You have a right to free and private inquiry; it is important to learn how to exercise and protect that fundamental right. You will learn in the next installments of this document how to research and communicate with others about any topic you like (from the mundane to the controversial) in complete and total freedom, anonymously and without littering your hard drive with evidence of your activities.
Unless you are following the advice in this document very carefully, or following someone else’s equally thorough advice, you should be very aware of the following:
Everything you do online is recorded by others and can be traced back to you days, months, or years later.
Everything you do online is recorded by your computer and can be recovered days, months, or years later.
The bad news is that while those statements sound like hyperbole, what I’ve just said is frighteningly true. The good news is that for most people it doesn’t matter, no one will ever have reason to care about what you’re doing.
But, if you care about what you are doing, if you have reason to think someone else may care about what you are doing, or if you simply want to exercise your right to be as anonymous as you choose to be, and leave no trace of your activities behind you on your computer, this guide is for you.
In this installment I will explain all the ways in which your online activity is recorded, both within and outside of your computer. In the next installment I will present a number of reasonably easy options a novice to intermediate computer user can employ to provide themselves a good level of protection. In the third installment I will describe variations on the setup I use and recommend which provides complete protection, but only those who are advanced will be able to understand or recreate this setup.
Browsing the Web
Most people don’t realize just how much evidence their simplest online action generates, and how all that evidence can lead back to them. I will describe just what evidence is produced on your hard drive and on remote hard drives as a result of your doing the simplest online thing imaginable. The following describes the effects of doing nothing more than a Google search and clicking on a search result.
Your Computer Is Spying on You
On your hard drive there is a record made of your browsing activity in at least five different places: in your browser’ cache, in your browser’s history, in your browser’s search keyword history, in your browser’s cookies, and finally in memory written to disk via the operating system’s virtual memory. If you think turning off the browser’s cache, history, non-session cookies, and form history is enough, you’re wrong. Many browsers simply interpret the instruction to disable such features as, “We’ll delete those items when you close the browser.” The items are in most cases still initially written to disk, and having been written to disk, they can be recovered at a later time.
Contrary to what many people think, when you delete a file on a hard drive nothing actually happens the file itself; the deleted file remains intact on the hard drive, fully recoverable until and unless another file is added that happens to overwrite the original file’s data. When you delete a file all that happens is that the disk’s table of contents is updated to indicate that the space the original file was occupying is now available for overwriting, and that the file name should no longer be shown in the directory listing. If you have a large disk with plenty of free space, deleted files may linger on the drive for days, months, or years. There are many great free and paid applications that will recover these deleted files. There are even some tools that may be able to recover data that has been overwritten (how this is done is fascinating).
Even if the web browser truly wasn’t itself writing any data to disk, even temporarily, your data can still be written to the hard drive. Every operating system uses virtual memory to improve computer performance. Virtual memory is a scheme by which the computer takes computer memory (RAM) which isn’t being actively used (for example, the memory used by a browser window you haven’t looked at in 5 minutes) and stores this memory on the hard drive temporarily, so that it can free up more RAM. When the operating system is later asked for that memory (for example, you switch back to that browser window you hadn’t been using) the operating system repopulates the RAM with the memory it had temporarily stored on the hard drive. Anything that exists in memory may potentially end up on the hard drive in this virtual memory file (which is called the swap or paging file). Once this memory is written to disk it will remain written on the disk until that disk space is reused by another file. Turning off virtual memory is not advisable, nor would it address all the other potential sources of evidence.
To protect you from leaving evidence of your online activities on your computer, we will need to ensure that nothing is written to disk in a manner that could be detected, let alone recovered.
The Internet is Spying on You
Outside of your computer at least five different entities could have or did record your activity on their hard drives.
Internet Service Provider (ISP)
Your ISP is required by law to record which of their users has which IP address and when. This is done to ensure that anything you may do online be traced back to you at a later time. Your ISP has provided this IP address to home address information to government agencies with and without requiring them to produce warrants/subpoenas [I need to add links to these news articles, AT&T was involved in one case in San Francisco, I think]. They have also provided this IP address to home address information to private companies with and without warrants/subpoenas [I need to add links to RIAA/MPA/etc. news articles].
Not only does your ISP record who is assigned which IP during which time, they also record the URLs you access. They routinely sell this data (in some form) to other companies such as search engine, advertising, and traffic ranking sites; they likely would never sell this data with your personal data included in it, but the ISP themselves retain the ability to cross reference your activity to your address.
Google recorded the keywords you used for your search. Google recorded the link in the results you ultimately clicked. If you have a Google account they may have tied the search you did and the result you clicked to your Google account. They may also use the information about your search or choice of result to modify their advertising profile on you.
The Google result you clicked took you to the result’s web site. That web site recorded your arrival in their web server logs. That log also recorded which search keywords were used to land on their site.
Advertisers on the Visited Site
Advertisers featured on the site you visited recorded your visit. The advertisers may have also been able to record the search keywords you used. They may also be able to associate your visit to this site with your visit to other sites (through the use of tracking cookies).
If your search keywords or the site you chose from the results are considered suspicious, there is the very real possibility that your activity was logged by a governmental agency.
The federal government is known to have installed packet sniffing supercomputers at various key internet hubs through which much of the internet’s traffic flows [I need to add the links to the Wikipedia and news articles on this]. It is not known what traffic they find interesting enough to log, what they do with the information they log, or how long they retain that information.
Preventing others from being able to trace you will require encryption, relays/proxies, filters, custom browsers (and/or browser settings), virtual machines, and more.
Coming in the next installment, recommendations for several free and paid solutions to the basic problem of online anonymity and evidenceless browsing. I’ll try to finish that up for middle of next week.
If you can’t wait for that, here are a few of the things I’ll discuss that you can try out for yourself now: