The Privacy BlogPrivacy, Security, Cryptography, and Anonymity

CAT | Anonymizer

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.

· · · · ·

Google and other online advertising companies like Vibrant Media, Media Innovation Group, and PointRoll, are using a flaw in Safari on iOS to track you despite your privacy settings.

iOS Safari is set by default to reject tracking cookies from 3rd party websites. That means that unless you are directly and intentionally interacting with a site it should not be able to cookie and track you. Specifically that is intended to prevent tracking by advertisers displaying banner ads on websites.

The hack is that these advertisers use a script within the website to cause submit an invisible web form to the advertising website, which looks to Safari like you directly interacted with that site and so allows the site to send a cookie. Another flaw in Safari causes those cookies to be returned to the 3rd party sites once they have been set.

Apple is saying that they will address the issue. Google is blaming Apple for breaking with web standards (even though almost all browsers support blocking 3rd party cookies iOS Safari is unusual in making this the default).

My suggestion:

  1. On your iOS device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) go to “Settings”, select “Safari”, scroll down and “Clear Cookies and Data”. Do this frequently.
  2. Don’t log into Google or other social media sites through the browser, only use the dedicated apps.
  3. Use those social media apps to “like” or “+1” content, rather than doing so in the browser.
  4. Protect your IP address with a tool like Anonymizer Universal so these sites can’t just use your IP address in place of cookies to track you when you are at home or work on a WiFi connection with a long term IP address.

The WSJ had the first article I saw on this, but it is paywalled.

9 to 5 Mac has a nice article on it.

John Battelle’s searchblog tries to look at this issue from both sides.

· · ·

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.

Internet Cafe flier.

Electronics Store flier.

· · ·

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.

· · · · ·

Revealing Secrets with a Click – Technology Review

This is a very nice interview that was just published by Technology Review on the importance of anonymity for businesses. This is a topic rarely covered. Generally either people are talking about anonymity for consumers, or businesses protecting or violating consumer privacy. Very little attention is paid to the legitimate needs of business to hide their identities on-line from time to time.

· · · · ·

A reader of this blog recently emailed me to ask:

What s/w do you recommend to keep anonymous while using Gmail, IE, Outlook, and Facebook on a laptop?

This is actually a very tricky question because the nature of all of these tools, except Internet Explorer (IE), is to be associated with a visible and discoverable account and identity in the “cloud”. I will discuss IE last and separately.

Gmail ties to your gmail and other Google accounts. Outlook ties to some existing email account at some email provider. Facebook is tied to your Facebook account and is explicitly designed for making your information public.

The profound question here is, what do we even mean by being anonymous using these services? I would argue that the best one can manage is to be pseudonymous; that is to maintain a persistent and visible pseudonym / alias which, while discoverable, is not associated with your true identity.

Fortunately Gmail and Facebook are free and typically do not require any real credentials to set up an account, and many of the free email providers work similarly. Using Anonymizer Universal (AU), and a browser with no history or cache to set up the accounts would ensure they were not connected to your real identity. It is important that the accounts never be accessed in any way except through AU, or they will be forever after associated with your real IP address. Furthermore, it is critical that the browser used is never used for any activity connected to your real identity, or the cookies and other digital detritus in your browser may allow these sites (or other folks) to tie the pseudonym to your other real name accounts.

IE is in many ways the easiest because there is no underlying account, but all the same rules apply. You need to ensure that you isolate your anonymous or pseudonymous activity from your real name activity.

For all of this activity a virtual machine can be a very effective tool. For example, if you use a Mac you can use a virtual machine running Windows or Linux for all of your alias activities and use the normal operating system for your real name activities. Similar tools exist for other operating systems.

· · · · · · ·

I am very excited that we have finally released our new free “Anonymizer Nevercookie” product. You can download it here from our facebook account. It enhances the private browsing mode in Firefox to protect against a whole range of new kinds of tracking cookies that currently are nearly impossible to delete.

· · · · · ·

Today we are releasing the results of a survey on how people understand the risks of going on-line, and what does and does not work to protect against various threats.

One of the most interesting results was that a significant majority of respondents thought that firewalls provided identity protection on line. While important, they are addressing a very different threat.

More information on our results can be found here.

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We discovered a major security hole in Facebook almost by accident. The exploit is so trivial I can’t justify calling it hacking. Any time you are on an open WiFi and accessing Facebook, anyone else on the same network can easily grab your credential and access Facebook as you with full access to your account.

We have posted a video demonstrating this to YouTube as well as putting it in the Anonymizer Labs section of our website.

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