Academics Anonymous

As we’ve said many times before, privacy is essential to academic freedom and free expression. Anonymous browsing is one way for academics to ensure their privacy online (to the extent that’s possible) and can be done in a number of ways; chief among these are virtual private networks (VPNs), proxy servers and TOR – a browser purpose-built to anonymize data transport developed by employees of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in the mid-90s. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages for students, researchers, and academics-at-large.

Virtual private networks are private connections spread over the internet. These are handy for academics who travel, as they allow users to securely access resources remotely. They’re also useful for circumventing geo-restrictions and censorship (although the data can likely be monitored regardless), as many Canadian Netflix subscribers know. Beware, though – some VPNs turn your computer into an ‘exit node’, which can render you liable for the actions of others.

Proxy servers ‘bounce’ connections – they allow users to access resources indirectly by acting as an intermediary. Proxies can act as a quick workaround but are traceable in some cases (your IP and/or DNS can show up in headers); some of these are rumoured to be ‘traps’ to catch illicit activity.

TOR (alongside its associated browser) is a network that functions similarly to a VPN, allowing users to circumvent censorship and restrictions. It can be used to publish a site while hiding its location, communicate sensitive information, prevent tracking; all of these are beneficial. It also comes with its own set of associated risks; merely searching for information on TOR is rumoured to attract surveillance, and it only protects the transport of data. End-to-end timing attacks are still efficacious, and software (the aforementioned browser) is required to conceal your info from the sites you visit.

Students, researchers and academics-at-large can benefit from these modes of anonymity, but they should be aware of the associated risks – and that absolute anonymity and security is infeasible if not impossible.