How anonymous are you on the Internet?

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Leeland's picture

Sometimes a little curiosity is scary. For example I was Googling on term "anonymous surfing" and found some articles:

Which led me to some other articles:

Which boiled down to basically although I thought I was doing a decent job of being anonymous as I walked around the great internet, I was leaving a few more bread crumbs behind then I thought. Lots of pertinent tidbits of data about me was still being left behind. In fact enough data to assemble a pretty reasonable picture of who I was, what I was doing and more interestingly where I was at that time.

Which then begs the question "should I be using one of those anonymizer proxies?" Which I still think are a bad idea because frankly I would be handing those proxy servers even MORE data on myself at one location run by someone or someones I do not know nor trust.

So what more could I do to leave less data behind? Glad you asked!

First lets start with the basics. Exactly what data is being collected? At each stop on the information superhighway there are always traces left behind. Web browsers send some data for you automatically to allow the server to know how best to format its output for you as well as to enhance your browsing experience, allow you access to restricted data and/or to allow some interesting statistics so the provider of the web site can see what their visitors are doing. All of this is perfectly legit and yet tells volumes of stories for example a single web page hit may include:

  • IP (Internet protocol) address of the visiting computer - Each computer on the Internet is assigned a unique IP address. Your computer may have a static IP address or a dynamic IP address.
  • Domain name - The Internet is divided into domains, and every user's account is associated with one of those domains. You can identify the domain by looking at the end of a URL; for example, .edu indicates an educational institution, .gov indicates a US government agency, .org refers to organization, and .com is for commercial use.
  • Software details - It may be possible for the web site to determine both the browser and browser version that you are using. The web site may also be able to determine what operating system your computer is running.
  • Page visits - Information about which pages you visited, how long you left the page open, and whether you accessed the site from a search engine is often available to the organization operating the web site.
  • Personal information revealed by cookies - If a web site uses cookies, it may be able to collect even more information, such as your browsing patterns, which include other sites you've visited.

What are the risks involved?

If the web site you are visiting is malicious, files on your computer, as well as passwords stored in the temporary memory, may be at risk.

How can your personal information be used?

Generally, organizations use the information that is gathered automatically for legitimate purposes.

However, some sites may collect your information for malicious purposes. If attackers are able to access files, passwords, or personal information on your computer, they may be able to use this data to their advantage. The attackers may be able to steal your identity, using and abusing your personal information for financial gain.

Are you exposing any other personal information?

While using cookies may be one method for gathering information, the easiest way for attackers to gain access to personal information is to ask for it. By representing a malicious web site as a legitimate one, attackers may be able to convince you to give them your address, credit card information, social security number, or other personal data.

How can you limit the amount of information collected about you?

Honestly this is going to seem so simple. Common sense sometimes isn't so common.

  • Be careful supplying personal information - Unless you trust a site, don't give your address, password, or credit card information. Look for indications that the site uses SSL to encrypt your information. Although some sites require you to supply your social security or ID number, be especially wary of providing this information online.
  • Limit cookies - If an attacker can access your computer, he or she may be able to find personal data stored in cookies. You may not realize the extent of the information stored on your computer until it is too late. However, you can limit the use of cookies using your browser’s definitions.
  • Browse safely - Be careful which web sites you visit; if it seems suspicious, leave the site. Also make sure to take precautions by increasing your security settings, keeping your virus definitions up to date, and scanning your computer for spyware (see

If you really want to be anonymous do read the article on Best Free Anonymous Surfing Services (

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