How to stay anonymous online


CREDIT: ra2studio / Shutterstock

CREDIT: ra2studio / Shutterstock

Securing your connection

Activists in countries where the web is heavily censored and internet traffic is closely monitored know that using a virtual private network or VPN is essential for remaining invisible.

A VPN is like a pair of curtains on a house: people know you are in but cannot see what you are doing. This is achieved by creating an encrypted tunnel via a private host, often in another country, through which your internet data flows. This means that anyone monitoring web traffic to find out persons of interest is unable to do so. However, the very fact that you are using a VPN may raise eyebrows.

An increasing number of VPNs promise truly anonymous access and do not log any of your activity, such as ExpressVPN and Anonymizer. However, access to some VPN providers is blocked in some countries and their accessibility is always changeable.

Know your onions

One of the internet’s strengths is also one of its weaknesses, at least as far as privacy is concerned. Traffic passes over the internet in data packets, each of which may take a different route between sender and recipient, hopping between computer nodes along the way. This makes the network resilient to physical attack – since there is no fixed connection between the endpoints – but also helps to identify the sender. Packets contain information on both the sender’s and recipient’s IP address so if you need anonymity, this is a fatal flaw.

“Onion” routing offers more privacy. In this, data packets are wrapped in layers of encryption, similar to the layers of an onion. At each node, a layer of encryption is removed, revealing where the packet is to go next, the benefit being that the node only knows the address details of the preceding and succeeding nodes and not the entire chain.

Using onion routing is not as complicated as it may sound. In the mid-1990s, US naval researchers created a browser called TOR, short for The Onion Routing project, based on the concept and offered it to anyone under a free licence.

Accessing the dark web with the Tor browser is a powerful method of hiding identity but is not foolproof. There are a number of documented techniques for exploiting weaknesses and some people believe that some security agencies use these to monitor traffic.

Put the trackers off your scent

Every time you visit a popular website, traces of your activity are carefully collected and sifted, often by snippets of code that come from other parts of the web. A browser add-on called Ghostery ( can show you just how prevalent this is. Firing up Ghostery on a recent visit to The Los Angeles Times website turned up 102 snippets of code designed to track web activity, ranging from well-known names such as Facebook and Google but also lesser known names such as Audience Science and Criteo.

While some of this tracking has legitimate uses, such as to personalise what you see on a site or to tailor the ads that appear, some trackers, particularly in countries where there are lax or no rules about such things, are working hard to identify you.

The problem is that trackers can work out who you are by jigsaw identification. Imagine you have visited a few places on the web, including reading an online article in a banned publication and then flicking through a controversial discussion forum. A third-party tracker used for serving ads can now learn about this behaviour. If you then subsequently log into another site, such as a social network, that includes your identity, this information can suddenly be linked together. Open-source browser extensions such as Disconnect ( offer a way to disable such trackers.

Use the secure web

A growing number of popular websites force visitors to connect to them securely. You can tell which ones because their addresses begin with https rather than http. Using https means that the website you are visiting will be authenticated and that your communications with the site are encrypted, stopping so-called man-in-the-middle attacks – where a malicious person sits between two people who believe they are communicating directly with each other and alters what is being communicated. Google, as well as using https for both Gmail and search, is also encouraging other websites to adopt it by boosting such sites up the search rankings.

Rather than remembering to check you are using https all the time, some people employ a browser extension created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project called HTTPS Everywhere  to do it for them. It is available for Chrome, Firefox and Opera and forces browsers to user https versions of sites where available.

Hide your fingerprints

Traditional identification methods on the web rely on things like IP addresses and cookies, but some organisations employ far more sophisticated techniques, such as browser fingerprinting. When you visit a site, the browser may share information on your default language and any add-ons and fonts you have installed. This may sound innocuous, but this combination of settings may be unique to you and, while not letting others know who you are, can be used to associate your web history with your browser’s fingerprint. You can see how poorly you are protected by visiting

One way to try to avoid this is to use a commonly used browser set-up, such as Chrome running on Windows 10 and only common add-ins activated and the default range of fonts. Turning off Javascript can also help but also makes many sites unusable. You can also install the EFF’s Privacy Badger browser add-on to thwart invisible trackers.

Mark Frary is a journalist and co-author of You Call This The Future?: The Greatest Inventions Sci-Fi Imagined and Science Promised (Chicago Review Press, 2008)

This article is  from the Autumn issue of Index on Censorship Magazine. You can order your copy here, or take out a digital subscription via Exact Editions. Copies are also available at the BFI, the Serpentine Gallery, MagCulture, (London), News from Nowhere (Liverpool), Home (Manchester), Calton Books (Glasgow) and on Amazon. Each magazine sale helps Index on Censorship continue its fight for free expression worldwide.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”From the Archives”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”90642″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”″][vc_custom_heading text=”Anonymous now” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]

May 2000

Surfing through cyberspace leaves a trail of clues to your identity. Online privacy can be had but it doesn’t come easy, reports Yaman Akdeniz.

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November 2007

Nart Villeneuve provides an overview of how journalists and bloggers around the world are protecting themselves from censorship.

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March 2010

As filtering becomes increasingly commonplace, Roger Dingledine reviews the options for beating online censorship.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”The unnamed” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]The autumn 2016 Index on Censorship magazine explores topics on anonymity through a range of in-depth features, interviews and illustrations from around the world.

With: Valerie Plame Wilson, Ananya Azad, Hilary Mantel[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”80570″ img_size=”medium” alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=””][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Subscribe” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]In print, online. In your mailbox, on your iPad.

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Index panel debates taboos of sex, race and hairy legs

Kunle Olulode, Max Wind-Cowie, Jodie Ginsburg and Shazia Mirza at last nights debate (Photo: Sean Gallagher / Index on Censorship)

Kunle Olulode, Max Wind-Cowie, Jodie Ginsberg and Shazia Mirza at last night’s debate (Photo: Sean Gallagher / Index on Censorship)

“When I went to the Loaded offices with hairy legs they told me to get out and that I could never be on the cover of the magazine because apparently I’d made an effort with my nails but not my legs,” said comedian Shazia Mirza, at the launch of the latest taboo-themed issue of Index on Censorship magazine.

Do taboos still exist in society today? Are taboo subjects still brushed under the carpet instead of being faced head on? Is comedy a perfect platform to tackle these issues? These were just some of the questions discussed during the evening of discussion and debate.

Chaired by Index on Censorship chief executive Jodie Ginsberg, panellists included Kunle Olulode, director of campaigning charity Voice4Change England, writer and political consultant Max Wind-Cowie, plus comedians Grainne Maguire and Mirza.

The night kicked off with a fast and furious comedy performance from Michele Moran, filled with tales of taboos and secrets.

Wind-Cowie told the audience at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern of his surprise when people reacted to Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Hall’s marriage with jokes and disgust at the thought of older people having sex.


Index on Censorship’s CEO Jodie Ginsberg with comedians Shazia Mirza and Grainne Maguire (Photo: Sean Gallagher / Index on Censorship)

He said: “I think it’s a bit sad because I hope to be an older person one day, and I hope that the older person that I will become will be allowed to have sex with someone. And I hope that when we are having sex they won’t be looking at me and thinking ‘my God you’ve got disgusting’. So I think it’s wrong that it’s something we all laugh at so much.”

Maguire joked to the audience that mental illness was a requirement as a comedian but agreed there was still a lot of stigma around mental health.

“In certain careers you’re supposed to be macho and mental illness is still seen as a sign of weakness. I just think that’s really depressing and sad. I think you should be allowed to be vulnerable, but I don’t think were there yet,” she said.

The panel moved to discussing whether suicide and grief were taboo in different societies. Mirza said: “Some Muslims believe that suicide is wonderful. You blow yourself up and go into the afterlife where there are virgins and wine. So it may be terrible in the West but to Muslims suicide is great, and we talk about it all the time.”

Olulode told the audience how for him the last taboo was racism. “In terms of race, there’s a lot of discussion about the discrimination and the attitudes towards black people, but we rarely discuss the construction of what it is to be white.”

He said: “There’s an old left-wing saying: ‘Nothing is alien to me.’ And that idea of investigating every aspect of humanity seems to have become lost along the way. The contestation of ideas in society today is more about protecting people from being exposed to difficult subjects or ideas than actually tackling them head on.”

The evening was rounded off with a lively taboo disco set from DJ Bamboo.

How exiles are using social media but fear spies listening in


Do you see what I see project for UNHCR. Led by Brendan Bannon.

A picture from the Do You See What I See project which teaches photography skills to young refugees, Zaatari camp, Jordan (Credit: Mohamed Soleman/Do You See What I See)


In an article from the refugee voices special issue of Index on Censorship Magazine, Jason DaPonte looks at how migrants are using technology to keep in touch with distant relatives, and the security risks this can bring 

“My wife changes her sim card every week,” said Omid, an Iranian refugee who hasn’t seen his wife in the seven years he has been awaiting a decision in his UK asylum case. The couple use Viber, a mobile app that allows free voice calls over the internet, but his wife remains in constant fear of surveillance. Omid is wanted by the Iranian state for political offences. He’s also a convert to Christianity and his wife fears discussing his new religion, as even members of his own family have branded him an infidel.

Refugees may be some of the most excluded people in society, but social media and new technology nevertheless play a crucial role in many of their lives. Across the globe, refugees are finding ways of using them to stay connected to families, homelands and political causes, in ways they couldn’t have a decade ago – even though it can have security implications. A number of refugees, particularly from Syria, suggested they use the free messaging mobile app, WhatsApp, because they believe the messages are secure. Whether WhatsApp messages can be hacked or intercepted is not clear, however.

Ismail Einashe, a British journalist and Africa expert, originally from Somaliland, explained another way social media is changing the refugee experience. He said how his teenage cousin, who fled Somaliland for Austria, uses Facebook for photo-sharing, to craft an image of success and happiness. But this can potentially hide the true difficulties of refugee life.

“My cousin is inspired by American hiphop. He wears baseball caps and baggy jeans – so his friends at home see the glamorous ‘other’ and they don’t see the high unemployment or poverty among refugees. It’s partly encouraging the young generation. Before, people didn’t see what life on the other side could be and now they can see it,” he told Index.

Nearly every refugee interviewed for this article said that free calls on Skype and the ability to connect with relatives for free using standard social platforms (like Facebook) is invaluable to them. But for some, sharing stories from exile goes beyond simple messaging and status updates. Some refugees use blogs and social media channels to publish content banned at home to try to fight the repression they escaped.

Moses Walusimbi fled Uganda’s anti-gay laws for The Netherlands and now runs Uganda Gay On Move – a blog, Facebook and Twitter movement that helps gay Ugandans and Africans who have fled persecution, as well as providing information for those who are left behind and remain under threat.

“When I came to Holland, I realised the more you keep quiet the more you suffer,” Walusimbi told Index. “I was very eager to know if there were any other Ugandans who are in Holland who are like me, in the same situation. And when I started these social media things, many Ugandans responded.”

His movement now has almost 9,000 followers on Facebook, which he says is the most popular platform for his content. He also has followers on Twitter and his blog. Uganda Gay On Move is providing a support network that goes beyond publishing, with many photos of meetings between its members for social and political reasons.

“Uganda Gay On Move is like a family to us now. It’s like a family because we come together, we discuss, we find solutions,” said Walusimbi. These solutions have included the group petitioning and lobbying the Dutch parliament to raise awareness about the denial of the human rights of gay Ugandans and other Africans. It also publishes information that helps asylum-seekers manage their cases and gather evidence. But Walusimbi still worries about those in Uganda who could face jail sentences simply for reading it.

“Ugandan LGBTI people – unless well-known human rights defenders – tend to use false names on Facebook. There is also a danger when people attend internet cafes and do not securely log off. There is also a danger – and I have had several direct reports of family or friends seeing the Facebook pages left open on computers in homes. Some people have been exposed this way,” Melanie Nathan, an LGBTI activist and publisher who has worked closely with African LGBTI movements, told Index. “Using Facebook could result in meetings or revealing real names through trust and then in entrapment.” Walusimbi corroborated that there are real cases where this has happened.

Blogs by and for refugees from various conflict zones are building audiences. The Medeshi Somaliland blog is one example. It was founded with a desire to keep in touch with a dispersed family and diaspora in 2007 by Mo Ali, who left Somaliland to seek asylum in the UK in 2004. His work of aggregating and creating new content quickly became more political.

“There are many websites about Somaliland and those who are publishing there have been harassed by the police. They’ve been ordered to shut down because of being critical of the government on freedom of speech and press,” Ali told Index, saying he knows of at least three websites that have been shut down and explaining why he has to publish from abroad.

Even publishing from the UK, he doesn’t feel totally safe, “I’ve received death threats via email but I published the threat online and nothing happened. I’m still alive. It was just intimidation.”

Like Uganda Gay On Move, Ali has used the blog’s following to campaign, and in 2010 and 2012 rallied more than 1,000 of his followers to lobby outside London’s Parliament for official recognition of Somaliland.

Refugees are working on their own and with professional content and software creators to find bespoke ways to tell their stories. Dadaab Stories and the related Refugee News are two of the most elegant projects that have used the power of free social media tools (particularly Tumblr and YouTube) to help refugees publish stories. In these cases, professional filmmakers and refugees worked together to create ongoing social media coverage of the refugee camp for Somalians in Kenya.

Globally available and free technology platforms are helpful, but tools, platforms and projects are now emerging that are specifically aimed at refugees to allow them to self-organise and connect digitally.

Refunite is a social network designed to connect dispersed families that have low access to technology following displacement. It allows refugees to remain anonymous to everyone other than their family members, which aids those who may not be able to register with formal institutions because they are awaiting asylum decisions or are stateless. The platform currently reaches more than 500,000 refugees and is aiming to connect 1 million during 2015. It is geared towards low-end mobile technology to ensure that nearly anyone can use it. It can even be accessed using an interactive voice response system or text-messaging for those who are illiterate or don’t have internet access.

Low-cost and low-barrier-to-entry technologies such as these are proving to be a key part of connecting refugees in crisis. The UNHCR is telling the world the story of Jordan’s Zaatari camp via Twitter (which has claimed to be the first refugee camp with an official Twitter account). Nasreddine Touaibia, a UNHCR communications associate at the camp described how WhatsApp, a free or low-cost mobile messaging system, is being used by Syrian refugees to self-organise. “Urgent messages are sent to these groups and they are reflected in the Facebook group later. It’s their own emergency broadcast network,” he told Index, describing how WhatsApp had been used to give warnings when flooding occurred at the camp.

South African technology startup Vumi is now trying to build on this trend of using low-cost messaging services to create technical products that can empower refugees to self-organise at scale. Its platform uses mass mobile messaging and low-fi browsing to enable access to civic information.

Building on its success in Libya of technically enabling Wikipedia Zero (a Wikipedia Foundation project which gives access to Wikipedia without data charges in 35 countries) and distributing voter information, the company is now in the planning stages for a project focussed on empowering refugees, in partnership with South Africa’s Lawyers for Human Rights, an NGO that deals largely with refugees in South Africa.

Various NGOs and other services are also using social media to provide platforms that help refugees re-settle. These are largely regionally based and aim to help refugees understand the legal and social contexts they are in. In the UK, the Refugee Council and Bail for Immigration Detainees provide online resources and tools that help refugees build and understand their legal cases. Migrant Voice, another UK-based organisation, provides training and tools to allow migrants (including refugees) to publish and communicate their stories.

Refugees and migrants certainly benefit from the uses of social media that everyone with internet access does; but the emerging platforms in the space are where the traditional model of solitary, isolated migrants can be disrupted. Tools specifically tailored to the needs of the excluded have the potential to create the most significant change in a networked world.

To read other articles from the issue, subscribe to the magazine in print, iPad, or phone find out more here or on iTunes, search for “Index on Censorship”.

This article and photograph is part of Across the wires, the spring 2015 issue of Index on Censorship magazine, and should not be reproduced without permission of the magazine editor. Follow the magazine on @Index_magazine

© Jason DaPonte

Wired up: why refugees in exile remain silenced

Women's Voices by Meltem Arikan

Women’s Voices by Meltem Arikan

Index on Censorship magazine’s editor, Rachael Jolley, introduces a special issue on refugee camps, looking at how migrants’ stories get told across the world,  from Syria and Eritrea to Italy and the UK   

Nothing is national any more, everything and everyone is connected internationally: economies, communication systems, immigration patterns, wars and conflicts all map across networks of different kinds.

Those linking networks can leave the world better informed and more aware of its connections, or those networks can fail to acknowledge their intersections, while carrying as much misinformation as information.

Where people are living in fear a connected world can be frightening, it can carry gossip and information back to those who pursue them. Decades ago, when people escaped from their homes to make a new life across the world, they were not afraid that their words, criticising the government they had fled from, could instantly be broadcast in the land they had left behind.

It is no wonder that in this more connected world, those fleeing persecution are more afraid to tell the truth about what the regime that tortured or imprisoned them has been doing. While, on the one hand, it should be easier to find out about such horrors, the way that your words can fly around the world in seconds adds enormous pressures not to speak about, or criticise, the country you fled from.

That fear often produces silence, leaving the wider world confused about the situation in a conflict-riven country where people are being killed, threatened or imprisoned. The consequences of instant communication can be terrifyingly swift.

Yet a different side of those networks, new apps or free phone services such as Skype, can provide some help in getting messages back to families left behind, giving them some hope about their loved ones’ future. That is one aspect that those in decades and centuries past, who fled their homelands, could never do. In the late 19th century, someone who escaped torture in Russia and travelled thousands of miles to the United States, might never speak to the family they had left behind again.

Communication has been revolutionised in the last two decades – where once a creaky telephone line was the only way of speaking to a sister or father across a continent or two, now Skype, Viber, Googlechat, and others offer options to see and speak every day.

In this issue’s special report Across the Wires, our writers and artists examine the threats of free expression within refugee camps, and as refugees desperately flee from persecution. Sources estimate that there are between 15.5 and 16.7 million refugees in the world today. Some are forced to live in camps for decades, others are fleeing from new conflicts, such as three million who have already left Syria. Many of us may know someone who has been forced to flee from another regime, those that don’t may in the future, and have some understanding of what that journey is like.

In this issue, writer Jason DaPonte examines how those who have escaped remain worried that their words will be captured and used against their families, and the steps they take to try avoid this. He also looks at “new” technology’s ability to keep refugees in touch with the outside world and to help tell the story of the camps themselves.

Italian journalist Fabrizio Gatti spent four years undercover, discovering details of refugee escape routes and people trafficking. In an extract from his book, previously unpublished in English, he tells his story of assuming the identity of a Kurdish man Bilal escaping torture, and fleeing to Italy via the Lampedusa detention camp, and the treatment he encountered. He speaks only Arabic and English to camp officials, but is able to hear what they said to each other in Italian about those seeking asylum. He uncovers the inhumanity and lack of rights those around him experienced in this powerful piece of writing.

Some of our authors in this issue speak from personal experience of seeking refuge, not speaking the language of the land they are forced to move to, and the steps they go through to resettle and be accepted in another land. Kao Kalia Yang’s family fled Laos during the Vietnam war, moving first to Thailand and then to the United States. She remembers how the family struggled first without understanding or speaking in Thai, then the same battles with English once they settled in the United States.

Ismail Einashe, whose family fled from Somaliland, talks to those who have escaped from one of the most secretive countries in the world, Eritrea. Einashe talks to Eritreans, now living in the UK, who are still afraid to speak openly about the conditions at home for fear of retribution.

The report also examines how the global media portrays refugee stories, the accuracy of those portrayals and how projects such as a new Syrian soap opera, partly written by a refugee, are giving asylum seekers and camp dwellers more power to tell the stories themselves.

But when people are escaping danger, the natural inclination is to stay quiet and under the radar. Some bravely do not. They intend to alert the world to a situation that is unfolding, and to attempt to protect others. Our report shows how much easier it is for the world’s citizens to find out about terrible persecution than it was in other eras, but how those communication tools can be turned back on those that are persecuted themselves. The push and pull of global networks, to be used for freedom or to silence others, is an on-going battle and one that we can only become more aware of.


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© Rachael Jolley