Anonymity on the net is a topic that is discussed more and more frequently. We all know that many services on the net can be used anonymously. Or can they? The Internet is a giant data processing machine, and data about us users is getting more and more important. Anonymity on the net is to an increasing degree becoming a hallucination. Your access is logged, your surfing is tracked by cookies and the big data companies are even gathering info about your non-digital life. People are to an increasing degree doing things online thinking they are anonymous, but in reality they leave traces behind. These traces can lead back to their real identities, and in worst case put them in serious trouble.
I’m not going into the big picture about anonymity and privacy here. I’m going to present a tool that can be used to obfuscate your true identity. The anonymity network TOR. This is a tool and network that provides fairly strong protection against anyone who try to find out where a connection over the Internet really came from.
Let’s first debunk two myths.
So what’s the problem we are trying to tackle here? Practically all services on the net log all access. This log contains the so called IP-address that you are using, no matter if you have entered your real name at the site or not. The IP-address is a numeric code that is unique for all devices that connect to the net. Your ISP assigns one to your computer (or router, or modem) automatically when you connect to the net and you don’t have to worry about that. When you surf “anonymously” on a site, the site owner will know this IP-address but not who it has been assigned to. That information remains in the ISP’s log and is typically revealed only to authorities when investigating crimes. (Depends on local laws.) So you can under normal circumstances be traced back to your ISP, but the trace stops there.
So you have a certain level of privacy when surfing from home. But what about your computer at work? Here the company is in the ISP’s position. All traffic you generate can easily be traced to the company, but not to your workstation. The company’s administrators may be able to trace further, but that depends on how the internal network is managed.
Here’s some examples of situations where the default protection may be insufficient:
TOR is a privacy network that routes your traffic through a chain of several randomly picked servers before it goes to the site you are accessing. The traffic is encrypted all the way from your computer to the last relay machine. The protocol is also designed so that the relaying machines never know more than they need to know. The first server knows who you are but not what you are doing or what site you are accessing. The last server can see your traffic in plaintext and knows where it is going, but do not know who you are. None of this is however logged by the TOR relays as their purpose is to ensure your privacy. Even if someone with malicious intent would get hold of one of these servers, they would not be able to reveal your secret.
The simplest way to use TOR is to download and install the browser bundle. It consists of two parts that work together seamlessly. “Vidalia” is the control center that sets up the chain of secure servers and handles communication. “TorBrowser” is a Firefox-based web browser that is preconfigured to communicate through TOR. It makes it easy to start using TOR, no nerdy settings needed. A separate browser is also really necessary to guard your privacy as your normal browser is full of cookies that can identify you.
Installing TOR is easy, but that alone does not guard your identity. If you want to be truly anonymous at some certain site, you need to follow some additional guidelines.
Disclaimer. I hope you never truly need this kind of protection. But if you are in doubt, play safe and cover your tracks. Also keep in mind that it is tricky to be truly anonymous on the net. That is especially true if you are wanted by the authorities. Do not rely solely on this article if you are in a situation where your personal safety depends on anonymity, like for high-end whistle-blowers or opposition activists in non-democratic countries. What’s said above is a good start in these situations too, but you should get a more comprehensive understanding of on-line anonymity before putting yourself at risk.
Check what your surfing looks like from the site owners’ perspective. This site reveals the info. If using several connections, like home and work, check all of them. If you install TOR, visit the site from the TorBrowser to see how the address has changed.
PS. Another way to see the need for anonymity. The law protects our property against thieves, but still we use locks. The law protects our privacy on-line (to some extent), but most people do not enforce that in any way. TOR is for privacy what a lock is for theft. Why not play safe and lock it?
Photo by zigazou76 @ Flickr
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