Friday, April 9, 2010

Staying Anonymous in a Time of Surveillance

Read digital books? Then your e-book provider probably knows which titles you’ve read

From Googling to e-mailing to social networking, every day millions of Internet users unknowingly leave behind digital breadcrumbs while surfing the web, sometimes at the risk of compromising their anonymity. But while there’s technology available to stay anonymous in a time of surveillance, experts say policies and legislation won’t protect us from privacy invasion or being attacked in cyberspace.

As a medium, the Internet has allowed its users an unprecedented level of anonymity. Usernames and avatars hide names and true identities in online forums and communities, and anyone can choose how much to disclose to others in cyberspace. However, while most understand how posting personal information could have severe consequences, very few realize their online activity can be monitored and cross-referenced to reveal clues about their identity.

It’s important to think about every time that you interact with a third party online, they have information about you. You may buy your books online–lots of people buy things online. It’s not just social-networking sites where we volunteer this information; we volunteer it in a lot of ways.

Take the simple task of doing a web search, for example. In 2006, The New York Times reported how
leaked records from AOL revealed how users’ search-engine queries could be linked to their identities. By collecting and analyzing a user’s web searches, AOL’s researchers peeled away the many layers of cyber anonymity, unveiling the identity of user No. 4417749: Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lived in Lilburn, Ga.

During a three-month period, Arnold typed into AOL’s search engine sentences such as “60 single men,” “landscapers in Lilburn, Ga” and “tea for good health,” clues that led AOL researchers to her. Commenting on AOL’s practice of storing users’ information, Arnold said to The Times, “We all have a right to privacy … Nobody should have found this all out.”

Search engines are just one of many places that–unknowingly to most–track users’ activity. Traveling through cyberspace, you provide information to others almost every click of the way, including to the ISP that knows your IP address, the browser that tracks which sites you’ve visited, and the cookies that store login or registration identification and user preferences.

How you read and gather information can be very sensitive. People often go on an intellectual journey where they really discover and explore fringes of political thought or other thoughts. It’s not hard to imagine a young person reading up about homosexuality, for example, if they have questions of their sexual orientation. That’s something that’s far from illegal but something they don’t want the world to know.

However, while anonymity allows people to express themselves freely without the fear of retaliation or persecution, there is always a darker side to it: It breeds criminal behavior.

From phishing and spam to botnets and DDoS attacks, global crime rings have been able to form in an environment that fosters concealment. While anonymity in cyberspace is “generally a good thing,” one imminent problem is how criminals are using it in combination with the borderless nature of the Internet to develop international crime rings.

Cyber crime is an international problem and the lack of true authentication leads many to fall victim to scams–419 advance fee frauds, for example. Criminals can freely and openly do business via web forums because they are able to cloak themselves.

As the majority of today’s cyber threats are profit based, criminals don’t want to be caught or have their businesses hampered, either by law enforcement or by competitors, so almost all cyber threats work to be untraceable. Compromised computers act as proxies and/or illicit bulletproof hosting is used to mask true sources. Unless serious investigations are made, at best, most cyber threats can only be traced to a proxy.

The future may bring a realignment of the Internet and its network of networks–untrustworthy networks that provide cloaking for criminals may be disconnected. Businesses that are attacked from anonymous sources may well decide to pull out of those countries that allow for such attacks to [be] carried out. Google is now a prominent example of this.

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