Surfing the web securely via VPN or HTTP web proxy might do the trick for some security-conscious individuals. Yet the thought of either, 1) having to deal with a barrage of advertisements or 2) paying for access to a premium account, are not the only two options one should be limited to. If you're adventurous and don't mind piggybacking off of a community run mesh network, there is yet another alternative solution to secure and anonymous surfing.
The Tor Browser Bundle by the Tor Project is designed to give web surfers the ability to access the Tor network, all the while avoiding the rather complex configuration decisions that can come with establishing such security in the first place. Rather than downloading the Tor client and manually applying your settings, you can simply download this all-in-one integrated Tor web browser, based on Firefox, and extract the software to any location you wish, such as your computer desktop or USB drive.
Once downloaded, run the browser executable and watch as the Tor connection manager springs to life, automatically checking for an available Tor node, establishing a handshake and then launching the browser, all within a few moments.
Because of the portable application model offered by the Tor Project, you can take the browser anywhere on portable storage and run the program at public Internet terminals (like those found in public libraries) and not have to worry about administrator privileges. The Tor browser will execute as a user process, allow you to surf, and then exit out cleanly without leaving a trace.
Of course, the Tor network that this all runs on is not without its issues. Because of the ad-hoc nature of Tor nodes, which can transmit data from one point to the next until it finally reaches an exit node, page loading speeds leave a bit to be desired, due to increased latencies. Also, at least during my tests, file downloads beyond a few megabytes in size simply are too painful to endure and were not worth considering.
Sure, advertisements don't bother you and you don't have to pay a dime to use the Tor network, but you do end up paying pretty dearly in the maximum speed department, which is to say the maximum speed is pretty slow, depending on your geographical location.
Despite the lowball speeds routinely provided by the network, I still wholeheartedly recommend keeping a copy of the Tor Browser Bundle around, just in case you need that extra layer of security, whether at home or on the go. In addition to a Windows version, the Tor Project also has beta versions for OS X and Linux available as well.
An avid technology writer and an IT guru, Matthew is here to help bring the best in software, hardware and the web to the collective consciousness of TechRepublic's readership. In addition to writing for TechRepublic, Matthew currently works as a Customer Success Professional for Ultimate Software in Santa Ana, California.