CAT | Anonymity
The FBI in conjunction with the Bureau of Justice Assistance and Joint Regional Intelligence Center have produced a number of fliers to help the public identify possible terrorists. While some of the points have merit, it is very likely that this will generate an extremely high proportion of false alerts based on perfectly reasonable and legal behaviors.
A big red flag for me were the fliers for cyber cafes and electronics stores. These suggest that the use of privacy protecting services, like Anonymizer, should be deemed suspicious. They also call out Encryption, VoIP, and communicating through video games.
In almost all of the fliers they suggest that wanting to pay cash (legal tender for all debts public and private) is suspicious.
Thanks to Public Intelligence for pulling together PDFs of the documents.
Anonymizer just released the results of a new survey of people’s use of privacy protecting technologies. The short answer is that the old standards, anti-virus and firewalls, are widely used. Unfortunately they don’t actually do much to protect your privacy. They are more about security.
For full details, read the article.
There has been a lot of attention recently to the arrest of an alleged LulzSec hacker after his anonymity was compromised by the anonymity service he was using, HideMyAss.com. Some articles on the event are here, here and the provider’s explanation here.
The reason this company was able to compromise the privacy of their user was that they had logs of user activity. They know what IP address is assigned to each user and can use that to attribute any activity back to the real identity of the person behind the account.
The real problem with logs is that they exist or they don’t. You can’t keep logs only for “bad users” but not for responsible “good users” because even if it was possible to identify them as such in advance, you would not find anything like agreement about who should fall in which category.
Many operators of privacy services, including myself, feel very strongly that such tools should be usable in countries like China to circumvent the censorship and surveillance there. Such actions are certainly illegal for the user, and probably for the provider. While being a UK company and only responding to UK court orders, they were “forced” to expose the identity of a person in the US who was then arrested by the FBI.
I don’t know enough about this case to debate whether or not this person is guilty or deserved to be arrested. My concern is that this case has demonstrated that anyone who can cause a UK court order to be severed against this company can expose their users. It also makes them a target for hacking, social engineering, infiltration and other attacks which could gain access to these logs without a UK court order.
As a general rule, if information exists and people want it, there is a very good chance it will escape, if only by accident.
I founded this company, Anonymizer.com, and I personally stand behind our services. We have clear privacy policies, we keep no logs of the surfing activities of our users, we have no way of identifying what user may have visited what website. We have an unblemished record of providing robust privacy since 1995.
As I have said in many previous posts, it all comes down to trust. If you don’t know who is providing the service, and don’t have the ability to research their history and gauge their integrity, you should not use that service.
Randi Zuckerberg, marketing director and co-founder of Facebook said:
I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away… People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.
<irony> This of course explains why no one is a jerk or a bully on Facebook. </irony>
I have been doing this Anonymity thing for much longer than Facebook has existed. I have seen the debates and watched the reality. I am convinced that the problem is that most Internet spaces are impersonal, rather than that they are anonymous. People will be outrageously rude and offensive online while being unfailingly courteous in person, even if both situations are in real name.
In reality, most “real world” interactions are functionally anonymous, yet most of us behave most of the time.
I won’t even get in to how terrible her idea would be for people under repressive regimes.
This article in Scientific American does a nice job of describing why it is difficult to track attacks back to their true origins.
This essay by Bruce Schneier goes farther arguing that it is fundamentally impossible to create an Internet without anonymity.
The core point of both articles is that identifying the computer that a given packet came from is not the same as identifying the sender. The computer could be a server set up to enable anonymous communications (like Anonymizer.com), it could be a compromised computer (like part of a botnet), or even a server run by the attacker purchased using pre-paid or stolen credit cards.
Whatever the mechanism, it will always be possible for attackers to hide their identities and activities. The real question is the degree to which we are willing to design the Internet to make tracking and monitoring of citizens easy for repressive regimes.