “And it uses Google search technology, which ensures consistently relevant results without compromising privacy.”
- Xayn: This search engine blocks trackers, cookies, and ads, and it won’t collect your data.
- Kiddle: If kid-safe searching is as important to you as privacy, you may want to download Kiddle on your child’s computer. It retrieves kid-oriented, family-friendly results, doesn’t collect any personally identifiable information, and deletes its logs every 24 hours.
If you’re looking to do an anonymous search without tracking, it might be best to employ a variety of search engines, depending on what you’re searching for. “We are seeing a trend away from one standard, generic search engine, like Google, and toward a more sophisticated method of using several specialized search engines for different needs,” says Michael Huth, PhD, cofounder of Xayn. “Qwant is great for family-safe searches, Xayn is nice for ad-free news streams, and Ecosia supports the environment.”
Depending on your needs, you may prefer using a privacy-focused browser like Firefox or Brave. “Brave was built with privacy in mind and intentionally threw out some of the bells and whistles to prevent the sharing of your private information,” says Andy Rogers, senior assessor at Schellman, a global cybersecurity assessor. “Brave is a Chromium-based browser, which means that it is built on code from Chrome, but they were meticulous in how they designed it, with the user’s privacy in mind.”
Open a private browser window
It does this: Launches a new browser window that won’t save your browsing history, cookies and site data, or information entered in forms.
It doesn’t do this: Prevent websites from tracking your IP address. Your activity might still be visible to the websites you visit, your employer or school, and your Internet service provider.
Privacy boost: A private window plus a VPN.
Private browsing is a way to keep your online activity hidden, though not from everyone. “It hides your browsing history in that session but doesn’t protect you from websites tracking your activity on their sites by IP address,” says Gurtu.
So while Google’s Incognito mode prevents someone with access to your computer from seeing your searches—which is helpful if you’re searching for a gift or researching something you don’t want other people to see—it’s not as truly incognito as many people think it is.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there about incognito browsing and how it affects your privacy,” says Chelly. “When you close an incognito window, any websites you visited during that session will not appear in your browser history. However, this doesn’t mean that your activity is completely private and anonymous. Your Internet service provider can still see what websites you’re visiting while in Incognito mode. In addition, any website you visit can still track your activity through cookies or other forms of data tracking.”
Think of private browsing as a first line of defense. (To do it, go to File and then “New Incognito Window” or “New Private Window.”) To do a more anonymous search without tracking, you’ll need another tool. “You can also use a VPN to connect through a different server than the one you usually use, masking your identity and location,” says Gurtu.
Browse in Google’s Guest mode
It does this: Avoids storing your search history.
It doesn’t do this: Stop websites from tracking your IP address. Your data is still visible to the websites you visit, your employer, and your Internet service provider.
Privacy boost: Guest mode plus a VPN.
If you’re trying to do an anonymous search without tracking, consider Google’s Guest mode like a private window. “In Guest mode browsing, your search history is not stored,” Kane says. “However, similarly to Incognito mode, your data is still visible to the websites you visit, Internet service providers, or employers.”
In short: Neither Incognito mode nor Guest mode will make you invisible while browsing the Web.
“If you want to browse the Internet without worrying about setting up a new user account or needing to log out of your current account, then Guest mode is perfect for you,” Gurtu says. “When you’re done using Guest mode, simply close out of the window, and it will automatically delete all browsing data.”
That’s a handy option if you’re using a public computer, borrowing a pal’s computer, or letting someone borrow yours. To enter Guest mode, follow these steps:
- In the Chrome browser, click the icon to the right of the address bar that looks like a circle with a silhouette in it.
- Click Guest.
- When you’re done browsing, close the window.
Speaking of Google: Want to hide some of the info that appears when you search yourself? Learn how to delete yourself from Google searches.
Ask sites not to track you
It does this: Requests that sites don’t track you.
It doesn’t do this: Force sites not to track you.
You can tell sites to stop tracking your activity by setting Do Not Track (DNT) in your browser. On Chrome, for instance, you can go to Settings, click on “Privacy and security,” and then “Cookies and other site data.” From there, toggle on the option to send a Do Not Track request.
Once enabled, this feature will ask websites not to assign you cookies, those files that allow settings to be stored within your browser for when you return. It sounds great, but it’s not that straightforward. “A website needs to honor DNT for this to work, and many do not,” Long explains. “DNT is not an effective way to prevent online tracking, at least not on its own, due to it not being legally enforceable and not being a comprehensive way of preventing tracking online.”
Ashley Simmons, founder of online privacy and security site Avoid the Hack, agrees. “It doesn’t automatically stop websites from tracking you and merely sends a request header to the web servers to ask not to be tracked. The website isn’t obligated to respect this.”
For Do Not Track to be effective, Long says, it needs to be merged with a host of other methods, including extensions that block trackers, such as uBlock Origin (his recommendation and the gold standard to most). But not even this one-two punch can fully knock out tracking.
Simmons says Do Not Track can serve as another means to track you, so it’s best to leave it off. And extensions pose their own issues. For instance, if you’re the only one using a specific grouping of extensions, you’re giving yourself a unique fingerprint to be tracked. “Every extra extension you add makes you more unique in the process of fingerprinting,” Long says.
Scott thinks extensions are a bad idea overall. “Just say no,” he says. “Most of these are spyware in disguise. The people who build these add-ons need to make money somehow.”
Long says that each time you add a new extension, you need to “explore the project and see if you’re comfortable with it” and question whether you really need it. “Using a tool with always-on privacy, such as the Brave browser, might be a better approach for some users,” says Huth.
Use a VPN
It does this: Encrypts your web traffic and masks your IP address.
It doesn’t do this: Stop tracking via cookies, your browser fingerprint, or account log-ins.
Privacy boost: VPN plus Tor browser.
As you browse the Web, your IP address—that special number assigned to your device—is visible. If you’re trying to do an anonymous search without tracking, you’re going to want to hide it. That’s where a virtual private network, or VPN, comes in.
So, does a VPN hide your Internet activity from your provider? Yep. It disguises your IP address, blocks your location, and hides your browser history from the sites you visit, your Internet service provider, hackers, and the government. The tech does this by rerouting your web traffic through the VPN’s servers. This is a major plus if you’re using public Wi-Fi, which can pose security risks.
That’s all useful, but VPNs don’t make you totally invisible online. They won’t reliably stop tracking by any sites you’re actively using or stop you from being tracked by cookies. “You can use a VPN solution, but that just changes the vector of tracking from the ISP to the VPN provider,” says Vikram Venkatasubramanian, founder and CEO of Nandi Security.
Still, it’s a good step to take in combination with other privacy tools, like the use of the Tor browser (more on that in a minute). Considering how useful a VPN is for online privacy, it’s a good idea to invest in one with a good security reputation, such as NordVPN and Private Internet Access.
Use the Tor browser
It does this: Disguises your web activity by encrypting it and deletes your browsing history and cookies after each session.
It doesn’t do this: Prevent tracking when you’re not using Tor.
Privacy boost: Tor plus a VPN.
Tor stands for The Onion Router, and it’s a nonprofit founded on the belief that “Internet users should have private access to an uncensored Web.” The Tor browser eliminates fingerprinting by making all users look the same through encryption and relaying your traffic through thousands of volunteer-run servers known as Tor relays. If you’re looking to do an anonymous search without tracking, Tor is a solid option.
By using the Tor browser, you can mask your activity, and websites can’t trace your online activity back to your IP address, Anscombe says. “This is because the Tor network uses a series of proxies to hide the connection information,” he says. “However, your ISP will be able to determine you are connected to the Tor network, so not all tracking is removed. There is an additional step that could be taken by using a VPN and then using a browser like Tor. This will mask the use of Tor to the ISP, but again, they would likely be able to determine the VPN service you are using by the IP address you are connected to.”
The best way to do an anonymous search without tracking
If you want to browse the Internet as a ghost, you won’t get by with a single method. For best results, try combining privacy tools. Use a VPN and a private browser. Search via a private search engine in a private browser while using a VPN. And if staying anonymous online sounds like work, that’s because it is.
Once you’re done prepping for your next anonymous web experience, learn other ways to beef up your online security, like creating good passwords, being on alert for phishing and spoofing, and enabling two-factor authentication for all your accounts.
- Anurag Gurtu, chief product officer at StrikeReady
- Tony Anscombe, chief security evangelist at ESET
- Joshua Long, head of marketing at Mojeek
- Magda Chelly, chief information security officer at Responsible Cyber
- D. Greg Scott, cybersecurity expert at Red Hat
- Artur Kane, chief marketing officer at GoodAccess
- Andy Rogers, senior assessor at Schellman
- Michael Huth, PhD, cofounder and senior researcher at Xayn
- Ashley Simmons, founder of Avoid the Hack
- Vikram Venkatasubramanian, founder and CEO of Nandi Security