Laws are beginning to change around what Internet Service Providers can do with the data they collect on the browsing habits of their customers. This has raised concerns with some customers regarding their privacy. People are now looking for ways to keep their browsing habits private and away from their Internet Service Providers. While there is a lot of information on the Internet already on exactly how to achieve the results desired, not all of it is equal. We would like to take the time to clear things up and raise awareness for what is now becoming a concern for many.
Disclaimer: There is no such thing as “perfect security.” None of these methods provide a perfect way by which to protect your browsing habits from being seen by everyone. The main purpose of the article is to merely make it harder for your Internet Service Provider to track your browsing habits, so they cannot use it for monetary gain.
Secure Sockets Layer (Native, Free)
Secure Sockets Layer, commonly referred to as “SSL,” is a method by which two computers can communicate with one another in a private, authenticated manner. Most people encounter SSL when they browse the web with their favorite web browser. It is the underlying technology that allows us to login, bank, shop, and do so much more, all securely. It also does not allow for any eavesdropping of the communications between the two computers involved. At this point in time, this means even your own Internet Service Provider (or anyone else in-between) cannot peer into the information that is being sent back and forth–it is encrypted.
Even though this is a great solution that works natively and automatically, it does not stop some browsing data from “leaking.” The leaked data to which we refer is the initial request for the website. An Internet Service Provider and everyone else can see this initial request for the website. After the initial request is sent, all other browsing data transferred is protected once the SSL connection is established. A SSL connection can also be verified in most browsers by looking at or near the address bar and finding a padlock symbol or the word “Secure,” in the case of Google Chrome, at the time of this writing. One may also look for the term “https” in the URL of a webpage.
Since SSL also provides authentication, many websites are moving in that direction already, so it is a very seamless process for those browsing. There are also popular browser plugins like “HTTPS Everywhere” that attempt to always establish a SSL connection to a website when possible.
Virtual Private Networks (Paid)
One way to combat the initial data leak issue of SSL is to attempt to anonymize browsing habits. A good way to do so is to use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. There are many different uses for VPNs, but for the purpose of anonymizing browsing habits we will involve a VPN provider. There are many reputable VPN providers, so our intention is not to provide a list. Instead, feel free to contact us if you have concerns about reputable VPN providers.
This technology allows a subscriber to form a secure, virtual private tunnel to the servers of a VPN provider in order to encapsulate all of the data being sent between the subscriber and the VPN provider. This includes the initial request for a webpage that using SSL alone does not protect.
The anonymization of the data comes from how browsing data goes out onto the Internet after it reaches the VPN provider. It goes out along with the data of everyone else, from the same point of origin. Finding the browsing data of one specific person once it emerges onto the Internet from a VPN provider has been likened to trying to find one specific snowflake during a blizzard in the middle of winter. While it is not impossible, it is highly improbable.
Tor Onion Network (Free)
A free alternative to using a paid VPN provider is to utilize the Tor Network. We understand there are a lot of negative connotations associated with the Tor Network and a lot of people avoid it for this reason, but it has legitimate uses. The Tor Network allows one to anonymize their browsing habits in much the same way as that of a VPN provider. The way it differs is that it encapsulates all of the transmitted data in the same way Russian Nesting Dolls encapsulate smaller dolls within ever larger ones. In this analogy the browsing data is the innermost doll and as the data is passed along the network each “node” removes one encapsulating doll until the browsing data emerges at the end of its path, at the “exit node,” and is sent to the intended website.
Much like the VPN provider, an “exit node” in the Tor Network does have access to all of the browsing data in an unencrypted form as it exits the Tor Network and emerges onto the Internet, but the best way to deal with this is to also use SSL.
Security in Layers
The best solution at the time of this writing is to use a combination of SSL and either a VPN provider or the Tor Network. In this way, the initial request for a website is anonymized and all of the data transmitted between the website and the computer used for browsing is encrypted and authenticated, end-to-end. While this is not a perfect solution, it does serve its ultimate purpose of stopping Internet Service Providers from seeing what requests and data is being transferred across their network, when privacy is the main concern.
This blog post also appeared on the InfoTECH Solutions’ Blog.