The Privacy BlogThoughts on privacy, security, and other stuff.

TAG | anonymity

On Monday, Dec 16, during final exams, someone sent an email  to Harvard University administrators saying that there were bombs in two of four named buildings on campus. The threat was a hoax to get out of final exams. The sender used TOR and Guerrilla Mail, a disposable email address service, to hide his identity.

Despite that, police quickly identified Eldo Kim, he confessed, and was arrested. So, why did the privacy tools fail?

According to the FBI affidavit, the lead came from Harvard University, which was able to determine that Mr. Kim had accessed TOR from the university wireless network shortly before and while the emails were being sent.

This is really a case of classic police work. A bomb threat during finals is very likely to be from a student trying to avoid the tests. A student trying to avoid a test is unlikely to have the discipline to find and use a remote network. Therefor, the one or hand full of students using TOR at the time of the email are the most likely suspects…. and it turns out that they are right.

This case provides some important lessons to the rest of use who are trying to protect our identities for less illegal reasons.

First, clearly the Harvard Wireless network is being actively monitored and logged. It is reasonable to assume that your ISP or government might be monitoring your activities. One way to reduce correlations of your activity is to use privacy tools all the time, not just when you need them. This provides plausible deniability.

After all, if you never use such services, except for ten minutes exactly when some message was sent, and you are a likely suspect, then the circumstantial evidence is very strong. If you are using them 24/7, then the overlap says nothing.

Second, if Mr. Kim used anonymous email, how did they know he used TOR to access the email service? Because GuerrillaMail embeds the sending IP address in every outgoing email. The service only hides your email address, not your IP. In this case, they must have embedded the IP address of the exit TOR node. Even if they had not embedded the IP, GuerrillaMail keep logs which would have been available to the FBI with a warrant.

The lesson here is to look closely at your privacy tools, and to understand what they do protect and what they don’t.

The most important takeaway is that there is no privacy tool which will let you turn it on and turn off your brain. You always need to be thinking about what you are hiding, from whom, and how much effort they are likely to expend in finding you.

If you are hiding your IP address to get a better price on airline tickets, the threat is very low across the board. If you make terrorist threats, it is very hard to stay hidden afterwards.

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Wired reports on a move by the Japanese government to ask websites to block users who “abuse” TOR. 

I assume that TOR is being used as an example, and it would apply to any secure privacy tool.

The interesting question is whether this is simply a foot in the door on the way to banning anonymity, or at least making its use evidence of evil intent.

Currently, public privacy services make little effort to hide themselves. Traffic from them is easily detected as being from an anonymity system. If blocking becomes common, many systems may start implementing more effective stealth systems, which would make filtering anonymity for security reasons even harder.

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Welcome to the February edition of The Privacy Blog Podcast. In this episode, I’ll discuss a topic that caught me by surprise in the recent weeks – the dark alleys of the Internet aren’t as scary as we once thought. According to Cisco’s Annual Security Report, the most common, trusted websites we visit everyday have the highest overall incidents of web malware encounters. For example, Cisco reports that online advertisements are 182 times more likely to infect you with malware than porn sites.

Secondly, I’ll be talking about corporate anonymity issues, where the stakes are often extremely high due to real dollar-losses corporations could face. A few examples I’ll hit on are: competitive pricing research, search engine only pages for spoofing search results, trademark infringement, and research and development activities.

Hope you enjoy the episode. Please leave feedback and questions in the comments section of this post.

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Welcome to first podcast of 2013. In honor of Data Privacy Day, which falls on January 28th, I’ll be discussing current data privacy and security issues facing both consumers and businesses by taking you through the pros and cons of privacy legislation, privacy in the context of social media, and corporate data security at the human level.

Hope you enjoy January’s episode of The Privacy Blog Podcast. Please leave any feedback or questions you have in the comments section below.

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I have recently seen chatter suggesting people are confused about my thinking and allegiances on various privacy issues.

First, a few core beliefs that form the axioms underlying my actions and positions.

I believe that:

  • The basic design of the Internet and the protocols that run on top of it make it the most privacy hostile major communications media ever used.
  • Censorship and widespread surveillance are inimical to free speech and free expression.
  • Personal privacy is critical to our social, societal, and mental health.
  • There are criminals, terrorists, and governments whose activities will undermine the quality of life for myself, friends, and family.
  • Law enforcement and intelligence organizations are a necessary part of a functioning society.
  • Governments and other organizations are made up of real people with real and diverse opinions and are not monolithic entities and edifices of conformity.
  • If data is valuable to someone, and is sitting around in a database or other storage, it is very likely to be compromised at some point, in some way.

So, these basic tenants lead me to take the following opinions:

Individuals need the ability to robustly protect their privacy when engaging on-line. While not all areas of the Internet are appropriate for anonymity (I really want my bank to make sure it is me accessing my accounts), anonymity / pseudonymity should be an option in most social spaces on the Internet.

Not only are most websites not inclined or incentivized to help you be anonymous, but the very structure of the Internet encourages detailed logging such that creating anonymity friendly systems is quite hard.

All providers of privacy services are fundamentally saying “trust me and I will protect you.” Any claims about how a service works rely on the operator to have actually implemented the system as claimed. At the end of the day this is only backed up by the reputation of the operators of those systems. Choose wisely.

Criminals and other “hostiles” are indiscriminate in their use of technologies. They will use the best tool for any job. The Internet is no exception to this rule. While there is a long history and extensive precedent for plain clothes and under cover police and intelligence activities in the meatspace, the same is not true for cyberspace. Yet, the same need applies. If one is trying to engage with a criminal on the Internet, doing so as a law enforcement officer, from known law enforcement IP addresses is going to imperil the investigation at the very least.

What does this mean for me and how I comport myself?

I have chosen to very publicly back the Anonymizer.com privacy services with my personal reputation. I have been active in the personal privacy space since I started running anonymous remailers as a grad student in 1992. I have been creating new privacy services since I wrote Mixmaster in 1993. I created the “Kosovo privacy project” during the Kosovo conflict to enable people in the country to report on atrocities going on. I have provided multiple anonymity and anti-censorship tools for the Chinese and Iranian people, protecting hundreds of thousands of their citizens against their own country. Human rights and free speech are passions of mine. Anonymizer.com itself has protected countless numbers of users of its services. In all that time there has never been a case where we have violated the privacy assurances we have made to our customers. This is not because we have not been tested. Anonymizer is regularly subpoenaed for information on our customers’ activities. Compare this to a relative newcomer “HideMyAss.com.” They, as it turns out, did keep logs and were compelled to compromise the privacy of a member of LulzSec. There are numerous examples of TOR exit nodes monitoring and even altering traffic. With a much longer and weightier track record, you will find no such incidents with Anonymizer. It is logically impossible to prove a negative, but our history speaks volumes. Anonymizer will never provide a back door or violate any of our privacy assurances while my name is attached to it. Reputation is hard to earn and easy to squander. It is my personally most valuable asset.

Law enforcement and other government entities need anonymity and pseudonymity tools too. In their cases the people trying to pierce the veil are often much more motivated, skilled, funded, and resourced, than those tying to identify ordinary individuals. It is not practical, reasonable, or desirable to have these groups simply ignore the Internet in the scope of their responsibilities I have been involved in the creation and operation of numerous tools to enable such organizations to do their jobs on-line as they do off-line. In working with these people I have discovered that they are “people.” They hold diverse opinions about privacy and anonymity. Many are personally closely aligned with my beliefs. They are also tightly constrained by legal limitations on what they can do. Watching my U.S. government customers struggle with their legal departments to do even the simplest and most innocuous activities, while very frustrating, makes me sleep much better at night.

While there have certainly been times when the U.S. Government has overstepped its authorities, they are rare, and we know about these because they came out. The diversity of people in these organizations makes any of the grand conspiracies I see discussed on the Internet absurd on their face. Secrets are either known by very few people and thus limited in scope, are reasonable to just about everyone who all agree they should be kept secret, or will get leaked or blown in some way.

Some users of my personal / consumer privacy services see themselves as in opposition to some or all of my corporate or government users, and vice versa. I think both are important and I protect the anonymity of all of my customers equally. There is no “crossing of the streams.” None of my customers get any special insight into the identities or activities of any of my other customers. As above, there are no secrets like that which would last very long, and it would destroy my reputation.

Honor, reputation, and a man’s word being his bond may be very old fashioned ideas these days, but they carry great weight with me. I hope this clarifies where I stand.

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