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Browsing Anonymously: Is It Really Anonymous?

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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.

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

What’s The Difference Between a Proxy and a VPN?

What’s The Difference Between a Proxy and a VPN?

The Internet can be a scary place: we’re under near constant attack from ransomware and botnets – on work computers, personal devices, even smart home devices like thermostats and baby monitors.

If you’re security conscious, you might be thinking about setting up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or a proxy server.

Proxy and VPN Defined

Both VPNs and proxies enable a higher degree of privacy than you might otherwise have, allowing you to access the internet anonymously by hiding your IP in various ways. But how they do that is quite different.

A proxy acts as a gateway – it’s ideal for basic functions like anonymous web browsing and managing (or circumventing) content restrictions. Proxy servers excel at IP masking and misdirection, making them good for viewing geographically limited content. They allow users to bypass content restrictions and monitoring, or enforce website content restrictions – so that you can’t log into certain web pages on company time.

proxy vs vpn

A VPN client on your computer establishes a secure tunnel with the VPN server, replacing your local ISP routing. VPN connections encrypt and secure all of your network traffic, not just the HTTP or SOCKS calls from your browser like a proxy server.

VPNs are great when you need to use the WIFI at a local coffee shop: using a VPN instead of the potentially completely unencrypted local WIFI adds another layer of privacy – who knows who is lurking on that network, just sitting in the corner sipping coffee and waiting to steal your credit card digits?

Proxy and VPN Drawbacks

If you’re using proxy servers to mask your internet activity, you might see performance issues that prevent you from streaming or downloading the thing you are trying to get. High ping times and other traffic on the proxy server can cause web pages to load slowly. For this reason, some users pay for a private proxy server which limits the number of users that access it, speeding up your connections.

Proxies are also vulnerable to security exploits: they can be open to attack, allowing the bad guys to infiltrate networks or steal private data. Some proxies can still track (and store) your browsing habits, as well as recording usernames and passwords – rendering that promise of anonymity null.

VPNs can also suffer from performance issues, depending on proximity to the VPN server you’re connecting with. VPNs use a local client to create the connection to the VPN server, so any local CPU or memory issues will slow down the connections. VPNs are typically more expensive to use (and maintain) than a proxy server, and they are often more complex to manage.

Just like proxy servers, VPNs can’t guarantee anonymity while browsing. Neither of these services will always encrypt your traffic all the way to the web server. A VPN only guarantees an end-to-end encrypted connection if you use the HTTPS protocol when you go to a new web address. Your data will be encrypted to the VPN, but from that point on, it could be unencrypted to the web server. For some sites, this may be irrelevant: an information-only webpage with no login or payment options for example, but for any sites that require a login or online payments – or any sensitive data – make sure the website is enabled to use HTTPS. Remember, the S stands for moderately more secure.

Proxy and VPN Benefits

The biggest argument to use a VPN instead of a proxy is the total encryption for all traffic you get with the VPN. Dollar for dollar, a VPN is more secure than a similarly priced proxy. VPN providers maintain their own networks and you use their IP addresses for your connections. The top VPN providers advertise a logless policy, which means they don’t have data to provide to anyone about your browsing habits.

If you’re an IT business owner charged with the security of data and users, there are advantages to both, and you likely have both configured for your company. For users in the network, you might route traffic through a proxy server to log web traffic, protect the organization from malware or other attacks, and enforce a web content policy.

When users are operating out of the office, you will want to use a VPN to create a secure connection to access the company resources (email, internal shares, etc.).

Proxy vs VPN: Which is Right for me?

Privacy and security matter these days, regardless of if it’s your company data or your own personal data you need to protect. Make sure you’re investing time and money into the correct tools for your security goals: both proxies and VPNs add an additional layer of security and privacy to your data.

If you want to enable your team to work remotely with secure access to the company resources, set up and maintain a VPN users to access the network with the VPN.

If your concerns are more around “what websites are my users hitting,” a proxy server is a better tool.

To get the most bang for the buck (and to protect your data as a security-aware citizen), sign up for a well-regarded VPN service. For the most part, VPN services allow you to use servers in different locations to work around content restrictions. If you need to use a free proxy server occasionally for that purpose as well, just be aware of the risks.

If you’re just starting to implement your data security strategy on an enterprise level, there are more complex attack vectors to account for. Insider threats, APTs, privileged account escalations – along with plain old social engineering – are just as dangerous to your data as an unencrypted data stream.

Neither a proxy nor a VPN will protect you from 100% of the cybersecurity threats your company will encounter: they won’t stop an insider from stealing personal data, a ransomware attack, or a coordinated infiltration effort.

Varonis Edge adds perimeter telemetry to security analytics – monitoring proxy, VPN, and DNS to help bridge that gap: you’ll be able to see when an attacker breaks through a VPN, get alerts when sensitive data is uploaded to external websites, more. See how it works with a 1:1 demo – and discover how Varonis helps secure your data from perimeter attacks.