Browsing Anonymously: Is It Really Anonymous?

What can tools like private browsing and VPNs really deliver in terms of privacy? See for yourself as we take a deep dive into popular privacy tools
Michael Buckbee
5 min read
Last updated June 16, 2023

Privacy is top of mind for many people these days. Unclear privacy policies, rampant data collection and high-profile data breaches can lead us to second guess our information’s safety — even when it’s guarded by respected institutions. In fact, Americans reportedly trust credit card companies more than the federal government to protect their personal information. To combat this uncertainty, security experts commonly recommend using virtual private networks (VPNs) and secure browsers to keep your browsing history and personal information off the grid. The reality, however, is that these solutions can’t completely keep your activity private and safe.

Take a look below for a quick guide that explains what is seen and what stays hidden when you’re using different privacy tools.

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privacy tool quick guide

Private browsing, for example, deletes your browsing history and other details from your computer, but does not delete information collected and stored on anything outside of your computer. This means that your employer can see what you were doing at work even if you were in private browsing mode.

So, what exactly can we keep private? In reality, not much. We took a look at these different solutions to see just how private your information is and what you can do  proactively to keep your information secure.

Private Browsing

Most popular browsers like Chrome and Firefox have a form of Incognito or private browsing that most people believe is a form of anonymous browsing. This is partially true since these sessions delete things like browsing history and cookies at the end of your session. However, this information is only deleted from your computer and not any other place it may exist.

Private Browsing Benefits and Uses

Private browsing is a great option when you’re trying to hide your activity from others who use that computer. For example, private browsing is a big help when you’re searching for a retirement present for your boss and he suddenly needs to search for something on your computer. Since your history was deleted, he won’t see any targeted ads for golf clubs in your (nonexistent) search history. Private browsing is also great for logging into accounts on someone else’s computer without logging them out of their accounts.

Private Browsing Drawbacks

A significant drawback of private browsing is that data is only deleted from your computer. Private browsers cannot delete records saved on anything outside of your computer, including your ISP, a website’s server and any connected networks you used to access the site. Private browsing also does not protect you from malware or any other threats on the internet.

private browsing information

Virtual Private Network (VPN)

VPNs create a secure connection or “tunnel” to the internet with the VPN server acting as an intermediary between you and the web. This contributes to some anonymity since your IP address appears as the VPN’s instead of your address and masks your address. VPNs and proxy servers share some similarities and have comparable features like hiding your IP address, but both have vital differences. One major distinction is that VPNs encrypt all traffic that comes through whereas proxy servers only encrypt web requests from your browser.

VPN Benefits and Uses

VPNs are great tools to elevate your security and offer benefits where proxies and other solutions fall short. They’re great when traveling or working remotely since they let you connect safely to public WiFi. VPNs also allow you to access work or home network without connecting to the internet.

VPN Drawbacks

VPNs are prone to drops in speed and performance depending on the user’s proximity to the VPN and the amount of available memory on the CPU. They’re also generally more expensive to use and maintain than other solutions on this list.

Something to keep in mind is that VPNs are not impenetrable and not created equal. Depending on the VPN service you’re using, it may keep a log of your activity for varying periods of time. This information can be subpoenaed and turned over if requested. Connection speeds and encryption strength also depend on your VPN service. Savvy hackers and country-specific regulations impact a VPNs performance.

Although a VPN is a powerful tool that aids in your privacy and safety, it’s only a strong layer of protection that impedes malicious users and bots from accessing your data.

VPN function and privacy overview

Proxy Server

Proxy servers act as a gateway between you and the internet. To do this, your information and requests are first sent to the proxy server. Then, the proxy makes the web request on your behalf, collects the response and forwards you the web page data.

Proxy Server Benefits and Uses

These servers offer a handful of security and management benefits. Depending on the type of proxy server, you can hide or change your IP address, making it difficult to track your activity. Some proxies encrypt your web requests to further anonymize your data. Proxy servers also allow you to control internet usage on your network. For example, a proxy server can block access to social media sites to stop employees from checking their accounts. You can also block compromised or malicious sites to avoid any potential threats.

Proxy Server Drawbacks

There are many different types of proxy servers that offer different levels of security, anonymity and encryption. Make sure to check what type of proxy server your using, what exactly it does and what information it logs. Transparent proxies, for example, block sites but do not hide your IP address. Use free proxy servers with caution since these are more prone to performance and security issues. For instance, some proxy servers log your original IP address and web requests without encrypting the information.

proxy server explanation and privacy overview

Secure Browsers

Secure browsers routes web traffic through their network to anonymize the information. Different browsers use different methods. For instance, TOR uses the “onion” method that bounces traffic through one of their entry nodes, a random middle really and exit node.

Secure Browsers Benefits and Uses

The most overt benefit of using a secure browser is its heightened anonymity and security. The information passed through secure browsers makes it extremely difficult for someone connect information to an identity. Take a look at how exactly each browser does this to find the one that best fits your needs.

Secure Browsers Drawbacks

Due to its anonymity, some countries and web services block private web browsing. It makes it easy for journalists to report on corruption and for people to organize without the watchful eye of the government or regime. Secure browsers are also generally slower than mainstream browsers because they usually bounce traffic through computers across the world to make it difficult to find your original location and IP address.

secure browsers privacy and function information

Private Search Engine

Private search engines are alternatives to Google and Bing that do not track or store information about you. Each search engine has its own set of tools and benefits to make searching more secure.

Private Search Engine Benefits and Uses

These services are great for researching information without falling into a “filter bubble” and letting your past search history impact your results. They’re also ideal for stopping advertisers and others from tracking your search history. Some features that vary from browser to browser include end-to-end encryption for secure searches and the use of semantic searches using artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Private Search Engine Drawbacks

A minor disadvantage to private search engines is that your desired results might not pop up in the first search. Since these search engines deliver non-localized results, it can stir up slight frustration when you’re trying to search for a paper supplier close to your company’s headquarters. A lack of functionalities like image search and news search can also impede your search efficiency and require a few more clicks to get you to your answer.

Another thing to note is that these search engines may still leave history in your browser and computer. Even though they are not tracking or storing information on their own servers, some search engines still leave a trail of search history in your browser.

Every tool has its own set of strengths and weaknesses when it comes to security. The key is learning what these strengths and weaknesses are and how they apply to your web browsing. One way to overcome some weaknesses is by combining tools (like using a secure browser on a VPN). Follow these steps below to get started on protecting your information.

private search engine function overview and privacy information

  • Read all of the privacy policies you’ve agreed to from beginning to end and opt-out when necessary.
  • Change your privacy settings for each browser you use and account you have on the internet.
  • Implement any of the above technology solutions that’s relevant to you.

The most important takeaway is that it’s nearly impossible to be completely anonymous online. The best that we can do is take a proactive approach to cybersecurity. Implementing these tips and using the best cybersecurity solutions can equip you with the right tools to keep your information highly secure. To take your learning one step further, check out our internet security basics course to take your security to the next level.

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Consumer Reports | IT Pro | PC Mag | TechRadar | How-To Geek | thebestvpn | CSO Online | TechWorld | Hackernoon | Comparitech | Hongkiat | Spread Privacy | Choose to Encrypt

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