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Using a Proxy to Browse the Web “Anonymously”

By using a web proxy, you place a separate Internet server (with a separate IP address) between you and the websites you visit. If the proxy is functioning properly, the site receiving your web page request will detect the IP address of the proxy rather than your device’s true IP address.

How a Proxy Hides Your IP Address

Think of a proxy as a middle man. The IP address of the proxy server will be reported to the sites you visit, rather than your own. This means that the earlier techniques based on IP addresses will track the proxy server’s information and not yours. Instead of the IP address being traced directly back to you, the intervention of a proxy server means that anyone trying to determine your identity will need to obtain the logs from both the visited site and the proxy server, which is not an easy task. A proxy server makes it more difficult to pinpoint you from web browsing activities.

“Anonymous” ≠ Anonymous

Note that using a proxy does not make you completely anonymous. Many proxy services claim that they provide comprehensive anonymity but this is not necessarily the case. Your average web proxy (especially a free one) isn’t 100% anonymous. Yes, it may hide your IP address from the websites you visit and may unblock certain websites, but not much more. Your ISP will still be able to determine which websites you visit and, through your ISP, anyone else from government, adversaries or other snoops would be able to get the same information.

Further, the administrator of the proxy can see who you are and everything you are routing through the proxy. This administrator can even substitute websites or inject advertising or malware into your online session. In some cases, anonymous proxies are just a quick and easy fix to unblock websites, but not to keep your web browsing activities truly 100% private.

You should also remember that the proxy only protects your IP address from the web page you visit. An eavesdropper (such as your ISP or a snoop) on the communication channel between you and the proxy may remain able to see your web browsing activities. Also note that some websites, especially some webmail services, gaming sites and video streaming, may not work through a web proxy at all.

Given all the disadvantages inherent in using a web proxy, consider using a virtual private network or VPN for short. A VPN lets you anonymously connect to websites without even your ISP being able to determine your activities because the VPN also establishes an encrypted tunnel in which your Internet traffic is protected. Your ISP or any other potential eavesdropper on your connection will only be able to see an encrypted stream of data between you and the VPN service provider. Because the VPN is also a proxy, it is the VPN’s IP address and not yours that ends up being transmitted.

Web proxies can still be a good solution as they are easy to use and usually free. Sometimes the ‘cheap and cheerful’ option a web proxy represents is enough, but they shouldn’t be used for super-sensitive activities.

Generally, web proxies come in two varieties: a simple web form in which you enter the URL you wish to visit (similar to entering a website in your browser bar) or a proxy server address you enter into your web browser app’s settings. Let’s address each variety in turn.

Top Tip – Keep in mind that if somebody has the resources and is motivated enough to find the visitor of a web page or website hiding behind a web proxy, they probably can.

Easy-to-Use Web Form Proxies

Web form proxies are easy to use because, similar to using your web browser itself, you only need to type in the URL of the site you want to visit. The convenience also means that you usually have little or no control over the settings. In addition, as always when relying on a third party, you need to trust that the provider is doing what they say (not monitoring your activity or trying to exploit your connection).

Some web form proxies not only shield your IP address from disclosure but also hide the URLs you are visiting by scrambling the name of the destination site. This means that if your activity is being monitored, any logs being recorded (for example, by your ISP, by your employer if using the proxy from work or by a snoop) will display a different address than the site you actually visited. For example, instead of the logs recording that your browser visited www.cogipas.com, it might look like you visited www.example.com/3d3vZ2lXMuY29t.

But understand that even when URLs are scrambled, anyone following the link will see the destination page that you visited so don’t rely on one of these proxies as a foolproof way to visit sensitive websites or to bypass censorship filters at work or elsewhere.

Top Tip – Ideally, try to use web form proxies that utilize secure SSL connections starting with HTTPS (note the ‘s’ on the end), but these are more difficult to find, especially for free.

Finding an Open (Public) Web Proxy to Use

As you saw above, using a web-formed based proxy is easy. However, a more robust solution is to use a public web proxy. To use one of these proxies you will have to enter some information into the settings of your web browser app. There are many public proxies available. Some are operated by privacy enthusiasts for the benefit of the wider community and others have been made available to the public by accident. For these reasons, public web proxies tend to come and go. But they are easy to find and to enter into your web browser app’s settings.

A number of websites maintain lists of available public web proxies, including those listed below. You can also perform a search in your favorite search engine for “anonymous web proxies” or “open proxies”.

Once you have found a suitable web proxy, you will need to set it up in your web browser app.

Setting Up a Web Proxy in Your Browser

The steps for setting up a web proxy in your web browser app are easy and similar for most browsers. The key is to look for proxy settings which are usually part of your web browser’s connection settings.

In Chrome, make the following selections: the main Customize and control menu button (the three horizontal lines, ≡) > Settings > Show Advanced Settings > under the Network heading select Change proxy settings… > LAN settings > under the Proxy service heading enter the required information (see screenshot). The port setting for web proxies is usually port 8080, but the instructions will tell you which port to use.

Setting Up a Web Proxy in Your BrowserFigure: Entering the web proxy details in your browser (Chrome shown)

Top Tip – Note that a web proxy may support different protocols. Pay close attention to the proxy’s instructions and use the proxy for as many protocols as you can. For example, most web proxies, and especially free ones, will not support the HTTPS protocol (note the ‘s’ on the end) which uses port 443. Recall that this is the protocol used by your web browsing app to connect to secure pages (such as for credit card transactions).

Always Test the Proxy

Whatever type of proxy you use, you should always check to make sure that it is working properly. You can do this by visiting testing sites (see our list at http://www.cogipas.com/whats-my-ip/).

To test a web-form based proxy, type into it the address of the testing site and see what is displayed. To test an open web proxy, enable it and then visit one of the testing sites. In either case, if a test shows the proxy’s location and IP address rather than yours, the proxy is working correctly. You should always check the proxy at the start of any web browsing activities you wish to mask as the proxy could be down, temporarily disabled or not working for a host of other reasons.

Using a Premium Web Proxy Service or VPN

The web proxies discussed so far have been free ones. There are also premium (paid) proxy services (and VPNs) that are much faster and far more reliable. Some are similar to open proxies whereby you enter the technical details into your web browser app’s settings, but may also require a username and/or a password. Other premium proxies and VPNs provide you with an app which you download and install on your device to mask your web browser’s activity. The end result is the same: your true IP address is hidden. VPNs will also encrypt your traffic, protecting it from being monitored even by your ISP.

If a premium proxy or VPN appeals to you, you should choose a reliable service and this is not always easy to determine. Don’t think that just because you are paying for a service it is trustworthy.

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