Privacy and anonymity

Just how far does Big Brother's eye see?


Big name privacy

The big names in the internet world already know quite a bit about us. When Google bought Dejanews and spawned Google Groups, they bought an archive of almost everything written on the Usenet since the very early days. The Internet Archive keeps old copies of your blog or webpage, so even things you've written about and deleted are still there. Google Mail had to deal with all sorts of privacy issues when it first appeared, because it (almost) never deletes any of your email. And now we have the venerable Google Desktop - which, when shared between computers, has your data stored on Google servers for 30 days. Data that might be subpoenaed by someone without your knowledge, a particularly dire fact for those of us who don't even live in the US.

I don't mean to be so hard on Google. They're just an easy target, because they're the new juggernaut. What about Yahoo and MSN? Have you read their respective privacy policy (Yahoo! / MSN) and terms of service (Yahoo! / MSN)? Do you trust them with your data? I for one am glad that I don't live in China. Google's corporate mantra of "do no evil" might be the most reassuring of the three, but this data can still be subpoenaed without your knowledge.

Meanwhile, the trend on the desktop is to index all your local data into a fast internet-style search. Apple's Spotlight on OS X and the Google Desktop have done this for some time; by the end of the year your new Windows Vista system will be able to index all your documents and data too. But imagine when a system like this becomes infected with a Trojan - and that index becomes an easy source for a hacker to search for keywords like "tax", or "credit", or "bank". While it's true the data was always there, it's also becoming more accessible.

Little name privacy

There are all sorts of things we can do to take back our privacy and in doing so, become more anonymous. Some are cumbersome and difficult to do; others are not. For the purpose of this column I'll focus primarily on web access and surfing, because this seems to interest people the most. On the web, there are always logs and those logs point back to your IP address.

I've used SSH port forwarding for years to divert my IP address to somewhere else, but it doesn't add any additional privacy because we (presumably) own the machine we're forwarding to, and therefore a quick lookup of the IP address come back to us. Anonymous web and SOCKS proxies are commonplace, but they are often slow, unreliable, and sporadic. Plus, you must assume that the freely available ones are all logging everything, regardless of what you read, and that the commercial ones that swear they'll never sell your data may or may not be trustworthy - perhaps, but remember that your web surfing history may still be requested by someone tracking you (and thereby have this date given out, without your knowledge) once again.

Using proxies on compromised machines masks your IP address, but it's entirely illegal. If this is what you're using, you deserve to be caught. Just remember that the compromised machine might very well be a honeypot, tracking you back to your source IP.

If broadband access in the home keeps your IP address semi-static, what about using dialup? We can have pre-paid dialup internet access via prepaid cards. I see ads for them all over the subway where I live, and for a moment I thought they might give me some anonyomity. Not a chance. You're still traced back to the CallerID in your home or hotel room, though admittedly every time you connect you'll have a new IP. That might been good enough for most of us.

You could take this one step further and setup your own PBX like the free Asterix PBX to mask your CallerID, and then use the prepaid internet card. While it's entertaining to imagine people going to just extremely, that all seems a little excessive (and non-trivial) to me.

And then there are the liveCDs that help provide some form of anonymity. My favorite today is the Anonym.OS liveCD introduced at SchmooCom recently. Based on the secure-by-default OpenBSD operating system, it goes to the extent of randomizing your (wired or wireless) MAC address on boot, configures Tor onion routing, provides a simple graphical interface, and more. It's a nice step in the right direction. Including these features on a liveCD provides a high level of anonymity and it's a welcome relief. I've installed Tor on my home system as well, but find it rather intrusive - having a liveCD helps avoid that issue. Either way, with Tor your apparent public IP address on a website will appear to keep changing. One thing puzzled me about Anonym.OS, though: I'm curious why a simple tool like netstat, normally included in a base install of OpenBSD, aren't installed. I still like to know what's going on whenever I can.

I think the final frontier is still wireless. If you need a cheap, easy-to-borrow IP address that isn't yours (but is entirely legitimate), there is always one available inside a Wi-Fi coffee shop, an internet cafe, or your local public library. Surf with a cappuccino, along with everyone else. Socialise a bit. Your IP address is a cup of beans. When combined with a system like Anonym.OS, these are good and mostly anonymous options for most people.

Next page: What's my IP?

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