Best free privacy software
An increasing problem with using the internet is the sheer amount of personally-identifiable data that internet companies now try to collect from their users.
For companies such as Facebook and Google, the aim is to help them better understand users so they can better target advertising at them. However, businesses in general have become used to see user tracking as a legitimate way of finding out more about potential customers.
The result is that individual internet users can end up with dozens of tracking scripts download to their browser which follow which websites are being visited.
Usually this is all installed without even asking for permission, and it's become such a real concern now that the European Union launched GDPR as an attempt to empower users with a choice of which cookies and scripts they actually consent to.
The problem is that a lot of businesses seek to comply with the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it, with the result that most websites now come with a popup asking if you will accept cookies or not, without offering an actual opt-out from any tracking.
While there are browser settings and plugins that aim to help internet users better control their privacy, often more extreme measure are now required.
Other options include using a anonymous proxy server, or even a VPN - Virtual Private Network - in order to provide you with an anonymous web surfing experience.
- Or, if you're looking for a long-term premium solution, why not opt for one of the best VPN services we've identified. And while you're here, check our list of the best free proxy offerings
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The best VPN in the world right now is: ExpressVPN
We have reviewed more than one hundred VPN providers, both free and paid and our top recommendation right now is ExpressVPN. That's because, while it's not free, its speed and robustness as well as the servers it has in nearly 100 countries worldwide and the multitude of apps which accommodate almost any of your devices. It's not free, but it does come with a 30-day no-quibble money back guarantee and we highly recommend trying it over any free options. Prices start from just $6.67 per month!
This super-secure browser is the cornerstone of any privacy toolkit
Tor Browser is probably the best-known anonymous browsing tool out there, and it is described as a 'censorship circumvention tool'.
Tor Browser has a vast following in the online privacy and security communities. It works by bouncing your communication through numerous encrypted nodes on the internet, making it impossible to determine your location or other identifying information.
Tor Browser employs complex technology, but is refreshingly accessible. It's based on the same code as Firefox, and guides you through the process of getting online one step at a time.
It uses different connection methods depending on what you're trying to achieve, but there's no need to understand the details because it's all taken care of for you. This combination of effective protection and ease of use makes Tor Browser the best free privacy software you can download today.
Privoxy gives you total control, but the options might be overwhelming
Privoxy is a web proxy tool that's available not only for Mac, Windows and Linux, but also Android and iOS. It is a tremendously powerful tool, but you'll need to invest a little time and effort to get it up and running.
Privoxy can be used in conjunction with just about any web browser, which is a big bonus; simply set the browser to run its traffic through the tool.
However, one of Privoxy's key features could also be a drawback for new users: it gives you very granular control over privacy settings, and configuring them is very much a manual process. There's a helpful quick start guide available, but it has the potential to be off-putting.
That said, if you're happy to persevere, this free privacy software lets you set up advanced filters that will not only ensure you remain anonymous online, but also protect you against unwanted ads.
Protect your identity by hiding your IP address from prying eyes
Hotspot Shield is available in two flavors: a free, ad-supported one, and a paid-for version that offers unlimited bandwidth. Hotspot Shield hides your IP address and provides encrypted traffic tunnelling (ideal for use on public Wi-Fi networks) to improve security and ensure privacy.
You may not want to use Hotspot Shield at all time. For instance, you may only be interested in using it to access certain sites that are blocked in your country. In this case you can create shortcuts to individual sites in the Hotspot Shield window, which will enable protection before launching the sites. Protection can also be toggled on an off with a single click.
The paid-for product, Hotspot Elite, only costs a few dollars or pounds a month, but it's worth trying the free edition first before opening your wallet. The premium version's additional features, including ad-free browsing and dedicated customer support, make it a tempting proposition.
TunnelBear is VPN made easy
In addition to anonymous browsing, free VPN client TunnelBear can also be used to bypass traffic-shaping and throttling put in place by ISPs.
The free version of TunnelBear gives you up to 500MB of data each month, but if this isn't enough, unlimited data is available for a subscription fee, with prices starting at $4.99 per month (about £3.90, AU$6.90) if paid for annually. Alternatively, you can pay around twice that to use on a month-by-month basis.
Whether you go premium or stick with the free version, you can share a single account between up to five phones, tablets, Windows PCs or Macs.
Configuration is incredibly simple, and TunnelBear's free privacy software can be used with any browser. It's probably the most accessible VPN tool there is, and is just about impossible not to recommend.
Another great VPN that offers a huge data allowance
Windscribe is another multi-platform VPN tool in this list, where free users have access to one of the biggest data allowance in the business.
The free plan offers 10GB if you register (2GB if you don't) which for occasional use should be perfectly adequate. If not, there are paid plans that grant unlimited data and additional configuration options, with prices starting at $4.08 a month (about £3, AU$5.70) with an annual contract.
Configuration is simple as all you need to do is to click one button to turn the VPN on and you're good to go. Depending on your region, the software will automatically connect you to the best location, giving the impression that you're browsing from another country.
The downside of using Windscribe (free plan especially) is that the connection speeds can be average and inconsistent. Still, the pros outweigh the cons, so the service is well worth a try.
Also consider: private browsing
As well as private browsing software and VPNs, another possibility is to use stricter privacy controls on your usual browsers.
However, this is probably best considered as a first defense rather than a complete solution, especially when these are primarily aimed at preventing tracking cookies, and the browser manufacturer may consider themselves already granted permission to collect some user data in the first place.
Even still, we'll explore your options for making a start with private browsing using the most popular browsers.
Mozilla Firefox: You can adjust your privacy settings for Firefox using the official guide, which should allow a better degree of private browsing. Do note that unless you make adjustments, your browser will actually send a lot of information both to Mozilla as well as partners such as Google, not least on your location.
Google Chrome: Information on changing your privacy settings in Google Chrome can be found here, though take note that this is mainly aimed at controlling how much information third-party websites might try to gain on your surfing habits, and doesn't exclude Google from collecting data for its own purposes, not least usability and service improvements.
Microsoft Edge: You can find out how to adjust your privacy settings for surfing with the Microsoft Edge browser here. Again, this is more focused on browsing more privately than anonymously, not least with regards to advertising cookies.
Apple Safari: Information on how to adjust privacy settings using the Safari browser on a Mac can be found here , though note that Apple are apparently putting in place new privacy protections in Safari 12.2, in order to better protect consumers against the increasing use of data collection by companies through the apps they provide.