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Surf the Web Anonymously

by J.W. Olsen
06/29/2004

When you surf the Web, your life is an open book. Your IP address, your Internet cache, browser history, and more is open to snooping. Each packet you send generally travels through several computers to reach its destination.

Along the way, the packet can be intercepted and used by others to track your Internet activities -- or to attack your computer, maliciously or otherwise. Further, web sites share information about your visit with others to target you with ads that match your activity profile. If you're a regular web adventurer, these and other ungracious activities happen to you frequently with or without your knowledge.

Anonymizing software can provide a key layer of protection by routing your communication with most web sites through an anonymous proxy server that substitutes its Internet address for yours. That way, you never actually "touch" the web site; the proxy does it for you. And so your private information is kept private.

We tested two popular shareware anonymizers for this review, GhostSurf version 2.1 and Anonymity 4 Proxy version 2.8 (A4Proxy). Both work with Microsoft Internet Explorer (which we used for testing) and Netscape Navigator. GhostSurf also works with Opera. You can test both out for free, although as with all shareware, if you continue to use them after a certain amount of time, you'll have to pay for them.

Based on our testing, GhostSurf is the hands-down choice for the moderately experienced user. Its installer automates all the basics so your browser and GhostSurf are ready to run. Essentially all you do is click install, tell it what browsers to use, and you're ready to go. If you do run into trouble, however, GhostSurf's help file is well written. We tested the $39.95 Professional Edition of GhostSurf, but if you already have ad-blocking software, there's no need to get the Professional Edition. Instead, stick with the $27.95 Privacy Edition, which provides the anonymous surfing features.

GhostSurf 2.1
GhostSurf 2.1.

By contrast, the $45 A4Proxy requires you to manually change browser settings. You'll have to select a proxy IP address and port number. The help file made the first step easy. But we found that, in most other respects, the help file wasn't too helpful. A4Proxy also has an interface that tends to drown you in too much detail. Do you really need to know the number of packets received and sent for each socket ID? Most likely, not. And on many screens, information tended more to obfuscate a given task rather than expedite it.

These anonymizer programs rely on third-party proxy servers around the world, and some web sites present technical problems working with them. So don't expect problem-free surfing. We experienced a number of related issues during testing. Fortunately, both products have two key strengths to help.

First, advanced users can set extensive options for specific web sites. Second, you can easily turn off either program to communicate with sites as usual without intervention by the anonymizer software. So, if protecting your privacy online is important to you, why not see if these products meet your web-browsing needs?

Anonymity 4 Proxy 2.8
Anonymity 4 Proxy v2.8.

GhostSurf Version 2.1

PROS: Makes installation and basic use easy, with excellent help provided.

CONS: Like other anonymizing software, requires active user configuration of settings.

Download at www.ghostsurf.net; $39.95 (Professional Edition).

GhostSurf provides a concise history of visited web sites in plain English.

Anonymity 4 Proxy Version 2.8

PROS: Provides extensive technical details to track web-browsing activities.

CONS: Installing the product requires configuration of your browser and the product; the user interface sometimes is overly detailed for most users; and the help file is weak.

Download at www.inetprivacy.com/a4proxy; $45.

Anonymity 4 Proxy provides extensive technical details as it surfs the Web.

J.W. Olsen has written, edited, and served as freelance book project manager exclusively in technology publishing since 1990.


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