Facebook was in the news again recently for allegedly tracking what people get up to in their web browser, even when they don’t have a Facebook account. We’ve covered Facebook’s privacy issues before, but this raises the wider question of how can you browse the web in private?

The good news is that it’s easier than you might think, but the bad is that there’s no single solution to staying anonymous. Still, all you need are a handful of tips to make sure your web activity isn’t being monitored surreptitiously by someone, so let’s get started.

[Related story: What Google knows about you – and what you can do about it]

Tip 1: Use your web browser’s ‘private’ mode

All leading web browsers have a ‘private browsing’ mode that, once enabled, stores nothing about your activity on your computer. This won’t stop online services from seeing what you get up to, but it won’t leave any telltale footprints on your PC (no history, web cache or anything else) and so it’s always a useful first step to take.

Internet Explorer: Go to Safety - Tools - InPrivate Browsing.

Firefox: Click the Menu button with three horizontal lines - New Private Window.

Chrome: Click the Menu button with three horizontal lines and select New Incognito Window.

Similar options can be found in Opera and Safari.

Private browsing mode

Tip 2: Sign out of online accounts

Private browsing will sign you out of your Google account, Facebook account and any other account your ‘main’ browser window is signed into. This is an important step, since staying signed in while you surf means those (and other) services will monitor your web activity and use it, among other things, for showing you web ads.

Staying signed into Google while you search also means Google knows everything you search for using any of its services. There’s no reason to suspect this is anything but harmless, but it’s something you still may not want to happen.

Sign out of a Google Account

Tip 3: Use safer search sites

We’re not singling out Google Search as a particular privacy-infringing culprit here — Microsoft Bing does similar things, as do most other search sites.

The web isn’t much use without being able to search for anything, so switch to a search site that prioritises your privacy, instead. There are a few to choose from, but DuckDuckGo is one of the most popular. It works just like you’d expect, but won’t track your searches, doesn’t show results from social media services and doesn’t display ads.

Check out our article: DuckDuckGo - the private way to search the web to find out how to use it.


Tip 4: Stop web sites from tracking you

It’s easy to forget to try tips 1, 2 and 3 when you’re web browsing, so a useful extra precaution is to install a web browser extension that limits what third-party services can see about you when you surf.

All web sites track visitors’ actions for their own monitoring purposes, for example, search for a product and you may find adverts for similar products appear. This may not bother you, but if it does the simple option is to block them all with a web browser extension.

Ghostery comes highly recommended here. It’s a free download for all popular web browsers and works in the background to prevent your web activities being spied upon.

Some sites won’t work when Ghostery is running, but you can easily disable it temporarily or let ‘harmless’ sites through its filters. You can also block prying web components individually with a series of switches.


Tip 5: Browse the web with a VPN

Tips 1 to 4 will go a long way to keeping your web activity private, but they won’t make you completely anonymous. Everyone who’s online has something called an IP address and while this won’t necessarily uniquely identify you to a web site, it will identify your ISP and it’s not hard to fill in the blanks from there.

[Related story: What's an IP address and how to find it]

One way around this is to connect to the internet using a VPN. Short for Virtual Private Network, this connects you to a secure and anonymous computer that you browse the web through, so its IP address is the one that appears online, not yours.

There are many free VPNs and CyberGhost is a good one to start with. Its basic service is free to use and its application runs in the background on your computer, and all your internet data is routed through it automatically.

CyberGhost VPN

Tip 6: Tap into Tor

Tor is a much more sophisticated type of VPN that takes every possible step to anonymise you online. It’s often in the news for negative reasons — primarily because it allows people to trade in illegal material on the ‘dark’ web, but it was created with much higher ideals.

[Related story: Is your PC being hacked?]

Tor allows people in oppressive regimes to use the internet without fear of detection, for example, and to access sites that might otherwise be blocked. It’s also a way for whistleblowers and dissidents to communicate with the media and the authorities safely, and law enforcement agencies use it to visit sites without leaving obvious IP addresses behind.

Tor requires a free download to connect to and use, and it will slow down your web browsing — everything you do is bounced across computers around the world to make you as anonymous as can be. It’s simple to use, too, and you can even volunteer to help with the Tor network by safely allowing your computer to be used for the anonymising ‘hops’ for other surfers. 

Tor Project

Are there any browsing security tips you want to pass on to fellow BT.com readers? Let us know in the Comments section below.