When you surf the Internet, everyone is watching.
Tracking companies, search engines and social networks try to learn your habits for advertising purposes. Your Internet service provider monitors every move to make sure you're not doing anything illegal.
A government analyst somewhere might think you're "interesting" because of a suspicious phrase you used in a tweet.
On the other side of the law, there are scammers and hackers waiting to pounce on any opportunity to steal your identity and your money.
Many people believe there's nothing they can do to prevent such snooping. A master spy such as James Bond can browse the Internet without leaving a trace -- sure -- but not regular folks.
Well, it's not as hard as you may think to browse anonymously and preserve your privacy. All you need are a few tools and some coaching in covert ops.
That's where I come in. Just call me Komando... Kim Komando.
Hackers use viruses to exploit your computer and steal personal information. Your first line of defence is to always keep a clean machine and make sure your security software is up to date.
When you surf, your browser keeps a record of where you go, what you search for and what you download. It also stores cookies, which can improve the functionality of websites and track you. Wipe out this information with a program like CCleaner.
Or make sure it isn't recorded in the first place. The next time you want to kill an hour watching a puppy cam without leaving a digital footprint on your computer, toggle to private or incognito browsing mode. All major browsers have it listed in the program's main menu.
Private browsing prevents history and cookies from being saved on your computer, but it does nothing to mask your Internet identity.
For that, you need to advance to the next level.
When you go online, your ISP gives your computer a unique Internet protocol address. Individual computers and web servers need these addresses to exchange data.
An IP address doesn't identify you personally, but it reveals which ISP you use and your general geographic location. That's how Google brings up a list and a map of the nearest Safeway and 7-Elevens when all you searched for was "grocery stores."
Of course, your ISP records your IP address and the IP addresses of the sites you visit. It could know your entire web history!
Thankfully, there are ways you can disguise your IP address.
A web-based proxy server allows you to enter the address of a site you want to visit. The proxy service requests the website and displays it for you.
The site you visit can't see or track you. And your ISP doesn't know where you've gone either.
Web-based proxies work entirely through your browser. There's no need to download software or reconfigure settings.
There's little, if any, security in the connection, however. Don't use a proxy to send sensitive data. And be aware: Some apps that work within browsers, such as Flash and Java, can also betray your IP address while you're using a proxy.
If you want to take the next step, you can download a proxy system such as Tor. This routes all your Internet traffic through volunteer servers around the world. No one can track you!
If you're authorized to use your home computer to access your company or school network, you're using a virtual private network. Many VPN providers offer subscriptions to individuals.
A VPN will cost you, but you gain a high level of encryption, more reliability and greater integration with your gadgets. In addition to anonymous and secure web browsing, your email and chats are also safe, even if you're using public Wi-Fi.
Why do I share this? To help you enhance your privacy and security. What you do online really is no one's business unless you want to make it their business. But please don't get the idea that a VPN or proxy server will let you get away with illegal activities. Law enforcement can subpoena the records of ISPs and VPN providers and trace suspicious activity to your home computer.
Bond, James Bond
Master spies always keep a secret cache of currency and fake passports in case they get into a jam and need to drop out of sight. They also need a way to anonymously use any computer that's handy.
That's possible with a bootable USB stick or DVD loaded with Tails (The Amnesiac Incognito Live System). The free, open-source package bypasses a computer's internal operating system and hard drive.
Tails was developed to allow journalists and human rights advocates stationed in oppressive regimes to work and communicate safely.
The live-boot Linux operating system works on Macs and PCs. A built-in, customized browser takes advantage of the previously mentioned Tor network.
Browser extensions block ads, Java and Flash. Other tools in the package encrypt your email and instant messages. There's even free productivity software, such as OpenOffice and more, if you need to get a top secret report done.
As 007 would say: Brilliant!
-- USA Today