Anonymous Browsing Guide: Silent Online Runnings in 2021

Anonymous browsing on the internet isn't an easy thing to do. Using the internet at all means your information is going to be collected, tracked or exposed in some way, but that doesn't mean you can't shrink the privacy risk down to a negligible inconvenience.

Jacob RoachMax Pitchkites
By Jacob Roach (Writer) & Max Pitchkites (Writer)
— Last Updated: 2021-10-11T08:31:56+00:00

As our world of tech becomes more interconnected, anonymous browsing has become more important than ever. With tech titans such as Facebook playing fast and loose with people’s data, the integrity of the companies we trust with our private data has to be questioned. That’s even ignoring the obvious privacy issues that come with internet service providers and government spying too.

In this anonymous browsing guide, we’re going to arm you with the knowledge and privacy tools to protect your personal data from dubious collection practices and shady sales. After taking the steps we suggest, you’ll not only be able to enjoy a more open internet, but also one in which you don’t have to look over your shoulder.

Key Takeaways:

  • Social media, mainstream browsers, search engines and cookies are among the most aggressive data-collecting entities on the web.
  • You can use extensions like ad blockers and HTTPS Everywhere to fortify your browser’s defenses against data collection. We also suggest using a secure browser like Brave.
  • We also recommend using a VPN like ExpressVPN or a free VPN like Windscribe to encrypt your internet traffic. 
  • Using any social media at all involves data collection. If you don’t want to quit social media entirely, you can stay relatively secure by limiting how much information you disclose to the public and to the company.

Before diving into the specifics, you need to know this: there is no bulletproof way to be anonymous online. Though we’re here to help protect you from the malicious websites, data collection and exploitation that exist in our online world, the fact that you’re using the internet means that you can’t be safe from everything.

If you want true anonymity, close your browser and throw away your computer. Though you can’t be safe from everything, you can be safe from most things. Truly anonymous browsing is a pipe dream, but you can block malicious advertisements, tracking beacons, network snooping and more. The purpose of this guide is damage control.

  • 10/03/2021 Facts checked

    Update the article to include how-to guides, FAQ, key takeaways and new images.

  • Practicing good cybersecurity hygiene in combination with secure technology is your best bet for private browsing online. We recommend using a virtual private network like ExpressVPN to encrypt your internet traffic and direct it through a trustworthy provider’s servers.

  • While there is no such thing as a completely anonymous browser, Brave is an easy-to-use web browser designed to be as private and secure as possible. The Tor Browser is another privacy-focused web browser, although it is more difficult to use and comes with some privacy risks.

  • Anonymous browsing means using the internet without having your identity exposed to anyone else online.

  • It’s not possible to be fully anonymous on the internet, but you can get close by keeping your connection private and exercising caution when disclosing your personal information to third parties.

The Benefits of Anonymous Browsing

Every website, search engine and app collects at least some of your data.

Though it’s easy to chuckle at the ridiculous questions members of congress ask tech titans such as Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, they’re on Capitol Hill for a reason. Most websites, including Facebook and Google, use trackers to log how you interact with them. Those trackers can even follow you across websites.

Companies use the data to better sell advertisement space, get a hold on their demographic or just see what features may be useful on their website. Of course, the collection is usually outlined in the privacy policy and you’re agreeing to the privacy policy by using the service.

It seems wholesome when put in that light. The line between simple audience research and malicious data mining is blurry, though. A viral story on Forbes, for example, shared how Target knew a young girl was pregnant before her father did.

Target’s automated system determined that the girl may be pregnant after she shopped online and purchased certain products. The company started sending advertisements to her home, where she lived with her father. Outraged, the father stomped down to Target, claiming its marketing team was encouraging his daughter to get pregnant. It turned out that she already was.

That type of data mining and profile attribution is underscored in the The New York Times article “How Companies Learn Your Secrets.” Marketers want the dirty details about you and they want to gather them without your knowledge. Privacy policies are hard to decipher, rife with legalese and designed to let organizations build as detailed a marketing profile about you as they want.

That’s a clear violation of privacy, but it’s not as egregious as the tracking the government does. In the U.S., the PRISM project caused a stir back in 2013, but no one has held the U.S. National Security Agency accountable in the years since. Some European countries have better privacy laws, but many are just as bad, if not worse.

Plus, it’s creepy. Even without the world of Philip K. Dick looming above, data collection and tracking is immoral and gross. To make matters worse, even your browser tracks more data than you may think.  

How Browsers Track You & Your Personal Information

cookie tracking
Cookies provide a mechanism for websites to remember information about a user and log their browsing history.

When we say “cookies,” we aren’t talking about the chocolate chip kind. On the web, cookies are meant to provide a mechanism for websites to remember information about a user and log their browsing history. For example, cookies are used to store your email address at login or remember certain attributes about when you last browsed the website.

First-party cookies, which are made and implemented by the website you’re browsing, are exclusive to the party that runs the website. That said, you’ll also find third-party cookies that track you across multiple pages. Usually, they are injected through ad networks.

For example, let’s say you go to a website that has Google AdSense ads in the sidebar. You then leave that website and go to one that sells audio equipment. That company sells advertisements to Google AdSense, so, for a week afterward, you see a sale from that company before every YouTube video you watch.

In a study by Prince University, researchers found that around 3,000 of the top 50,000 websites recorded every detail about your browsing history. That includes your name, contact info, credit card information, address, age and much more. If you want to know the details about what your browser sends, we recommend running a scan with Panopticlick.

Even without giving away personal information to third parties, you can be identified through browser fingerprinting. Your browser sends a lot of metadata with each request, including your operating system, browser plugins, screen resolution, language, platform, system fonts, time zone and more. Combined with your IP address, that can be used to determine where and who you are.

We ran a test with all privacy protection turned off for this guide. Panopticlick found that our browser fingerprint was unique among the 154,045 tests run during the prior 45 days.

Securing Your Browser

internet browser
Using a secure browser facilitates private browsing.

The first step toward online privacy is securing your browser. Though doing so won’t protect you from the spying done by the government and your ISP, it can protect you from malicious data collection when you visit websites around the web.

Block Browser Data

If you want to go easy mode, it’s worth it to ditch your browser and use a secure one, such as Brave (read our Brave review). However, Google Chrome is still the most secure browser out of the big three (though not the most private), and there are tools you can install to make it even more so.

The first tool is an ad and tracker blocker. You can read our guide to the best pop-up blockers for a full list, but we recommend uBlock Origin. It’s an open-source ad blocker that can be found in the Chrome, Firefox, Edge and Opera web stores. Though it does what it does well, uBlock Origin also shows the fewest number of privacy leaks out of top ad blockers.

ublock origin extension
uBlock Origin is capable of blocking ads, trackers and malware sites.

uBlock Origin isn’t the prettiest or easiest ad blocker to use, though. If you’re looking for more options, read our piece on 99 free tools to protect your privacy.

There are a few other extensions you can install besides an ad blocker. For example, Privacy Badger is a tool for blocking invisible trackers across websites. It was developed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation — the creator of Panopticlick — and sends a “do not track” signal whenever a cookie attempts to track you.

privacy badger download
Privacy Badger automatically blocks tracking from third-party advertisers.

EFF also provides HTTPS Everywhere, which forces websites to load encrypted pages. Many websites default to unencrypted HTTP pages or redirect requests to unsecure domains. HTTPS Everywhere changes the requests you’re sending to only load encrypted webpages. You can tell whether or not a website uses HTTPS by looking for the lock icon next to the URL.

https everywhere eff
HTTPS Everywhere loads web pages in HTTPS by default, where applicable.

There are a lot of privacy extensions, but most boil down to ad and tracker blocking. Experiment with different ones if you want and double-check if they’re working with Panopticlick. If you don’t want to go through the hassle, our recommendations should serve you well.

Hide Your Passwords

The most popular browsers have become more sophisticated as the number of accounts that users store with them has increased. That said, your browser’s built-in password manager is the worst thing you could be using. Though Safari’s integration with iCloud Keychain is better than Chrome’s password storage, a dedicated password manager is better than both.

Password managers let you store, organize and fill your passwords online. They provide convenient access to your account credentials and help you stay more secure online by avoiding cybercrime. Because you have a dedicated spot to store your passwords, you can use long, unique combinations for your accounts, making it much harder for a hacker to access them.

The best password managers store your information in encrypted form, too, so it’s next to impossible for a hacker to break in. Our top choice is Dashlane for its ease of use, superior password security and slew of features. You can learn more about it in our Dashlane review.

dashlane password health
Dashlane includes many security features along with its password manager.

If you don’t have the money, Bitwarden is the best free password manager. Bitwarden is an open source password manager based on a zero-knowledge security model, so not even Bitwarden itself can access your passwords.

Erase Your Search History

There are many reasons to delete your search history — we can think of at least one — but it’s an annoyance and can easily fall into the category of things you wish you did but never kept up with. Instead of doing it manually, the better option is to use a search engine that doesn’t keep your search history in the first place.

Search engines are among the most data-hungry services on the web, with Google being a particularly terrible offender. Privacy-focused search engines usually use Google, Yahoo and Bing to combine results and display them for you. Because they don’t collect your personal information, the results aren’t personalized, either.

duckduckgo about us
DuckDuckGo is a private browsing alternative to Google Search.

Perhaps the most famous privacy-focused search engine is DuckDuckGo. In addition to providing its services for free, DuckDuckGo is a strong defender of privacy and has donated over $1 million to various privacy organizations over its 11 years in business. You can make it the default search option in Safari and Firefox, but, unsurprisingly, Google has not integrated it.

How to Lock Down Your Browser

Complete online anonymity might not be any more possible than complete protection from car accidents while driving, but there’s still a lot you can do to protect your privacy online. Using a privacy-oriented browser instead of Chrome, Firefox or Safari is a good place to start.

We recommend browsing securely with Brave, which is a secure browser designed to protect your data from trackers, cookies and advertisements in an open-source Chromium-based client. That means it works just like Chrome and is compatible with most Chrome extensions in its vast library. Follow the steps below to get started.

  1. Access Brave’s Official Website

    Download and use Brave right away. You can select between several different platforms including Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android and Linux.

    brave browser website
  2. Download Brave & Launch BraveBrowserSetup.exe

    Click the “download” button in the middle of the page. The executable will install the browser on your device and will be ready to use within minutes.

    brave download

How to Change Your Default Search Engine to DuckDuckGo

Using a secure browser helps, but it isn’t enough to be anonymous online. Setting your default search engine to a service that won’t collect your personal information is another big improvement.

Using a secure browser helps, but it isn’t enough to be anonymous online. Setting your default search engine to a service that won’t collect your personal information is another big improvement. 

Brave won’t help you if you don’t practice good browsing habits while using the web, and using Google even in Brave will still subject you to Google’s aggressive data-scraping practices. We suggest changing your default search engine to DuckDuckGo. 

How to Download HTTPS Everywhere

Since most of Google Chrome’s extensions work with Brave, we suggest downloading HTTPS Everywhere so you can stick to encrypted websites only. Simply access the Google Play Store and download the extension for Brave as you would for Chrome.

  1. Go to the Chrome Web Store

    Using Brave doesn’t mean you have to give up Google’s library of extensions.

    brave chrome web store
  2. Search for HTTPS Everywhere

    HTTPS Everywhere is compatible with Chrome.

    brave https everywhere
  3. Add the Extension to Brave

    Click on “add to Brave.” You will be presented with a warning from Brave stating that Brave does not review extensions for security and safety. Click “add extension” to confirm.

Securing Your Social Media

If you want to be anonymous, you shouldn’t have social media. If you run a business or want to connect with friends and family, it’s a necessary evil, though. Most of the steps for securing social media are the same as securing your browser, so make sure you start there.

If you’re using a tracker-blocking plugin, you should be covered on social media. That said, those blockers don’t protect private information you willingly give away. Using social media doesn’t mean everything on your account needs to be accurate. Phony security answers, birth dates and addresses are good ways to throw a wrench in the data collection machine.

There’s a unique aspect to social media, though: external links. There’s a ton of — wave your hands with us — fake news on social media. Though the Zuckerbergs of the world are cracking down on it, you’ll still have to use your judgment to separate what’s real and what isn’t.

Thankfully, there are software tools that can help you do that. Windscribe, which is the best free VPN, includes a tool that allows you to check links before clicking them. It will show you information like the number of ads and trackers on the page, and give you an overall score for privacy. You can learn more about that in our Windscribe review.

windscribe home page
You can start off with Windscribe’s free version and then buy individual servers.

Securing Your Internet Connection

Now that your browser and social media are locked down, it’s time to secure the source. All the  browser extensions and tracker-blocking plugins in the world can’t protect the data that flows through your ISP — and with internet providers selling user browsing history, that’s a scary thought.

VPN vs Proxy Server vs Tor Browser

tor browser front page
You can access the Tor network through the official Tor Browser.

Many people think using proxy servers is the best way to secure your connection, usually because free ones are available. As explained in our VPN vs proxy servers vs Tor guide, a proxy server is best when used for low-risk web tasks where you want to mask your IP address. They’re a bad option, though, because they don’t provide encryption and can come with unintended consequences.

It’s a better idea to use a virtual private network (VPN). Virtual private networks secure your internet connection by encrypting the data you send and anonymizing it before moving the request to your ISP and the larger web. VPN security is a complex topic, but it’s the best way to secure your internet connection.

The third option for private browsing is to use the Tor network. Tor is a network of volunteer-operated proxies that send your traffic through several nodes before it reaches its destination. While the Tor Project purports that using Tor will make you anonymous online, that’s not quite the reality, and there are a lot of security risks involved.

Your traffic is unlikely to be matched with your identity as it passes through several nodes, but the security problem lies with the nodes themselves. Because they’re operated by volunteers, it’s impossible to know which ones are safe and which are set up by cybercriminals and intelligence agencies.

expressvpn home page
ExpressVPN is a more trustworthy software service for security than any proxy server.

The best VPN providers offer top-notch AES 256-bit encryption and strict no-logging policies. In short, instead of routing requests to your ISP’s DNS servers, the requests are sent to the VPN service for routing. Since no logs are kept there, you essentially become invisible when using the internet.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as choosing a VPN service that claims it keeps “no logs.” Providers such as HideMyAss and IPVanish claimed not to, and were later found to be lying in court. You can learn about those incidents in our HideMyAss review and IPVanish review.

The providers we rank highly have proven that they don’t keep logs, though. Our top pick is ExpressVPN for its ease of use, security and strong stance on privacy. You can learn more about it in our ExpressVPN review.

How to Set up a Virtual Private Network

expressvpn server locations
ExpressVPN gives you access to more than 3,000 servers around the world.

It may seem intimidating to configure a VPN if it’s your first time, but user-friendly VPNs such as ExpressVPN couldn’t be easier to use. To set up an encrypted and logless connection to the internet, just follow these steps.

  1. Go to the ExpressVPN Website and Sign Up

    ExpressVPN offers monthly, six-month and 12-month plans to choose from, and they all come with a 30-day money-back guarantee.

    expressvpn price plans new customer discount
    ExpressVPN offers a special discount for new customers.
  2. Sign in and Download the Client for Your Preferred Device

    ExpressVPN supports all major devices including Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android and Linux systems.

  3. Launch ExpressVPN

    Press the “connect” button in the middle of the screen to get started. The client will automatically connect to the fastest available server.

  4. Privately Browse the Internet

    Your connection is now encrypted and routed through the VPN’s own servers. Now you won’t have to worry about your internet service provider monitoring everything you do online.

Final Thoughts: Anonymous Browsing 

Though using the internet is going to compromise your anonymity, you can take steps to secure most of your personal data. The most offensive practices are cross-website cookie tracking and data collection by ISPs and government agencies. Thankfully, you can fight against both.

Ad and tracker blockers will take you some of the way, but a VPN is an essential tool for online privacy. It protects everything at the source, so you won’t have to worry about requests slipping through the cracks and exposing your online identity.

What steps are you taking to protect your browsing? Are you using privacy alternatives to major services? Or are you limiting your use of the internet entirely? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.