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Anonymity and information privacy are hot issues. Events like the Clinton server/email controversy, the Ashley Madison breach (releasing what was assured to be “anonymous” information), the Target data breach, and countless others, have put protection of personal information at the forefront of public debate.

Today, 50% of internet users are concerned about the amount of their personal information that is available online (a significant jump from 33% in 2009), but only 37% percent of internet users actually believe that it’s possible to use the internet anonymously.

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Is it actually possible to be completely anonymous online? I wasn’t sure, so I asked an expert. He said, “well you could use a web-based proxy, connect to a proxy server or VPS, and then use a VPN service like Private Internet Access to TOR into another service and then VPN into another ISP. Then, setup an Amazon cloud server with a prepaid credit card that you purchased with cash. Secure Shell (SSH) to the cloud server, and tunnel all traffic from your computer through the Amazon VPN. But that is still no guarantee you’ll remain anonymous.”

Sounds complicated huh? And even then, it’s not a surefire way to remain anonymous. Someone with the right brains and resources could still probably find some information to link back to you. So why do it?

Well, it turns out that the availability of information online has actually harmed quite a few people. 21% of people have reported that their email/social networking accounts have been compromised before. 11% of people have reported that vital information like their Social Security Number, credit card number, or bank account information has been stolen.

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Anonymity is still, however, a very polarizing subject. Indeed, most people can’t decide whether anonymity is a good or bad thing. For example, 86% of people in a survey by The Guardian held both positive and negative opinions of anonymity simultaneously. Perhaps this is because many people associate online anonymity with illicit activity, and yet the same people also want to keep their information out of the hands of other online persons.

So, who exactly are these persons we are trying to avoid? Interestingly, advertisers are almost as feared as hackers and criminals when it comes to gathering private information. And, despite the best efforts of Snowden and others, the government and the police were the two least-feared parties in the survey.

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Many people believe that tools for online anonymity like Tor are used only be a select few, usually assumed to be hackers or Silk Road sellers. In actuality, between Tor, I2P and Freenet, there are more than 1,050,000 total “anonymous” daily users. In fact, almost everyone (86% of people) has taken steps to protect their information online and hide their identity online.

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What information do people care most about protecting online? Of the items surveyed, email privacy was the most important, occupying the 1st and 2nd spots. People regard the time of day that they browse the internet as the least important of the items surveyed. Given that email often provides access to password resets on other potentially more damaging online portals (like bank accounts), it makes sense that people would want to protect the content of their emails.

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The internet has changed the way we write, communicate, relax and more. Now, it seems, the internet has changed our perceptions about information security. The 17% increase in the number of internet users who are concerned about the amount of their personal information available online over the last 5 years will most likely only increase as more Ashley Madisons, Targets, and politicians suffer (or sometimes create) private information breaches. It would seem that anonymity is becoming mainstream.

How do your anonymity preferences compare to the population as a whole? Why is anonymity important to you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Follow the author on Twitter @dnlRussell



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  1. Jacques

    08-26-2015 Reply

    Hilarious that people think that email security is important. It is probably the least secure platform on the entire internet, including twitter.

    • Sean Thomas


      Which is probably why people think it’s important…. For not only the reasons above, but it certainly offers a lot more access to various facets of their online lives/personal lives.

      This is also the reason things like protonmail and the like are coming into being.

    • Gumby


      Hilarious that some people think it’s hilarious that because email is not secure people shouldn’t worry about email security.

    • Hilarious


      Hilarious that some people think it’s hilarious that it’s hilarious to think that it’s hilarious of something hilarious while you are hilariously hilarious.

    • Absorto


      Here, have an e-mail self-defense guide:

      It’s not only possible, its quite easy.

  2. SandfireX

    08-26-2015 Reply

    the main steps i use are just simple Identity masking. need a new screen name and email soon though, as the most recent one has SOME links to my real name still. To be totally honest, you could go to all steps and somebody could still find you. those people though, don’t need your SSN and such things, as they’re probably government related anyway.

  3. Liam

    08-28-2015 Reply

    What’s the name of the expert you talked to?

    • Durt McErk


      My uncles friends Uncle Bob…

  4. Me

    12-30-2015 Reply

    I have had a group of individuals (soccer mom PIs and corperate HR people doing background checks) actually hack into my smartphone and maintain surveillance on it for a period of time I’m guessing was well over a couple of years.
    They used an app for cheating spouses (basically a RAT) to do it and could view anything my phone’s cameras could see and could hear anything my phone’s microphones could hear. They could also track me using my phone’s GPS.
    It was creepy as hell and was only a small portion of the stuff they’ve done (learned new terms from it called gaslighting and social engineering). It made me super paranoid.

    It started, as far as I know, when someone randomly stole my ID and used it to fraudulent pay for stuff in an area I’ve never even been to. There were private investigators working for a hospital (guy broke his arm, then skipped out on paying for it by giving my info then dissapearing) who spent months keeping me under surveillance trying to figure out if I was that guy. That guy had criminal hacker friends (who were soccer mom types and not what you’d expect) who helped him (I think) by misleading the PIs. I’ve had all my email accounts hacking into, social media accounts (though I was never really that big into them) and had that used to sign me up for accounts on all kinds of other websites, most of which, to this day, I still have no clue about.

    So yeah. I value my anonymity because online, it’s been so blatently destroyed. I don’t really care about advertisers tracking me or the government but realize the only way I’m probably being hacked into so much is because something meant for law enforcement or advertisers is being used and abused by other people who’ve likely stolen it from them. That makes law enforcement and advertisers a huge part of my huge problem.

  5. Natasha

    12-30-2015 Reply

    Privacy is history. But spying is expensive. Internet is just like real life experience. You drive your car – your license plates are there (IP Address). You get your mail – the mailbox could be compromised, or your packages could be stolen. The bottom line: You are safe till someone wants to stock/investigate you.

  6. Notreal

    12-31-2015 Reply

    there seems to be a real conflation of security and privacy going on, and thats not healthy. Email is not secure, but it is effectively private. There are certainly steps that the common internet user can do to be more secure (virus scanners and such) but your privacy is largely within your control. Yes, the chinese may hack every system on the net, but you can control what information is there to begin with, and the association between data. If you dont post on your wall that you hate your boyfriend, he’ll never read it!

  7. Scott

    12-31-2015 Reply

    Privacy is nothing more than knowing where your data goes. The importance of that is up to the individual.

  8. Tom

    12-31-2015 Reply

    A bunch of good reasons are listed above. But another reason might be that someone might not feel comfortable about leaving a public presence of them selves. You can walk into a drug store and ask a personal question, walk out of the store and a week later no one will have remembered that experience. Or have a conversation with a stranger. Maybe you said something stupid and had a chance to reflect on it afterwards. Why does that conversation need to follow you for the rest of your life? I have always felt like Facebook is creepy and don’t have an account. I would like to socialize with friends/family on a Facebook like site, but choose to do it in person.

  9. Absorto

    12-31-2015 Reply

    The Free Software Foundation has a campaign against internet surveillance. Nice, clear explanations; thorough guides, free software.

  10. Samantha

    01-25-2016 Reply

    I discovered your The Anonymity Impossibility: Stats, Surveys, and Figures post. It’s good stuff – you are running a successful website with visitors who are interested in your niche.

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