Opinion: How to be truly anonymous in the digital world

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Opinion: How to be truly anonymous in the digital world


Bans, deplatforming and censorship have ramped up in the past few months. So have cybersecurity attacks.

Companies including Twitter
TWTR,
-2.02%
,
Alphabet’s
GOOG,
-1.47%

YouTube and Apple
AAPL,
-3.74%

have taken aim at agitators, journalists and heads of state. Meanwhile, hackers are getting more sophisticated, especially as massive stores of information can be found online.

Regardless of your political affinity, bans are a kind of public persecution that can be troubling because they undermine freedom of speech, the rule of law and democracy. Cancel culture is on the rise, and social media giants are its main enforcers.

In the increasingly digital world, coordinated efforts carried out by corporations, not by governments, result in what amounts to a digital execution. This corporate overreach, because it’s politicized, won’t diminish overnight. It will likely become greater and more oppressive.

Apart from bans and deplatforming, privacy is more important than ever. Reducing the amount of information that can be used against you is something everyone should consider.

Although not a fool-proof guide, this article should provide enough information on how to achieve reasonable anonymity and privacy. Some of the suggestions may make sense for you. None of this is illegal or unethical.

First, you need to understand how you can get compromised in the first place.

Digital ID

When you sign up for an online service, you provide personal information. In time, these data accumulate and create your digital identity. Once this information has been logged and blacklisted, individuals with matching digital ID datasets could find that they have been kicked off services they were registered with and banned from creating accounts for new services. This is because many companies share and trade personal data, and lists of who they consider troublesome or “unfit” individuals.

Rather than a helpful identifier, personal data have become a risk and a liability. To be immune to these malicious attacks (or at least able to mitigate the damage caused by digital ostracism), use anonymization to hide your digital identity while still enjoying access to services.

Double identity

The first step is to separate your communication into two identity sets: public and secret. The first is for mundane and conventional communication and activities, such as online shopping or discussing the latest episode of one’s favorite show; the second should be used strictly for voicing your opinion on sensitive matters.

You’ve most likely shared a great amount of personal data, so all you need to do now is to create the secret identity. The difference between the two is simple: A secret identity cannot be traced to your real-world persona, while the opposite is true for the public one.

To create a secret identity, go further than simply creating new profiles on different platforms. In fact, using certain services and platforms guarantees that both service providers and government entities will share your communication if certain conditions are met.

While flying under the radar, you should steer clear from
these kinds of services and focus on more reliable, privacy-oriented providers
whenever possible.

Whonix

Windows is known for collecting data and sending it to Microsoft, and macOS isn’t a lot better. If you want privacy and anonymity, you should use an operating system built for the purpose. Enter Whonix.

Whonix is a fancy name for a fully operational system that runs inside your current one (called “host operating system”). It consists of a robust anonymization suite and a set of tools that plug the most holes through which your activity may be observed by a third party.

Your secret online persona should use Whonix, while you can continue to use your regular operating system for public activities. A word of warning: Make sure you read and understand the installation guide and especially tips on remaining anonymous to make the most of this operating system. Finally, if you’re more tech-savvy, it would be best if you could install Whonix on a disposable USB drive — a 32GB thumb drive would do just fine. Here is a handy guide if you feel up to the task.

Tor browser

Now that you have a robust operating system, the next thing you need is a browser capable of keeping your browsing history and activity hidden from surveillance. Tor is one such browser. It comes pre-installed in your Whonix package, so there is no need for additional downloads or installation.

While browsing using your secret identity, you should exclusively use Tor. It protects you by making your personally identifiable data seem the same as data of any other Tor user, which helps you “hide in the crowd.” Tor encrypts traffic using a layering scheme. It also actively cleans your cookies once you’re done browsing, so third-party trackers can’t follow you.

There are many other privacy-related features that Tor has in its arsenal, but for our purposes it’s only necessary to remember this: It needs to be your browser of choice for all your Whonix-based endeavors.

Finally, remember that no tool is perfect. There are bugs and special use cases.

Privacy-oriented email providers

Consider privacy-oriented email providers. One such provider is Riseup, but creating an account could prove difficult since it’s only possible via an invitation from another Riseup user. However, there is a Reddit list of email providers that are big on anonymity, security and privacy. Make sure you select a provider that features email access via Tor (this list).

Anonymous accounts

Most social media networks require that you provide a phone number before creating an account. Needless to say, you should not, under any circumstances, provide personally identifiable information.

The same goes for your phone. You should buy a disposable handset at a location far removed from where you live, pay for it with cash (no credit cards), and make sure you don’t activate it or use it in your home as this can be used to track the phone back to you. Do not use this phone for anything else than creating accounts for services you intend to use and then get rid of the phone. Do not give it to anyone else.

This will allow you to create accounts on Clearnet-based services that you can use to communicate without fear of identification. Note that this does not protect the accounts from being swiftly erased by service providers.

Dark web

Sometimes you may want to reach out to other like-minded individuals without fear of censorship or having your accounts constantly deleted or shadow-banned by “diligent” service providers. Enter the dark web — not to be confused with deep web, of which it is a part.

The dark web describes the encrypted online content that is not indexed by conventional search engines and is only accessible via special browsers such as Tor (which comes with your installation of Whonix). Although the dark web has a bad rap for being a hotbed of shady activities, you can also find a lot of legitimate and rather useful content available via its proprietary “.onion” links.

Once you install Tor on your Whonix, your first step is to locate a search engine — I suggest you go with Duck Duck Go (Tor-only link to DuckDuckGo: https://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion/). Unlike Google, this search engine does not track your searches, nor does it collect or share your personal information.

Having said that, you can switch from Google to Duck Duck Go in your Clearnet endeavors as well.

A few guidelines before you start searching for content: Do not click every link you run into. The dark web can be a dark place for the uninitiated. You will run into websites that sell drugs, weapons, hitmen for hire, illegal pornographic material and worse.

However, if you know where to look, you can find a wealth of interesting and useful websites — from those dedicated to whistleblowers to scientific paper databases and bastions of independent journalism.

There are also image boards, chatrooms and forums where like-minded individuals can coordinate and discuss topics of the day, ranging from religion to science to literature. The dark web is a tool like any other, and it’s up to you to use it responsibly and enrich it with valuable content that needs to be shared and promoted. Finally, make sure to follow all of the precautions listed on the links above before you start browsing.

Social engineering

So far, I told you how to stay safe by implementing technical measures. However, you also need to understand that you can be uncovered by divulging personal information.

By this, I don’t mean just using your real name or publishing your Clearnet email address, but other, seemingly inconspicuous data — using slang that can be traced to a certain region, having a recognizable style and speed of typing, sharing information about your partner or children or commenting on local news.

On its own, such data are pretty harmless, but combined with other digital fingerprinting techniques can result in reasonably accurate profile that can shatter anonymity as details accumulate. To circumvent this, make sure to vary your typing speed, insert random typos in your discourse, be sure to discuss different topics when you comment on news, mixing in comments about stories concerning locations far removed from your physical location, and never, ever discuss your family members.

Finally, avoid trusting strangers — this one should be a must in your daily life, and it’s even more important in an online environment. These are just some of the ways you can be safer. Still, absolute safety and anonymity are not possible.

I hope this guide has provided at least a glimpse into what may turn out to be a necessity for some of us. If you have any questions or comments, leave them below.



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