What is it like to be anonymous?

Instructions: Real private mode for the browser

Roland Freest

When it comes to anonymity on the Internet, the "porn mode" doesn't help. However, there are ways and means of disguising the web addresses visited and actually browsing the Internet anonymously.

EnlargeThis is how you surf the Internet absolutely anonymously
© Saxarinka / Shutterstock.com

Every browser today provides a function for protecting privacy on the Internet. In Google Chrome it is called “incognito window”, in Firefox “private window”, Microsoft offers the “Inprivate window” in Edge. It used to be known as porn mode.

The function is used to disguise the web addresses visited, for example to hide from the employer what the computer was used for. In incognito mode, the web addresses accessed and the data entered in forms are not saved. In addition, all cookies received are deleted when you exit the incognito window. In practice this means: When other people are sitting at your computer, they cannot see which pages you have visited.

Many users believe that incognito mode also enables anonymous surfing. However, there can be no question of that. If you are connected to a company network, for example, the administrator can easily determine from the log files on his servers which IP addresses were accessed by your PC, regardless of whether this was done in incognito or normal browser mode. Your provider can also track your forays through the Internet at any time. In addition, it is always possible for the websites you visit to see where you came from, because the cookies are only deleted when you close the browser tab for private mode.

And: If you add a web address to your bookmarks or favorites, this entry is retained even after you exit incognito mode. The same goes for downloading files.

There are ways and means to actually roam the Internet undetected - as presented below. However, incognito mode is not one of them.

Surf anonymously at work

EnlargeAll major browsers offer a mode for blurring the traces of the Internet on your own PC. In Google's Chrome browser, it is called “incognito window”.

In a professional corporate network, the administrator has complete control over the connected devices and can determine at any time who has connected to which website and when. To bypass this monitoring, you have the option of either changing the hardware or the network - or both.

The easiest and safest way to do this is to use your smartphone. Switch off the WLAN function so that you can access the Internet via the cellular network. Now you can surf the web and write e-mails without hesitation: The connection data only end up with the provider, who is only allowed to provide them to authorities. And even for this there have been high hurdles since a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court in July 2020. The data queries are only permitted if there is an initial suspicion that a serious crime such as the formation of a terrorist group is being committed. Second, it is often possible to change networks. In all federal states there are now free Wi-Fi hotspots in the larger cities and at many tourist attractions.

Municipalities and federal states can use EU funding programs for this purpose; You can find a map and a list of the locations at www.europakarte.org/wlan/deutschland. At the same time, the Freifunk initiative has also set up a network with thousands of WLAN access points and also provides free internet access there to non-members. A map is available at www.freifunk-karte.de. Many of these Internet connections are secured against eavesdropping by VPN, the log files are on servers abroad. In addition, many hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and most train stations also offer free WiFi.

EnlargeAt www.europakarte.org/wlan/deutschland you will find a map and a list of free Wi-Fi hotspots including addresses, sorted by federal state and city.

If you work in the company on a notebook or a PC with a WLAN module and are within range of such a network, simply switch to: Click with the left mouse button on the WLAN symbol in the systray, mark the desired WLAN and click Click on "Connect". It is usually not necessary to enter a password; in some cases, you still have to confirm the terms of use with one click. If you now use the incognito mode of the browser, no traces of your private Internet visits will be left on your PC. However, remember that with a WLAN without password protection, the data between the PC and router flows unencrypted and other people could theoretically read it.

Third, you can also use your smartphone's cellular connection with your computer to access the Internet. The function is called tethering and is supported by all Android models. You can find it in the “Settings” under “Network & Internet -› Hotspot and Tethering ”. There you choose whether you want to establish the connection between PC and smartphone via WLAN, via a USB cable or via Bluetooth, with Android 11 there is also an Ethernet option. The easiest and most inconspicuous is the USB connection. Connect the smartphone to the PC using a USB cable and activate "USB tethering". Windows will now display a newly recognized network connection, which you can select with a click. If no notification appears, click on the network symbol in the systray and look for a connection with a name such as "Network 1".

EnlargeThe Freifunk initiative has set up an international network with WLAN access points that can be used free of charge. The overview map also shows the current number of connected clients for each WLAN.

Disguise visited websites

Another case is when your employer allows private surfing at work, but you want to prevent the administrator from tracking your forays through the Internet based on the IP addresses. You can of course also use the methods described below in order to remain anonymous with your private connection on the Internet.

A simple solution is to use a proxy server. In the past, these servers were used as a kind of cache and often held websites that were accessed locally. Today they are usually used to disguise your own IP address and / or the location from the page you are visiting. If you use a proxy server, the administrator only sees that you are navigating to its IP address, but not what happens afterwards.

Usually you set the proxy server centrally in Windows. Open the "Settings" in the start menu, go to "Network and Internet" and click on "Proxy". Under “Manual proxy setup”, set the switch for “Use proxy server” to “On” and enter the IP address and port of the server. Place a check mark in front of “Do not use proxy server for local addresses (intranet)” and confirm with “Save”.

On the Internet you will find hundreds of free proxy servers that you can access, as well as dozens of regularly updated directories for these servers, which include the IP address, the port used and the current speed. Examples are: https://hidemy.name/de/proxy-list or https://de.proxyservers.pro.

Fingerprinting - the alternative to cookies

Websites recognize returning visitors by cookies, small files that they save on the computer the first time they visit. However, since cookies can be easily deleted and many users simply refuse to accept them, the website operators have developed other methods of identification.

Fingerprinting systematically analyzes the information transmitted by your computer and stores it in a digital profile. A distinction is made between browser, device and canvas fingerprinting.

With browser fingerprinting, the websites visited combine information about the browser used, the version, the installed plug-ins, the language, screen resolution, time zone and other configuration options in a profile. All this information is voluntarily transmitted by the browser to the website so that the pages are optimally displayed.

The device fingerprinting also evaluates information about the operating system, the installed fonts, the IP and MAC address of the network adapter, the battery status and the location.