There are numerous reasons why a user would want to encrypt their internet traffic
A user might simply want to hide their browsing tracks on the web; others might want to ensure their personal information remains safe from hackers. Still others might want to keep their online activities hidden from ad tracking networks, the government or even their own Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Whatever the reason you want to keep your internet traffic encrypted and safe from observation by third parties, you’ll be glad to know that it’s easy to keep your online activities under wraps. By making use of a few handy and easy-to-obtain virtual tools, users can encrypt their internet traffic.
Many of the steps users can take to protect themselves from being tracked online are free, while others will cost you a few bucks, although you’ll find the return on investment more than justifies any financial outlay involved.
Why Should You Encrypt Your Internet Traffic?
Encryption is all about keeping your online activities and its accompanying personal and business-related information safe from the eyes of third parties, who would just love to be able to observe your online antics, as well as steal your login, banking, credit card and other personal information, which would allow them to steal you blind.
In addition to the bad guys, you’re faced with government agencies around the world, most of which are decidedly anti-privacy and looking to track your activities on the internet.
As if that wasn’t enough, Internet Service Providers in the United States are now allowed to sell their customers’ browsing habits to advertisers so they can deliver better-targeted advertising to your browser.
All of this adds up to a whole lot of folks looking to keep track of your travel itinerary when you hit the information superhighway. Luckily, it’s possible to keep those intrusive individuals off your back.
In this article, we’ll discuss the various methods you can use to encrypt your internet connection, keeping your activities and information safe and sound. We’ll also take a look at some lava lamps, which, believe it or not, are actually being used to encrypt around 10% of all internet traffic. More about that later.
How To Encrypt Your Internet Traffic
There are a wide variety of tools available to help you keep your internet traffic hidden safely inside a tunnel of encryption.
As I mentioned before, most of these tools are free, while others will cost you less than a few cups of coffee at your favorite local caffeine pusher. (Plus, they help protect you and your connection from said pusher’s unencrypted Wi-Fi hotspot.)
In this section, we’ll look at what you can do to encrypt your internet traffic, both at home and on the road. Just about everything we discuss here can be used to protect your desktop and mobile devices, as well as any internet-connected devices in your home or business.
First, we’ll take a look at how to turn on encryption for your home or business Wi-Fi network. Then, we’ll cover how a VPN can help keep your internet connection under wraps. Your web browser is a popular way for hackers and others to track your online activities, so we’ll discuss how to lock down your current browser. Finally, we’ll take a look at a browser that will cover your tracks.
Turn on Encryption For Your Wi-Fi Network
If there’s one place we should all feel safe, it’s inside of our own home or place of business. There’s no one looking over your shoulder watching your online activities and attempting to steal your personal information. Right?
Well, that depends.
If you haven’t set a password to join your home or business Wi-Fi network, your security level would only be as high as it is when you’re sitting at your local coffee shop, using their free Wi-Fi hotspot. That level is no security at all.
If you don’t require a password to join your Wi-Fi network, you’re leaving it open to anyone within range, allowing them to connect and monitor your online activities and possibly exploit the weaknesses of any of your connected devices.
Plus, if you haven’t bothered to set a password for your Wi-Fi network, I’m willing to bet that you may have left your network’s administrator password set to the default. That’s more bad news.
As soon as you install a new Wi-Fi router, always immediately do two things.
First, set a password that is required to join your network. This keeps uninvited jerks from connecting and monitoring your activities.
Second, change the default administrator password for the router. If you don’t, a hacker could easily guess the default password and take over your home network. And to paraphrase Martha Stewart: that’s never a good thing.
The steps to set a Wi-Fi password and change the administrator password can differ with the make and model of your router. If you’ve lost the instructions on how to make these changes, visit the website of your router’s manufacturer, and you’ll be able to find the instructions there.
While you’re visiting your router maker’s website, check to see if there’s an update available for your router’s firmware. Manufacturers regularly release updates to plug security holes and other issues that might be present in earlier versions of the router’s firmware.
Please note that this step doesn’t protect you from being monitored by your ISP. However, it’s the first, basic step you should perform for any home or business network.
Use a VPN
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is arguably the best way to encrypt your internet traffic – all of your internet traffic.
A VPN encases your internet connection in a layer of encryption. This prevents third parties from monitoring your online travels. While they can tell you’re connected to the internet, they can’t tell what websites or other services you’ve accessed.
Encryption also prevents the bad guys from stealing your login information when you’re visiting the websites of your bank, credit card providers or shopping sites like Amazon while connected to an unprotected Wi-Fi hotspot. Unprotected hotspots can include the one at your favorite coffee shop or your home Wi-Fi network (before you secured it in the last section).
A VPN also adds an extra layer of encrypted protection to a secured Wi-Fi network, preventing your ISP or friendly government agent from tracking you while you’re online.
In addition to its encryption capabilities, a VPN also makes for a great way to access content that might not usually be available in your area.
This can include, but is not limited to: video and audio streaming content, as well as international gaming content and servers, which could be blocked due to geographical licensing restrictions.
It can also include websites and other services that might be blocked due to restrictions put in place by oppressive governments.
The way a VPN helps get around content roadblocks is by making it appear to the rest of the world that you’re connected from another location. When you connect to your VPN’s servers, you can select a geographical location where you’ll appear to be connected from. This new location can be another part of your country, or another country entirely.
For more information about Virtual Private Networks and all of the online activities it can both enhance and protect, visit the VPN section of my website.
I have always felt that using any website that isn’t protected with an encrypted HTTPS connection is like logging into your bank’s website while you’re sitting in a coffee shop and getting up and going to the restroom, leaving your laptop logged into the website.
Admittedly, that sounds a bit ridiculous, but that’s the closest example I can think of to using an unencrypted website.
Luckily, most websites where you might be accessing sensitive personal information, such as banking, credit card or shopping sites, use HTTPS encryption to protect their users. However, there are still plenty of websites that run “naked” with an unencrypted connection.
An HTTPS connection provides a layer of encryption, protecting the data sent to and received from the site. Such data includes usernames, passwords, credit card numbers and other information you wouldn’t normally want to be shared with perfect strangers, or even your mother.
When you’re visiting a secure website, you’ll notice the URL in the address bar begins with “https://.” You also might see a little green padlock, as shown below (depending on which browser you’re using).
While some websites only provide HTTPS protection for login pages or their checkout process, a well-designed website (whose creators care about your privacy) will offer HTTPS across their entire site.
Luckily, there’s a way for Chrome, Firefox and Opera users to force websites to use HTTPS encryption. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has developed a browser extension called “HTTPS Everywhere,” which automatically enables an HTTPS connection for websites that support HTTPS. This protects your connection every step of the way, not just login or checkout activity.
It should be noted that the extension can cause issues with some websites. If the website poses difficulties, users can choose to disable forced HTTPS for that website. If you run into such a website, take a moment to drop a line to the developer and ask them to fix the inconsistencies causing the issues.
Safari and Internet Explorer users are SOL (Simply Out of Luck) when it comes to HTTPS Everywhere support for their browsers. However, an independent project has developed an IE extension based on the HTTPS Everywhere project. Zscaler Tools – HTTPS Everywhere for Internet Explorer – is available for IE 6 to 10.
Development of the extension is still in its infancy, so you’ll likely experience issues if you try it out, so keep that in mind. But, it’s worth a shot. For more information, visit the Zscaler website.
The Tor Browser is a convenient way to encrypt your web browsing activity. The browser uses the Tor (“The Onion Router”) network, which is made up of a series of volunteer-operated relay connections that are used to encrypt and anonymize a Tor user’s internet connection.
Tor’s “onion routing” method of protecting your browser activity is named such due to the communication protocol stack’s application layer, which can be described as similar to the layers of an onion. Data is encrypted several times by the network, never revealing the user’s original IP address.
The Tor Browser effectively prevents anyone from tracking your online activity and your actual IP address. The browser is a popular tool for journalists, as well as activists, who reside in countries where internet activity is closely monitored and restricted.
A Tor user’s connection is bounced around the Tor Network’s relay, effectively masking the user’s actual location. The screenshot below from whatismyip.com indicates that I am connecting to the internet from France, while my actual location is in the southeastern part of the United States.
Please take note that while the Tor Browser is a great way to anonymize and encrypt your internet activity, it only anonymizes the activity conducted within the Tor Browser. Any other internet-related activity on your computer or mobile device is still being routed in the usual, completely trackable way.
The Tor Browser is not a good candidate to be your daily driver browser, as it offers a considerably slower online experience than other browsers. This is due to the relay method used to anonymize and encrypt your Tor traffic. So, you’ll still want to have a standard browser like Chrome or Firefox handy to use for online activities that aren’t security-critical.
This browser also allows users to access the more dangerous parts of the web, referred to by many as the “dark web,” which could lead to more encounters than usual with malware and other online hazards. So, be sure to practice safe browsing.
For more information on the Tor Browser, or to download the browser, visit the Tor Project website.
Users can protect their messages to friends, family or business associates by using an encrypted messaging app on their computer or mobile device. Encrypted messaging apps provide end-to-end encryption to protect your messages from the prying eyes of outsiders.
Popular encrypted messaging apps include:
Apple Messages (iOS, watchOS and macOS)
This app uses Apple’s iMessage secure messaging service, which encrypts users’ messages so well that even Apple can’t decrypt the messages. For a more detailed look at how it all works, download the latest version of Apple’s iOS Security Guide (PDF). The app comes pre-installed on all iOS, Mac and Apple Watch devices.
Signal (Android, iOS, macOS, Windows and Linux)
This app allows users to send one-on-one or group messages, files, images and videos, and place voice and video calls, all secured with end-to-end encryption. For more information about Signal, visit the Signal website.
WhatsApp (Most Popular Platforms)
This app is owned and operated by Facebook, so that may be enough to turn off some potential users, but millions of users seem to be comfortable enough with that bit of information. The app provides end-to-end encryption for texts, as well as video and audio calls. For more information about WhatsApp, visit the WhatsApp website.
Wickr Me – Private Messenger (Most Popular Platforms)
This instant messaging app protects its users’ conversations via end-to-end encryption and allows them to send content-expiring messages, photos, videos and other types of file attachments. Conversations can be conducted one-to-one or in groups. For more information about Wickr Me, visit the Wickr website.
It should be noted that all of the encrypted messaging apps listed above require both users or all of the members of a messaging group to be using the specified app. Also, none of the apps allow cross-app messaging. In other words, Signal users can’t message users who only have the WhatsApp messaging app installed on their device.
For more information on encrypted messaging apps and the technology that powers them, read the “Encrypted Messaging – What Is It, Why Should You Use It and What Are the Best Apps?” article, available on my website.
As we’ve seen in this article, it’s a good idea to encrypt as much of your internet activities as you possibly can. While it may take a few moments to set up some of the protections we’ve discussed, the time it takes is a solid investment in protecting your online anonymity.
Turn on Encryption for Your Local Wi-Fi Network
When you take your home or small business router out of the box, it most likely doesn’t have password protection (encryption) enabled. When you’re setting up your new router, immediately enable the router’s password protection.
With a network password enabled, no one can join your home or business network without the proper password. This keeps your activities on the network protected from monitoring by outsiders.
Use a VPN
This is especially important for computer and mobile device users who regularly connect to the internet via their favorite coffee shop or hotel’s unprotected Wi-Fi hotspots.
A VPN encases your internet connection in a layer of encryption, keeping all of your internet activities safe from prying eyes belonging to hackers, the government or even your own ISP. A VPN can also open up access to blocked content on the web, so it’s simply a good all-around investment.
Use HTTPS Everywhere
By using the HTTPS Everywhere extension for your Chrome, Firefox or Opera browser, you can force compatible websites to use the encrypted HTTPS protocol to communicate with your browser. This protects any information you might send or receive to websites, keeping it safe from those who would love to steal your personal and banking information.
Use the Tor Browser
The Tor Browser uses a series of relays to anonymize and encrypt your browser traffic. This prevents others from monitoring and tracking your internet browser travels.
Use Encrypted Messaging Apps
If you’re concerned about your online security, don’t forget to protect your messaging with friends and family. Standard SMS texts are not encrypted in any way. Use an encrypted messaging app, such as WhatsApp or Signal, to keep your conversations safe from monitoring by third parties.
Well, that’s about it… Oh, wait. I forgot to explain how lava lamps are being used to encrypt up to 10% of internet traffic.
San Francisco-based Cloudflare, Inc. is responsible for the protection of over 6 million websites, including some you may be vaguely aware of, such as Uber, Fitbit and OKCupid.
Cloudflare’s security services help protect its clients’ websites from Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, which can bring a website to its knees.
A crucial part of that protection is a layer of encryption, which is used to encrypt and decrypt private data sent between the websites and their users. A crucial component of the encryption is the ability to create truly random numbers to seed the creation of encryption keys.
If a truly random number isn’t being used, a pattern can be detected and used by hackers to break the encryption.
Enter the lava lamp – or rather, a wall of lava lamps. Cloudflare has set up a wall full of the popular ’60s icons, and a camera to take photos and video of the lamps, in order to turn those images into a string of random data.
Every time a photo is taken, there’s going to be some “noise” in the image. So every tiny change in the lava lamp can affect the data stream, and since a lava lamp’s “lava” is constantly flowing and changing, well…
For more information about Cloudflare’s lava lamp wall, visit the Nerdist website.