Is it possible to be completely anonymous online? That’s a question I’ve been trying to answer for awhile. Turns out there’s a lot of steps involved, and no strategy is really bulletproof. But by using certain methods in conjunction with each other, you can maintain some sort of anonymity. And even if you can’t have total privacy, you learn a lot about privacy from trying.
There are several reasons why this matters. People have been fighting for an open and free internet since the 1980’s. Business elites and the State use surveillance, censorship and gate-keeping to shape the internet in ways that serve their own interests. The more we let them do that, the less we can use the internet to serve our own interests.
Please note that this article is not meant to be a moral discussion. This is not about whether the State or Big Tech has the right/responsibility to spy on us and to control the exchange of goods/info. This is just an acknowledgment that they can --- and they do. And this takes power away from the individual.
Data = Power
I’ll explain how this impacts you ---not society, not your moral belief system. Just you, and your ability to shape your own life in the way you want to.
Like it or not, the internet is here to stay. We’re all using it, now. Competition forces us to. And because of that, those who control the internet, control the rules of the game.
The biggest threat to individuality in the internet era is data harvesting. This stuff is nothing new. In fact, this has been a contest in play for millennia. The State wants to monitor and control communications. The people want privacy in their communications.
In any society, the State always needs the approval of the people. This is just simple math: The State =the few; the population = the many.
There is always the possibility that The Few may do something so egregious against The Many that they enrage The Many. If enough people agree that it’s enough of a problem, The Few are in big trouble. So one of the elite class’s primary goals is to control popular perception. And one way they do this is by harvesting data.
In pre-modern times, that meant intercepting written messages. 50 years ago, it meant intercepting mail, telegrams, and phone calls. Today, it’s all of the above, and then some. Thanks to tech, data harvesting today is done on a vastly larger scale. It’s an easier, more efficient, and more effective process. And the data they harvest is more telling than ever before.
Who is harvesting your data?
The State is only a piece of the pie. Modern tech has changed the game in multiple ways. Now private interests, foreign actors, and cyber criminals can also spy on you, hack you, or harvest your data.
Big Tech is the main problem. We could also refer to them as Big Data, because that’s where the real money is. They record data about everything you do. How powerful is this data? Facebook, for example, has made billions on advertising. So clearly, advertisers are paying big bucks for data about users. It’s obviously worth something.
And if your data can help advertisers convince you to buy their product, it can also help to sell other “products”, like ideas. Propaganda is effectively just an advertisement for an idea or belief. And major economic forces like Google and Facebook are constantly trying to shape society to better serve their own interests.
Companies that harvest data are also a huge liability to you, the user. For one, they give your data to the government when asked. For two, they are susceptible to cyber attacks. The recent ransomware scandals show that private interests can’t even protect their own sensitive information.
So it all comes back to protecting yourself from companies that harvest your data. It’s through them, partially, that the surveillance State keeps tabs on you. And anybody with eyes in their face can see that private interests practically run the government, anyway.
It’s all one big data harvesting party at the top, and we lose. You can’t stop them from doing it. But you can stop them from them doing it to you.
How to protect yourself
There’s two strategies to protecting yourself from data harvesting: encryption, and anonymity. With encryption, you can hide the contents of your communications and files. In this case, the only thing you have to worry about is a data harvester seeing who you’re communicating with.
And that’s where anonymity comes in. You can use a pseudonymous email account that isn’t linked to any personal info (like bank account, debit card, email, social media). You can use a VPN to hide your IP address. You can even create an extra layer of security by having devices that aren’t linked to you in any way (IE, a pay-as-you-go phone that bought in cash).
It helps to understand what, exactly, data harvesters can track:
-Electronic payments like Visa, Paypal, Stripe-Mail-Phone calls & text messages
-All of your movements (through Location Services --- this is how Google provides traffic reports in real time, by tracking everybody’s location data)
-Emails-Everything you do on your Windows computer or Android phone
-All of the online activity linked to your IP address
If I was trying to give myself maximum freedom from data harvesting, I would:
-Take all my cash out of the bank, buy a safe, and cut up all my credit & debit cards
-Accept crypto or cash instead of checks for payments whenever possible, to avoid giving banks financial data
-Buy a Linux phone, cash --- one with a removable battery and top security
-Buy a Farraday bag and keep my phone in it when not using it
-Disable the camera(s) by putting tape over them
-Get service to my Linux phone by getting a disposable burner phone with a removable sim (paid for in cash, and activated using a gift card, disposable debit card, or Bitcoin from an anonymous wallet).
-Constantly change the sim card, or use an app that allows you to use fake phone numbers-Buy a laptop, cash-Install Linux + tails on all devices-Find a reliable VPN-Use TOR + VPN for all internet browsing
-Only use services (like email) that allow for you set up accounts with pseudonyms
-Always use top-of-the-line encryption when communicating (Signal, Proton Mail, etc)
-Never use products made by Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft or Apple
As you can see, the learning curve is significant Privacy takes a lot of extra steps.
And would this even work, completely? It would certainly make you harder to track. But they might nail an IP address or phone number to you by cross referencing it with other data, like who you’re contacting, where you are, and what other devices are around you.
Then, they can start cross referencing it with anything else they have. One misstep could be a leak in the whole system. So you also have to have a Standard Operating Procedure that you always adhere to. And you have to understand what your leaks are. For example, your encrypted message is not private if the user on the other end is not using encryption. And you’re probably not anonymous if the people you’re messaging aren’t.
Ever notice how YouTube still nails your interests, even when you aren’t signed in? Cross referencing. Knowing their users is worth big money, and they’ll go to great lengths to identify you.
A less hypothetical, more practical scenario
Privacy in the digital world is a journey you undertake, not a switch you suddenly flip. You have to change your entire MO. It takes work, and knowledge, and you even have to spend money on tools like VPN’s. But there’s no reason you can’t ease into it gradually.
A practical, manageable use for the system outlined above would be to have a whole separate system private activity. That way, when you need privacy, you could follow all of the steps with secondary devices that are not linked to you in any way, and stick to your SOP. But when you don’t need total anonymity, you don’t have to follow all the extra steps and deal with the limitations they impose.
An instance where you might want to do this is in acquiring and trading cryptocurrency. One of the strengths of crypto is that it can bypass gatekeepers and regulators like government and intermediaries. However, acquiring or spending crypto anonymously is not that easy.
For starters, most people get crypto from Coinbase or Binance. Users have to provide their personal info if they want to use these services. But there are other ways to deal with crypto (private wallets, decentralized exchanges, peer-to-peer trading, using devices not linked to you).By taking some extra steps, you can participate in commerce without government regulation. That means they can’t regulate what you buy or who you deal with. It means it will be difficult/useless to harvest your data. It means that that intermediaries can’t set rules or impose fees.
This is just one example of how privacy equates to freedom. Maximum freedom depends on maximum privacy. There’s a reason privacy is being made inconvenient. And to me, that’s a sign that it’s a commodity to be pursued at any cost.