Feature

Top 5 tools to protect internet privacy

JD Sartain August 09, 2017

How virtual private networks (VPNs), proxy services, and onion routers help block ISPs (and search engines) from harvesting user data — and which of these internet privacy tools to choose.

Years ago when Google, Bing, Yahoo, Facebook, Amazon, and hundreds of other organizations began harvesting and monetizing user data, the public outcry resulted in a multitude of internet privacy protection products and services. And with our government deciding to allow internet service providers (ISPs) to engage in that same abuse, users have more options for privacy protection products and services than ever before. There are, literally, hundreds of options available. These are the top five internet privacy solutions, in our view, plus the five "runners up" (below).

Onion routing & combo technologies

1. TOR, the Onion Router , is an open source product/service (which means it's free) that's been around since the mid 1990s. It was originally developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to protect U.S. intelligence communications online. It became the largest, most popular onion routing product/service—called the TOR Project in 2006—and includes the TOR Browser and TOR software.

According to Joshua Gay, TOR Communications Director, TOR protects users against a common form of internet surveillance known as traffic analysis , which is used to infer who is talking to whom over a public network. Knowing the source and destination of your internet traffic allows others to track your behavior and interests. TOR is for web browsers, instant messaging clients, and more. The TOR Browser is a cross-platform, free browser that connects to the TOR network without additional software.

"The TOR software protects you by bouncing your communications around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world," says Gay. "It prevents everybody from watching your internet connection (including your ISP), from learning what sites you visit, and prevents those sites that you visit from learning your physical location and your actual IP address."

2. I2P , founded in 2003, is a free, open source, worldwide privacy network for secure communications, which travel through tunnels identified by I2P addresses (created by both sender and recipient). Like HTTPS and other privacy programs, I2P uses end-to-end encryption to hide the content of your communications from ISPs. It also uses layered encryption over several hops in each tunnel (aka, onion routing) to hide the metadata. Other applications can be layered on top that provide additional metadata defense, such as the email-like messaging apps, according to Jack Grigg, one of the current developers.

"A key feature of I2P is that the end-to-end nature is built-in," explains Grigg. "Proxies, VPNs, and TOR exit nodes all require you to trust the egress point (the point where your data leaves their network to traverse the regular internet). These points act like remote ISPs ; that is, they can see as much of your content and metadata as your ISP could before and—in the case of proxies and VPNs—can trivially link this information to your IP address (which is why it's important that VPNs don’t keep their logs). I2P is not designed as a proxy and, therefore, doesn’t have these trusted points. The only computer that can see your content and metadata is the one you are intentionally sending it to. The downside is that regular websites are not instantly accessible because services need to create an I2P address for their website. The upside is that, usually, this is very easy to do, so ask them!"

Virtual private networks (VPNs)

3. Private Tunnel is a consumer and small business VPN product of OpenVPN Technologies. CEO and co-Founder, Francis Dinha, explains that it masks users' public IP addresses, so they can surf the web anonymously, and shield their networks against cyber-attacks and stalkers. Private Tunnel is integrated with OpenDNS and other anti-malware technologies that enhance the web browsing experience and help users avoid accessing malicious web pages. There are four pricing levels: From Basic service, which is free, to Unlimited service, which is $29.99 a year.

"We literally prevent ISPs from having access to your private information," says Dinha. "All they see, if you're connected to one of our worldwide servers, is an encrypted, jumbled mess. And there's nothing they can do to crack that code. You're essentially locking them out, while you surf the net in total privacy."

"Finding the right VPN can be a challenge because there are so many options," adds Dinha. "Our clients use Private Tunnel to circumvent geo restricted content and to add an additional layer of privacy, protection, and security when using the internet. And, because it does not log browsing activity transmitted through VPN tunnels, users are protected."

4. NordVPN is a tool used to ensure that all information shared over the internet is encrypted and private. It encrypts user data through a secure tunnel before accessing the internet, which protects sensitive information about one’s location by hiding his/her IP address. The only information visible to the ISP is the user's connection to a VPN server, and nothing else. All other information is encrypted by the VPN’s security protocol. There are three pricing levels: $69.00 for a one year commitment ($5.75 a month); $42.00 for a six-month commitment ($7.00 a month); or $11.95 a month for a month-to-month commitment.

According to CMO, Marty P. Kamden, NordVPN is determined to hide and secure users’ data with features such as double data encryption and a strict no logs policy. "From the moment a user turns on NordVPN, his/her internet data becomes encrypted, so it's invisible to governments, ISPs, third party snoopers, and even NordVPN," says Kamden. "We will continue to safeguard internet user privacy and provide assistance and consultations on internet privacy to all our clients. During these times of increasing attacks on internet privacy, VPNs and NordVPN are now playing a major part in user protection.”

Proxy services

5. SSLPrivateProxy.com provides high speed, anonymous proxies and secure VPNs. Its infrastructure provides access to more than 100 locations worldwide. Users get dedicated IP addresses, speeds of 1000 Mbps, 300 plus subnets, and it provides a fully automated, user-friendly control panel for easy management. There are multiple pricing levels that work on sliding scales based on number and type of proxies; e.g., for one private Instagram proxy, it's $4.50 a month for a one-year commitment; $4.83 a month for a six-month commitment; $5.17 a month for a three-month commitment; and $5.50 a month for a month-to-month commitment. Additional pricing levels include Private Proxies, Pokemon Go Proxies, and Classified Ads Proxies.

"For regular, private proxies you pay $15 a month and you get five different, dedicated proxies (i.e., IPs and ports). Dedicated means that during the time when that proxy is allocated to your account, it is only allocated to you and you are the only person who can use it. You can use the five proxies at any time for as much internet traffic as you want and bandwidth is unlimited," says a spokesperson for SSLPrivateProxy.com.

And the runners up are:

  • ExpressVPN — VPN is $8.32 to $12.65 a month; Unlimited Bandwidth
  • CyberGhost VPN — Web Proxy is free; VPN is $5.83 to $9.16 a month; Unlimited Bandwidth
  • Hide My Ass! — Web Proxy is free; VPN is $11.52 a month; Unlimited Bandwidth
  • Squid Proxies — 10 proxies for $24 a month; Unlimited Bandwidth
  • My Private Proxy — 10 proxies for $23.70 a month; Unlimited Bandwidth

How we got to this point with internet privacy

The Senate Joint Resolution 34 (S.J.Res. 34) became public law on April 3, 2017. This resolution invalidates the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) rules regarding the protection of user privacy for internet customers. The rule titled "Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services" was published on December 2, 2016. In a nutshell, S.J.Res. 34 strips the protections that previously forced your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to get your permission before it could track and collect your web browsing history, app usage, and other internet activities, then sell that data to the highest bidders.

According to Altimeter Group analyst Brian Solis, the argument in favor of repealing the FCC’s privacy regulations applying to ISPs is flawed and misleading. Lobbyists maintained that giving ISPs the ability to gather and monetize user data would allow them to fairly compete with organizations such as Google and Facebook, which, they say, would introduce consistency across the internet to protect customer privacy and security.

"But there is no one standard that applies to the internet," explains Solis, "And, if anything, Trump’s order further dilutes any constancy. Giving ISPs the ability to sell website history data to advertisers goes against the common understanding of privacy. ISPs charge consumers for access to the internet and that’s the agreement in which there is a mutual understanding. If users are paying for internet access and presume data privacy, then there must be a quid pro quo if their website history is to also be sold."

While there are certainly technical approaches to protecting one’s privacy while browsing the internet, Gartner research director and risk/security analyst, Matt Stamper, reasons that this effectively confuses the fundamental issue. As a society, he insists that we have to determine if privacy is a right—an expectation of how we live our digital lives.

"What the recent ruling has done is effectively change privacy from a right to a commodity that is brokered. Privacy principles emphasize choice and consent; that is, we choose to 'opt in' and share our information at our discretion. That is now absent," Stamper says.

Privacy protecting solutions

Solis warns that ISPs will lose big time if they compete against one another based on user privacy. "Comcast Corp, Verizon, and AT&T have already said they would not sell customers’ individual internet browsing information," Solis says. "That’s a start but, now more than ever, it’s up to consumers to manage their own privacy strategies."

The obvious solution is to find an external product that will block the ISPs and search engines (such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo, etc.) from harvesting your data. Think of these invaders like viruses or malware that infect your system with garbage intended to harm or exploit you. In that case, you would install a virus protection program to block the intruders. And so, in this case, you would install a program that blocks the harvesters.

How harvester blocking works

The current technologies available for blocking harvesters from stealing your data are: virtual private networks (VPNs), proxy services, and onion routers. Basically, these technologies are fairly similar. Customers use an application or they directly access a website on the internet, which then connects them—through a series of encrypted network relays, hubs, or virtual tunnels—to a bunch of external computers/servers that are scattered throughout the world for the purpose of hiding users' actual IP addresses.

Some services bounce the connection across several servers at random, so the IP address is always different. Some have a limited range of IP addresses that change each time you login, some just hide or mask the IP address completely, and some use a combination of technologies to ensure your anonymity while online.

The options defined

Virtual private networks (VPNs) create a secure connection through an encrypted virtual tunnel from your location to another (such as France or Italy, for example), and hides your IP address.

Proxy services are intermediary applications or gateways to a proxy website, which then routes the user's connection through an anonymous proxy server, effectively masking the IP address (which can only be masked for one application at a time).

The Onion Router (TOR) is a service that connects users anonymously to the internet through a network of randomly selected nodes or relays, which are encrypted at each node. Because the route is never entirely visible, the trail is always masked.

Many companies offer combination services; for example, Onion Routing and VPN, or VPN and Proxy.

Advantages / disadvantages

The advantages are privacy protection, the disadvantages are minimal. For example, your browser may slow down, so it takes longer to navigate; some VPNs are susceptible to government inspection; some proxies are difficult to configure and may not work with all applications; and frequent usage may tag you as a suspicious 'person of interest,' which could result in constant monitoring.

But these are minor issues compared to having your entire life splattered across the internet for all to see (and judge). For example, how many times have you researched something for your parents, a friend, or a neighbor, and then discover later that your mailbox (both online and outside your house) is stuffed with advertisements for some embarrassing product like Rogaine or Preparation H? It's time to fight back!

"We have effectively required consumers to invest in technologies to protect their online behavior. If the expectation is that privacy requires consumers to purchase, configure, and maintain their own VPNs and other such services, my concern is that privacy is fundamentally endangered. Do we really think that our parents will know how to deploy TOR or these other privacy solutions? If privacy is contingent upon my mom configuring TOR, we’re doomed,” concludes Stamper.

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