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How Online Services Can Help Preserve Your Anonymity

Last year, Google announced that it would combine data from all of a user's activities across all its products, like Gmail, Calendar and YouTube, to provide a "better" online experience.

If you lead a double life of any kind — something as simple as wanting to keep your business and personal accounts separate — the change could be hard to swallow.

Simply switching to another online service won't help. "When you register with Yahoo! and sign in to our services, you are not anonymous to us," Yahoo says in its privacy policy.

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One way Google, and most other websites, track where you go online is by installing little bits of code called cookies. That's why you'll continue to see ads from a site you visited several days ago. Your computer isn’t clairvoyant: It's tracking you and sending the information back to the companies who placed the cookies when you opened a page on their sites.

You can disable cookies in your Web browser, but many sites — including Google — won't work without them. And your Internet Protocol address (which identifies your computer with a series of numbers) is still recorded. That’s why privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation say it's safer to use other services.

Here are two options for other online services — one for beginners and a second for users who want to go a bit further.

Popping your search bubble

Duck Duck Go is a search engine that does not use cookies or store IP addresses, so your travels won’t be tracked online. Founder Gabriel Weinberg points out that when you use Google or Bing, your search results are tailored to preferences you've expressed in the past.

For instance, one person's search for "Barack Obama" might get Fox News as a top result, while a friend might get MSNBC. These differences would be based on factors such as browsing history, Google +1's (the social network's version of a Facebook  "Like"), Tweets and Facebook shares. Weinberg calls that "searching within a filter bubble."

Using Duck Duck Go lets users "pop" their search bubbles and get unfiltered results, he said.

Going dark

Some people might prefer an even more secure service. Tor, short for "The Onion Router," is named after its layered security, which are metaphorically like the layers of an onion.

Tor generates a random, encrypted path to send information from your computer to its destination. Each step along the path further obscures identifying information, such as your computer’s IP address.

By default, Tor blocks all ads and redirects users to Duck Duck Go when a search term is typed into Google.

Tor isn't just for hacktivists or people living in censored countries such as Tibet, Syria and Egypt. Ordinary families who don't want their kids to inadvertently reveal their whereabouts use Tor.

According to Tor's website, a rural lawyer in New England uses Tor to write an anonymous blog because he believes the political beliefs expressed on his site may offend some clients.

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Tor, which is free to download, can be hard to set up, but there's a plug-in that works with Mozilla's Firefox browser on Windows, Mac and Linux computers. A mobile version for Android phones is available, and Tor for iPhones and iPads is in the works.

Tor can safeguard online activities such as browsing, instant messaging, blogging and Internet phone calls. However, your browsing experience will be limited.

For security reasons, Tor blocks many plug-ins, including Adobe Flash and the newer HTML5 video technology, so watching video will be off-limits. You can temporarily disable the block by clicking the "no scripts" snake icon, but you do so at the risk of revealing your identity.

You won't be able to tweet a story on Twitter or share to Facebook. Why? Because with Tor, those websites don't recognize you. You are anonymous.

Whether you decide to leave your online activities open to analysis or choose to use the Internet in private some or all of the time, it's good to know you have options.

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