The Ultimate Guide to Anonymous Downloads

A download starts with a click. But what happens in the background? Because surfing the web is much less private than it looks on your browser. But why is online anonymity important at all?

State surveillance and associated scandals are often the first cited arguments in favour of anonymous downloads. But the state itself is committed to online data protection and promotes projects for anonymous browsing. So what are the risks you run when you forego anonymity when downloading?

What are the risks of giving up anonymity when downloading?

In the following section, we would like to show you the main risks that you run if you choose not to download anonymously.

  1. Not all content offered online is legal. But even if you only download legal content with BitTorrent, like an installation DVD for the Debian GNU/Linux distribution, you can be held responsible for copyright infringement in many countries. Downloading anonymously can save you such unnecessary trouble.
  2. Who cares if you download a guidebook for emergencies or troubleshooting, for example? Even if it’s for a friend, no one needs to know. You wouldn’t write sensitive information on a postcard.

In essence, the problem lies in your data—such as IP address, service provider, MAC address, etc.—being viewable by the operator. These can be easily linked to you and used to create a profile, or worse, targeted scams. So how can you protect yourself against this?

Which browsers/operating systems should you use for anonymous downloading?

In theory, anonymous downloading is possible with any operating system and any browser. However, not all systems are equally suitable. Commercial operating systems like Windows or MacOS open internet connections themselves by default, which are difficult to control. This happens, for example, to allow them to check for updates. The same applies to browsers like Firefox or Chrome.

Still, the update functionality of these problems can simply be disabled in the configuration. This is especially important if you use services like Tor to render yourself invisible, because otherwise that anonymity would be jeopardized by the outgoing update requests with or without Tor.

You will find better support for anonymous downloading than Windows, MacOS or mobile operating systems like iOS or Android in the GNU/Linux and BSD Unix system families. There are even special Linux installations that are set up specifically for anonymous browsing. You can store these on a USB stick and install them on your PC as an alternative to the default operating system if you want to download anonymously.

Are anonymous downloads possible when browsing privately?

Some browsers offer special features for anonymous or private browsing. Google Chrome, for example, allows you to open websites in an incognito window. This form of protection involves the browser deleting all cookies, session data and history as soon as you close the last incognito window.

On its own, it doesn’t do very much, because it can only ensure that you don’t leave traces of your activities in your browser. In combination with a VPN, however, it is a useful supplement.

However, private browsing is nothing more than deleting browser data. Your IP, Mac address, etc. are all still transmitted.

Anonymous downloads and the Do Not Track header

In the configuration of your browser, you will usually find further options that give the impression of protecting your privacy online. In Chrome, for example, it is called ‘Do Not Track’. If you enable it, your browser sends additional information, a header, to the web server with every request, which tells it that you do not want tracking when visiting the website.

However, if is up to the web operator whether to refrain from tracking or not, because following the request is done on a voluntary basis. Activating the Do Not Track function is therefore practically useless. Nevertheless, there is a method with which you can encrypt your web traffic.

The solution for downloading anonymously: using a VPN

A VPN, or virtual private network, offers you true anonymity when downloading. This creates an encrypted connection from your network card to the VPN server, which forwards your web traffic as if it came from itself. This way, your identity remains hidden behind the VPN server. The setup is very easy and can be completed in a few clicks.

A VPN server can be located in Mexico, for example. If you were to establish an encrypted connection via this server now, it would look like as if you are in Mexico. Your original IP address cannot be seen and at the same time you have access to content that is blocked in your country, such as YouTube videos blocked in a certain geographic region. A VPN is therefore the ideal solution for downloading anonymously.

Free and anonymous downloading with Shellfire VPN

There really is no reason to sacrifice anonymity when downloading. With Shellfire VPN, you can even download anonymously for free in just a few simple steps:

  1. Download our Shellfire VPN client on this page. With our free VPN you have access to servers from 2 countries with a maximum download rate of 1.000 kBit/sec. If you want high-speed downloads from more than 30 countries, we recommend our inexpensive PremiumPlus package.
  2. Install the VPN client on your device. If you don’t have an account with Shellfire yet, you will be prompted to create one at the end of the installation. At the moment, Shellfire is available for Windows, MacOS X, Android and iOS.
  3. Establish a VPN connection before you start downloading. Remember to first connect to a VPN every time you intend to download—this is the only way to ensure your anonymity.

So, as you can see with these three steps, it’s quite simple to retain your anonymity while downloading and browsing.

Is Tor an alternative for downloading anonymously?

Tor is a system that disguises your identity during browsing by routing your traffic along a randomly chosen path through a maze of proxies. Each node only knows the nodes immediately before and after it. Only the last note, the exit node, is visible to the requested web server.

Because of this repeated redirection of the connection, your anonymity with Tor is very well protected, but the usage is slow. Since your page requests are visible to the exit node so it can forward them to the correct web server, the use of encryption is highly recommended.

A VPN is suitable for end-to-end encryption like this, since an altered IP address is employed from the start. The combination of Tor and a VPN makes sense for you if you want a greater degree of anonymity when downloading. However, it should be noted that the download speed in this configuration is significantly lower compared to the exclusive use of VPN.

In most cases, it is therefore more practical to rely on a VPN connection instead of Tor when downloading.

Are downloads with BitTorrent anonymous?

BitTorrent, or torrent for shore, is a file-sharing protocol optimized for highly efficient, fast file transfer, but not for anonymity. Even though it is a peer-to-peer solution, your torrent downloads are by no means anonymous by default. The tracker, which your torrent client must report to in order to download a file, shares your IP address with anyone who can potentially share file fragments with you.

Among these are systems known to spy on activities in torrent networks, for example to detect copyright infringement. Due to the way BitTorrent works, you can easily be suspected of illegal downloads and receive warnings with high monetary demands if you do not use the service anonymously.

This is because a torrent breaks down each file into small pieces, which each client that has downloaded it once makes available for other clients to download. This speeds up downloads because the traffic is distributed across all systems in a so-called torrent swarm and bandwidth can be used optimally. However, it makes it difficult to track who actually downloaded which file, so false accusations are easy to make.

Therefore, using a VPN in conjunction with Torrent is highly recommended so that you can download anonymously from this file-sharing service as well.

Conclusions about anonymous downloads

Although our browsers already provide some options for secure browsing, they do not help when it comes to anonymization when downloading. If you use Firefox or Chrome, you should turn off the automatic update feature so that your data is not accidentally sent without encryption being enabled.

The browser windows in which you surge in private mode are also useful for not providing the browser with data about user behaviour. However, on their own they are not sufficient to encrypt your data. Using the Tor browser can be a solution if you want to download anonymously, but the download speeds are very slow due to multiple redirects.

The only method which offers you end-to-end encryption—i.e., encryption from you to the web server—is a VPN. A VPN even ensures that files can e downloaded anonymously via torrent. So there’s no need to fear any copyright infringement warnings.

Protecting your data online is important and it’s easy to achieve this with a VPB. Try our Shellfire VPN now, which can be set up in just 3 steps. So nothing stands in the way of anonymous downloads.

Featured image: ©stevanovicigor/123RF

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