Not long ago, the sharing economy seemed to take over. Privacy was dead, and no one cared. But that was a pre-Snowden era. Now, for some, the need to go truly anonymous is more important than ever.
What do you do if you want to set up an email address that is completely secret and nameless, with no obvious connection to you whatsoever without the the hassle of setting up your own servers?
This goes beyond just encrypting messages. Anyone can do that with web-based email like Gmail by using a browser extension like Secure Mail by Streak. For desktop email clients, GnuPG (Privacy Guard) or EnigMail is a must. Web-based ProtonMail promises end-to-end encryption with zero access to the data by the company behind it, plus it has apps for iOS and Android.
But those don’t hide who sent the message.
Secure email services will. It’s a market expected to explode over the next six years. Here are the services you should use to create that truly nameless, unidentifiable email address. But be sure to use your powers for good.
First Step: Browse Anonymously
Your web browser is tracking you. It’s that simple. Cookies may not know your name, but they know where you’ve been and what you’ve done and they’re willing to share. Sure, it’s mostly about serving you targeted ads, but that’s not much consolation for those looking to surf in private.
Your browser’s incognito/private mode can only do so much—sites are still going to record your IP address, for example. And incognito mode doesn’t matter if you sign into online accounts.
If you want to browse the web anonymously (and use that private time to set up an email), you need a VPN service and the Tor Browser, a security-laden, Mozilla-based browser from the Tor Project. Tor used to be called The Onion Router; it’s all about keeping you anonymous by making all the traffic you send on the internet jump through so many servers that bad guys on the other end can’t figure out where you really are. It’ll take longer to load a website using Tor than it would with Firefox or Chrome, but that’s the price of vigilance.
The free Tor Browser is available in multiple languages, for Windows, macOS, and Linux. It’s self-contained and portable, meaning it’ll run off a USB flash drive if you don’t want to install it directly. Even Facebook has a Tor-secure address to protect the location of users, which allows them access in places where the social network is illegal or blocked. There is also a version for Android devices.
Tor is not perfect and won’t keep you 1,000 percent anonymous. The criminals behind the Silk Road, among others, believed that and got caught. However, it’s a lot more secure than openly surfing.
Second Step: Anonymous Email
You can set up a relatively anonymous Gmail account, you just have to lie like a bathroom rug. That means creating a full Google account, and not providing Google your real name, location, birthday, or anything else the search giant asks for when you sign up (while using a VPN and the Tor Browser, naturally).
You will eventually have to provide Google some other identifying method of contact, such as a third-party email address or a phone number. With a phone, you could use a burner/temp number; an app like Hushed or Burner or buy a pre-paid cell phone and fib throughly when asked for any personal info. (Just know that even the most “secure” burner has its limits when it comes to keeping you truly anonymous.)
There are anonymous email services you can use, so why use Gmail at all? The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says it’s smart to use a different email provider from your personal account if you crave anonymity—that way you’re less likely to get complacent and make a compromising mistake.
Note that you also should use an email service that supports secure sockets layer (SSL) encryption. That’s the basic encryption used on a web connection to prevent casual snooping, like when you’re shopping at Amazon. You’ll know it’s encrypted when you see HTTPS in the URL, instead of just HTTP. Or a lock symbol shows up on the address bar or status bar.
Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and Outlook.com all support HTTPS; Google’s Chrome browser now flags all non-HTTPS sites as insecure. The HTTPS Everywhere extension for Firefox, Chrome, Opera, and Android also ensures that websites default to using the protocol.
That’s great for web surfing, but neither HTTPS nor VPN keeps you hidden when emailing. You know that.
Pseudonyms in email (like [email protected]) aren’t enough, either. Just one login without using Tor means your real IP address is recorded. That’s enough for you to be found (if the finder can get your provider to give up some records). It’s how General Petraeus got nailed.
The point is, once you’ve gone this far, there’s no reason to go back. Utilize a truly anonymous web-based mail service. Here are some of the best.
With servers in Switzerland (a country that appreciates secrecy), ProtonMail provides fully encrypted messages. Anyone can get a free account that holds 500MB of data and up to 150 messages per day, or pay 4 euros per month to get advanced features like five addresses each with 5GB storage for up to 1,000 messages per day, and support for ephemeral messages that disappear after a time period you set.
Encryption is one thing, but anonymity comes with ProtonMail’s specific support for Tor via an onion site it set up at protonirockerxow.onion. It also provides full instructions on how to set up Tor on your desktop or mobile phone. Having anonymous users is so important to ProtonMail, it doesn’t require any personal info when you sign up. It even supports two-factor authentication.
Guerrilla Mail provides ephemeral messaging—disposable, temporary email you can send and receive—and it’s all free. Technically, the address you create will exist forever, even if you never use it again. Any messages received, accessible at guerrillamail.com, only last one hour. You get a totally scrambled email address that’s easily copied to the clipboard. You can even attach a file if it’s less than 150MB in size, or use it to send someone your excess bitcoin.
There’s an option to use your own domain name as well, but that’s not keeping you under the radar. Coupled with the Tor browser, Guerilla Mail makes you practically invisible. It’s also available on Android.
Germany-based Tutanota is so secure, it even encrypts subject lines and contacts. A free plan for private use comes with 1GB of storage, but you can upgrade for 12 to 60 euros per year, depending on your needs. Premium features include aliases, inbox rules, support, more storage, custom domains, logos (on the high-end version), and more. It’s limited to the Tutanota domain, but there are apps for iOS and Android.
Recommended by the EFF and others, Hushmail’s entire claim to fame is that it’s easy to use, doesn’t include advertising, and has built-in encryption between members.
Of course, to get all that, you have to pay, starting at $49.98 per year for 10GB of online storage; there’s a free 14-day trial for personal use. Access it on the web or iOS. Businesses can use Hushmail starting at $3.99 per user/month for nonprofits, going up to $5.99 for small businesses and $9.99 for legal and HIPAA-compliant healthcare entities. There’s a one-time $9.99 setup fee for everyone.
Note that Hushmail has turned over records to the feds before, well over a decade ago, and its terms of service state you can’t use it for “illegal activity,” so it’s not going to fight court orders. But at least it’s honest about it upfront.
TorGuard is a global VPN service, which goes for around $9.99 per month to start. The service provides a separate Anonymous Email, which is free for 10MB storage; get 30GB for $6.95 per month, $15.95 per quarter, or $49.95 annually. All accounts get secure G/PGP encryption of mail, no ads, and 24/7 help; try it free for seven days. For more, see PCMag’s full review of TorGuard VPN.
TrashMail.com isn’t just a site, it’s also a browser extension for Google Chrome and Firefox, so you don’t even have to visit the site. Create a new email from a number of domain options, and TrashMail.com will forward messages to your regular email address for the lifespan of the new TrashMail address, as determined by you. The only limit is how many forwards you get; to go unlimited, pay $21.99 a year. The site provides a full address manager interface so create as many addresses as you like to stay anonymous and ubiquitous.
Belgium-based Mailfence has been providing email privacy for years (it started as a collaboration suite for organizations in 1999) and still offers a 500MB free plan to anyone who needs it, complete with encrypted email and two-factor authentication logins. You can jump up to 5GB storage with 10 alias for 2.50 euros per month, or go Pro for 7.50 and get 20GB, 50 aliases, and more—like full mobile and Exchange support. Businesses and non-profits can get a customized interface.
For $39, Blur provides a service unlike anyone else. This browser add-on is a password manager that lets you go about your online business without revealing anything about yourself. While almost every site/service online needs your email address to function—most use it as a username—Blur lets you create an unlimited number of anonymous, masked email addresses (and one anonymous phone number and masked credit cards) Use them anywhere and everywhere. All the messages sent to the various anon emails will funnel to your regular email address. The only company in the know about who you are, really, is Abine. Read the full review; Blur is one of our Best of the Year 2018 products.