Internet Anonymity

In the old days, the internet was this great playground. You could do almost anything, read anything, and nobody would know, nor would they care. People predicted the end of nation states, and the rise of individual internet tribes, connected no by geography or genetics, but by the ideas and morals they held.

Then governments got scared, that they might become obsolete. Various laws were enacted in many countries, usually on the grounds of protecting content owners from piracy, or in catching child porn dealers, and then on preventing the more recent catch-all “terrorism”.  Still, the idea that an individual on the internet was obscure enough not to attract attention, that we would all still be anonymous has endured.

Now, a recently proposed bill in the US Senate is seeking to change that.  On the face of it, the bill seems like a traditional “nice idea, but bad policy”. If it helps in tracking down a child molestor, why not go for it? If the feds bust a child porn website, why not ask their service provider for records about who visited, and then trace them back to the people who went there? That would probably be sufficient probable cause for a search warrant on that person’s computer, to search for incriminating or illegal files.

So what’s wrong in that? Well, as with almost every law regarding “internet service provider”, the term is very vague.  In common, everyday usage, ISP means the company who provides you your internet connection, the DSL or cable modem service usually. According to US law though, an ISP is any company or person who provides any sort of service. Hosting a website, uploading a video to Youtube.

“If you’re not doing anything illegal, you have nothing to worry about”. Sure, and the moon is made of green cheese. I prefer to think of it this way: “I should be able to do anything I want, so long as I don’t cause harm to anyone else”. Basically, what I do is none of your business, and if you want to know, go get a search warrant.

Nice idea, but how to do it? One way to do this, is via a resource called Tor. Tor is an anonymizing service, when you are running it properly, instead of connecting directly to, your request for Google would go to four or more different computers, and then onto Google. An interesting side effect of this, particularly for websites like Google that offer localized versions (that if you are in Italy, you get directed to for example). The connections to other computers are reset every 10 minutes, which makes it harder to trace your connection. So my DSL provider will not know if I visit Bank of America, Wells Fargo, or the Cayman Island Bank.

In using Tor, I’ve primarily been concerned with using it’s easy FireFox plugin. The only application on my computer that takes advantage of the routing is FireFox, so all my web browsing though there is anonymous. The rest of my programs, from Sarari, to email, to chat, are still in the open.

The web is certainly slower when I have Tor enabled. Not unusably so, but the connection feels like dial up, at least in loading new web pages. It’s not horrid, but much slower than I’ve grown accustomed to.  It’s certainly not costing me anything though, particularly since I have other web browsers open and running. I’ll keep it on my machine, and on anything I would remotely private, I’ll use it.

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4 Responses to Internet Anonymity

  1. Bill says:

    Funny thing I just noticed…. when using Tor, none of my web tracking software works on my site. So if you visit my site while using Tor, I won’t know about it unless I access my server’s logs directly. Funny stuff.

  2. Dane Gardner says:

    There was a recent Slashdot about TOR’s use by a university professor who, basically, had to butt heads with the IT department about discussing it during a lecture. There are those out there that are opposed to TOR, but hopefully their type will never get any laws passed.

    what I do is none of your business, and if you want to know, go get a search warrant.

    I totally agree.

  3. Dane Gardner says:

    Crap… nevermind. You linked to the Slashdotted article directly.

  4. Jason Harris says:

    If setting up Tor is too much work, like on a computer you don’t own, you can use torpark which is essentially a version of tor running within firefox. No setting up anything or installing tor as a separate app. Might want to give it a spin.

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