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I clear my cookies a lot though. There are sites I can’t get on without leaving a cookie.

I agree. In SOME cases there is a way to visit a site without ever being “known” there. Using StartPage (formerly Ixquick – they merged last week) as your search engine, do a normal search exactly as you would with Google. You can use advanced searches including multiple words within quotes so they become a single search term, for example. StartPage uses Google, but never transmits your data (ANY of it) on to other sites. However, IF you click the main search results, you’ll be then going directly to the site, and they know who you are (IP address, operating system, browser, etc., etc.). Instead, look JUST beyond the end of the main title of the search result and you’ll see the word “Proxy.” Click that, and it will be StartPage that will be accessing the site, not you. Some pages won’t come up at all, but most will still come up without some of the advertising content, etc. The ones that won’t come up also “give away” the fact that they’re trying to collect significant information about you, or are using sub-programs (Java, Flash, etc.) to deliver content TO you – which can also be dangerous. So although some formatting may be a bit “off” when using the proxy search available in StartPage, you can usually read what you really came to read, and know that there are NO cookies being delivered to your computer, no IP address collected, etc., – because the web site thinks “you” are somebody else (StartPage).

This is a typical notice you’ll see returned (this one came from the marxists.org web site, which suddenly went “dark” on Ixquick/StartPage a year or so ago, after being highly readable. Apparently they want to know much more about who’s looking at their pages.

The page you requested could not be retrieved by the Ixquick Proxy, as a “403 Forbidden” message was received.

It is possible that the page is not available to anyone. Alternatively, the page may require the use of a certain browser, or cookies, or a password, for access.

Click here to access this page directly.

Only if I really, really want to see a page do I make a risk/reward decision on whether to do a direct access (basically totally “seen” by the page I want to visit). But I’ve also got Firefox set to delete all cookies every time I close the browser. And I close the browser frequently after visiting certain sites (especially banking, etc.), and then quickly reopen the browser to look at something else – then my previous cookies aren’t anywhere to be found by the next site I go to.

If you want a real eye-opener, download a Firefox add-on called “Lightbeam” and start looking at it periodically. It will show how many OTHER sites you’ve connected to, simply by connecting to what you thought was just one site.

One other tip I learned. If your ISP tells you that you can’t really “lose” your IP address easily, or that you’re stuck with it for months at a time (normally that IS the case), it does not HAVE to be true. There is a way you can get a new IP address in just a couple of minutes, any time you want to, and keep it as long or as short as you wish. If you use a router, learn how to go into your router software and change your MAC address manually (simply change the final digit of the MAC address by one digit – say, from a 4 to a 3 – and save the change). First, unplug your modem completely, so you’re not connected to the internet at all. Then reboot your router with your modem unplugged (if you use your cable company for internet access, for example). Once your router has rebooted with the new MAC address, unplug your router, wait a few seconds, then plug it back in. Once it’s completely back running, then plug your modem back in and let it boot back up. I don’t know why it requires the router to be unplugged and then powered up again after having already rebooted (at least mine does), but unless I do that, sometimes my ISP knows who I am and gives me back the same IP address despite the change in MAC address. It’s a tiny additional pain, but well worth it in order to be “someone else” in just a couple of minutes.

Once you’re back on line, you should have a new IP address. Your ISP sees a different MAC address, thinks you’re someone else, so it assigns a new IP address to you. You can check it by going to Gibson Research’s excellent site and using the “Shields Up” option under the “Services” pull-down menu. It will show your current IP address, which you can compare to what you had a few minutes earlier before the change, just to confirm it’s really changed. That way, you don’t “look” like the same person always traveling around the internet, even if you haven’t been saving “your” cookies. Your IP address still goes to sites – and FedGov and Google (among others) love to keep track of that identifier of yours. So keep changing it and you’re that much more anonymous.