Anonymous surfing

Web surfing encompasses the use of websites, online forums and chatrooms. As we mentioned in last issue's Uncover the darknet article, you can use the Tor network to hide your IP address completely.

Tor is an 'onion router'. This is a network of computers spread across the globe. When enabled in your browser, Tor redirects all your outgoing web traffic through this network. Each connection takes a random path and emerges at a random point.

Tor

When it reaches the destination site, it appears that you're moving around the planet minute by minute. Note that Tor only makes your IP address anonymous, and it only works when you're browsing the web. Other types of traffic will pass straight from your machine to its destination.

Tor is available as a plug-in for Firefox. To use it, download the Tor Bundle from the project website. With Firefox running, run the downloaded executable, select English as the installation language and accept the defaults.

Firefox will ask you to confirm that you want the Tor button extension to be installed. Press 'Install Now' and restart Firefox when asked to. At the bottom right of the Firefox window will be the words 'Tor disabled'. Clicking on this changes it to 'Tor Enabled'.

Now, surf to http://check.torproject.org. If Tor is enabled, the message 'Congratulations. You are using Tor' will be displayed. You should also see an IP address. This address will be different each time you visit the page.

Spoof your country

Rather than bouncing around the world at random, you can also appear to be surfing from a single foreign country. This can be handy for several things.

For example, some TV broadcasters deliberately block foreign fans from accessing online content. Sometimes shows from one country are never broadcast or sold on DVD in others, and yet their makers still block access to them from abroad.

Because the content is being made available online for free, the reasons for blocking access in certain territories often defy logic. If the makers plan to sell the TV programmes abroad, why put them online in the first place? Viewers who are allowed to see the content can easily download and mail them overseas, and content regularly appears in high quality on torrent sites.

Blocked content

To avoid the ire of your ISP for generating too much P2P traffic, one method of accessing territory-restricted content is to use a public proxy server in a country that is allowed access.

Websites such as www.publicproxyservers.com maintain lists of public proxy servers. Because many proxies cache content, they can sometimes even be faster than accessing the original site directly.

On the Public Proxy Servers website, click on the 'Sorted by Country' link at the top left. Find the country in which the broadcaster who's blocking your access resides. Select a sever with a high rating to ensure you get a fast connection.

Clicking a server's details will open the proxy site's web interface. Enter the URL of the content that has been blocked and hit [Enter]. The site should now relay the content between the target site and your browser.

Be careful, though. You must continue to enter any subsequent URLs into the proxy or your request may go straight to the target site and be blocked.

Thwart trackers

Some websites use the services of so-called tracking companies to monitor traffic. However, by installing a small piece of JavaScript on the site, people can monitor a lot more than just numbers of visitors.

The script is automatically downloaded and run when you open the page, and details such as your IP address, ISP, browser and even screen resolution can all be monitored. While this may help web designers to create better websites, it's also possible to trace IP addresses to a general geographic location without ever having to go near your ISP's logs.

To prevent other people discovering this information and possibly tracking your web usage, it's a good idea to use JavaScript blocking. Possibly the best utility for doing this is the Firefox plugin NoScript.

When it's installed, absolutely no JavaScript on a page will run unless you expressly unblock it. This also protects you from malicious JavaScript applets that may have been planted to infect your system in a so-called 'drive-by' attack.

NoScript

NoScript also allows you to see the secondary domains used by big websites to supply adverts and other annoyances. Because NoScript blocks on a domain basis, it can block third-party ads, too.

To install NoScript, select 'Add-ons' from Firefox's Tools menu. This will pop up a window showing what's already installed on your system. Hit the 'Get Add-ons' button and then click the 'Browse All Add-ons' link. This will take you to Mozilla's add-ons site.

Enter NoScript in the search box and hit [Enter]. NoScript should be the first result returned. Click the button to add it. Press the 'Install Now' button on the pop-up and restart Firefox once installation is complete.

NoScript lives in the bottom right-hand corner of the Firefox window. When you surf to a site, if there are blocked scripts then the blue NoScript 'S' logo will display a red circle with a line through it. Click this and you'll see a list of all the domains with scripts being blocked. Click on the ones you trust (usually just the main domain), and click anywhere on the web page to continue.

One side effect of blocking scripts using NoScript is that sites with media will sometimes complain that you don't have Adobe Flash installed. If this happens, simply look through the list for the site that serves the media and unblock it.

This inconvenience is a small price to pay to stay safe and away from the prying eyes of online marketing people. By blocking scripts that may take time to load from overworked third-party servers, NoScript also helps to improve the speed of the sites you visit.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 288

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