educational

Anonymous Surfing: Part 1

Stephen Yagielowicz

After reading the recent 'IP Address' article series at XBiz, I thought that I would share some information with you on ways to surf the Web 'anonymously.' While there is no such thing as truly anonymous Web surfing, these basic techniques can help protect your privacy while sailing the often uncertain seas of Cyberspace.

Because your IP address is the most common and reliable indicator of "who you are," the whole concept of anonymous surfing is based upon your ability to somehow 'cloak' this information. While you won't fool the Government, you might be able to hide your surfing habits from your employer, spouse, or competitors. Since you can not (to the best of my knowledge) surf without an IP address, we will concern ourselves with having the ability to disguise our real IP address.

The first step in knowing how successful your cloaking attempts are is to know your IP address. While 'dial up' modem users will usually have a 'dynamic' address that changes with each login, broadband and network users generally have a more or less 'fixed' or 'static' IP address - either of which can be determined by visiting the toolbox at http://network-tools.com/. When you visit this Web page, your current IP address will be displayed in a text box: write it down so that you can refer to it later. If you are on a dial-up connection, your address might change each time you connect to the Internet, so you'll need to do this step each time you want to be 'anonymous.'

Armed with this information, you could visit sites like Network-Tools.com using any of the cloaking options below (or any of the other methods you might discover) and then verify that your IP address has indeed been obfuscated from unwelcome, prying eyes.

The Easy Way: Anonymizer
Anonymizer offers a very basic free service, as well as several levels of much more robust privacy protection for a quite reasonable fee. I tried their free online version which is accessible through a small URL input box on their site's home page. While this feature-limited demo will not allow you to access the kind of sites that you would most likely wish to surf 'anonymously,' it does give you an idea of how the process works.

Unfortunately, when I visited ZD Net using Anonymizer (one of the few 'allowable' sites on the free demo), the page was rendered with distorted font sizes and colors that appeared to be the result of a Wild Man from Borneo's attempt at coding a Cascading Style Sheet. This could be the result of using a masking technology that is hiding information concerning my browser, OS, and screen resolution (among other things), which would be problematic for a site that uses JavaScript to 'sniff' for such information, delivering a CSS file that is tailored for the surfer's particular system configuration. This is only a very mildly 'educated' guess, however, attempting to explain the anomalous display, since entering the ZD Net site without the Anonymizer showed the very well laid out page that I am accustomed to.

When visiting ZD Net using the Anonymizer, the URL which appeared in my browser's address bar read http://anon.free.anonymizer.com/http://www.zdnet.com - which shows that their service utilizes a proxy server (perhaps along with other tools in their pay products).

Interestingly, the page's title bar read "ZDNet: Home Page[Protected by-proxy1.anonymizer.com]" and the status bar display alternated between "ANONYMIZER Restricted Free Trial: Page Privacy Protected" and "Upgrade NOW!!" at a disturbingly high rate of speed. One might assume that these types of 'features' will not be seen on the 'for pay' product. Speaking of features, I was impressed by the fact that the hyperlinks that I followed from this page were also cloaked, which meant that I did not have to manually enter the links each time I wanted to continue my online explorations. I also noticed a delay between entering the target URL and the actual display of the page, which is likely the result of the service's server overhead. While the free service is limited to HTTP requests, the pay service also allows FTP and secure HTTPS requests as well. JANUS is able to encrypt URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) in a way that they can be used as a reference for a server...

JANUS: Another Easy Option
While the Anonymizer appears to be the most popular tool of its type, various other options exist, including JANUS (http://www.rewebber.de/), a similar service from Germany that (among other things) encrypts the target URL. According to their FAQ, "JANUS is able to encrypt URLs (uniform resource locator) in a way that these can be used as reference for a server. If a request with an encrypted URL occurs, JANUS is able to decrypt the URL and forward it to the server, without enabling the user to get knowledge about the server address. All references in the servers response are again encrypted before the response is forwarded to the client."

I registered for a JANUS test account (a required step) and for comparison visited ZD Net again. This time, it appears that rather than being served an incorrect style sheet, I was served no style sheet, resulting in all font colors and sizes appearing with my browser's 'default' settings. This was a more 'readable' presentation than the one provided by the Anonymizer, and it was also devoid of the altered title bar text and annoying status bar "Buy Now!" text flashing script.

While both of these 'anonymous surfing services' perform similar functions, with their most useful features available on a monthly subscription basis, with the limited testing that I performed, I would have to give the nod to JANUS as the service I would choose. But are these premium third party services the only choice available for those wanting to obscure their virtual trail? Stay tuned to find out in my next installment! ~ Stephen

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