Anonymous on the Net: Not!

Your IP address identifies the computer you’re using. You open your browser; you type in the address of a web site and a page of information comes back to you. How do the web site and all the computers involved know where to send that web page? Somewhere in all that technology, your request for information went out with a return address, the IP address of your computer. Well, that’s tech gibberish for you. It all seems pretty much incomprehensible but at least it works.

Whatever. Now let’s see… *concentrating on typing* double U, double U double U dot g i r l s g o n e w i l d dot COM.

Oh, by the way, did I mention that other people like your ISP provider, even the police if they have your IP address could trace it back to your computer?

*spit take; crap my drawers*

On the Net, you’re not necessarily anonymous
Just because the police haven’t (yet) knocked on your door, doesn’t mean that the last naughty link you visited isn’t recorded somewhere for somebody to see. The bread crumbs are out there and could be reconstituted by somebody. – Excuse me. Did you hear something? Is somebody at your door? – The question is whether or not anybody would bother to follow your trail.

When you visit a web site, any web site, your IP address can be recorded. As I said, your computer hands over your IP address as the web site has to know where to send the requested web page. That means that any web site could potentially record your IP address. Do they do it? Maybe yes, maybe no. You don’t necessarily know for sure. Now add on top of that a web site which requires you to register and log in. I can say that definitely they are tracking you, your IP, your name and your activities. Did you slap down your credit card for the Premium Membership account at X-Rated Cucumbers? Somewhere all of your activity is sitting in a server log file just waiting for a subpoena to unlock the hidden recesses of your perverted little mind.

The problem here is that we’re complacent. Because technology is so complicated (Is it? Or are we just ignorant about it?) we tend to gloss over the details. We haven’t necessarily given our name, at least not our real one, so aren’t we anonymous? Unfortunately, we return to the question of your IP address so even if on Monday you give the name Fred then on Tuesday give the name Alice, your IP address can still be traced back to your computer. Now some systems may work with dynamic IP addresses but I still wouldn’t be relying on that to disguise yourself.

Now it may seem like I’m painting a rather bleak picture of your identity on the Internet. In reality, your average Joe or Jane is not being tracked by anyone due to the overwhelming wealth of data which exists out there in the world. After all, we do have police and they have to work hard to catch criminals because there are only a limited number of police and zillions of citizens. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. Consequently, your chances of getting caught walking into an adult shop to buy a porn video are probably no more risky than surfing a porn site.

Then again, let’s not forget that in real life you are also leaving bread crumbs all over the place. That adult shop probably has recorded you on its video surveillance system. If you purchased anything by credit card or debit card, VISA or your bank now has your visit on file. But here’s the caveat. Catching people in real life may be a question of manpower. Catching people on the Net may be more a question of computer power.

Who’s got your number?
In the Winter 2009 edition of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Benjamin Edelman, Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts presented his study entitled “Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?” He managed to obtain various datasets from adult entertainment resellers and web sites to analyse the buying habits of the American public. His conclusion, interestingly enough, is the so-called Conservative states buy more pornography than, let’s say, a liberal state such as California. (see my blog: Pornography: Who buys the most? Conservatives!) The state with the highest rate of pornography purchases? Utah.

The point is this. If Benjamin Edelman can get a hold of this data, so can the police, so can the government.

In 2006, AOL made a mistake and released a dataset consisting of over 20 million searches by over 650,000 of their users. This information was analysed by two scientists and the results released in the May 2011 book “A Billion Wicked Thoughts”. (see my blog: Sex: A Billion Wicked Thoughts) What’s important here is that AOL had and still has on file what its users are doing with their computers, all linked to the user’s IP address. As well, the authors discuss analysing data obtained from PornHub.Com, one of the largest online providers of pornographic movies. (Alex rating = 64)

The point is this. AOL has data on what its users are doing. Pornhub.Com has the same. If these two authors can get a hold of this data, so can the police, so can the government.

This means that every Internet service, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc. are tracking our every move and have this data on file. Now how long do they keep this information? How easy is it for the police or government to get a hold of it? What laws protect our privacy? Good questions but the point is this: the information is out there. Sooner or later somebody’s going to get a hold of it and then the question is what are they going to do with it.

H.R.1981
This United States bill known as the “Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011” has the noble goal of stopping those who would sexually exploit our children. In the article “What You Need to Know About the Internet Snooping Bill (and How You Can Protect Yourself)” by Adam Dachis (Lifehacker – July 29/2011), the author writes:

The lovingly titled Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011 (PCFIPA of 2011) requires ISPs to retain customer names, addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and dynamic IP addresses. It’s a record of your personal information plus the web sites you visit. It’s like handing over a year’s worth of browser history plus the contents of your wallet to the police. The thing is, you’re not really handing it over so much as your ISP is—without your consent.

Let me repeat: plus the web sites you visit. If the police or the government can get a hold of this information, what could they possibly do with it? One article analysing this suggested that in the future, a divorce lawyer may be able to subpoena this information. Now picture yourself sitting in the defendant’s chair while opposing counsel reads off your browser history: double U, double U double U dot Two Girls A Kangaroo And A Whoopee Cushion dot COM. Oh great, some innocuous idle curiosity is elevated to a headline on the front page of the local newspaper.

Anonymity Services
Others have pondered the benefits of anonymity and offered services to try and protect your right to privacy. Anonymouse.Org is an online service through which you can surf the Net. You send the service the URL you want to see. It fetches the page for you and returns it to you. In other words, you don’t get the page, the service gets the page. If the web site is recording IP addresses, they will record the IP address of Anonymouse.Org not your IP address. Of course, is Anonymouse.Org recording your IP address? Darn! You just can’t win for trying.

Tor is a system where requests are routed through a worldwide volunteer network of servers with the express purposes of preventing anybody from tracing your activity and doing traffic analysis. Does this work? I see pros and cons plus caveats. Nothing is perfect; nothing is 100% anonymous.

Final Word
Critics of H.R.1981 are saying it should be called H.R.1984 considering how Orwellian it seems to be. We return to that old saying: “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” As I’ve said before, the problem with this seemingly self-evident saying is that what’s considered right by one person, may be considered wrong by the next person. You may find two girls, a kangaroo and a whoopee cushion amusing if not titillating but the next person may find this to be another horrifying example of how the decadent mores of a modern age are leading our society down the path to hell and damnation. Amusingly enough that person condemning you may very well be a right wing religious fundamentalist from Utah, a state which has the distinction of being the most conservative state in America and the state which also has the highest rate of pornography purchases in the U.S. (see my blog: Pornography: Who buys the most? Conservatives!)

It’s thought-provoking when you mull over the implications of all this. We all want to get the bad guys: the terrorists, the child molesters and those who are doing nefarious things in our society however where do you stop and who decides where you stop? You could be a good person. You pay your taxes; you donate to charity but what if your visit to Girls Gone Wild dot COM ended up in a headline on the front page of the newspaper? We have ofttimes heard that government has no right in our bedrooms so just where does the “bedroom”, our private lives, end in this age of electronic communications?

Yes, you are not a terrorist. Yes, you are not a child molester. Yes, you are not doing nefarious things in society. But there are those who would vilify you, ostracize you and cast you out like the Wandering Jew condemned to walk the Earth forever because your interests may not be considered part of the so-called “accepted norm” of our society.

References

my blog: On-line, oh so not private and busted
Monica Day had a job offer rescinded when the company discovered her Facebook page and references to her second career as a sexual counselor.

Pamela Madsen is the author of the book Shameless in which she writes about her personal journey of sexual self-discovery. Before the book, she wrote about her experiences in a blog under pseudonym The Riverdale Goddess. When her employer found out about the blog, they let Ms. Madsen go as they were worried about having to face a “sex scandal”.

Judy Buranich, an English teacher for the past 25 years, is in hot water with her school board as the community has discovered she is also the published author of several racy romance novels. Parents are calling for her resignation.

Lifehacker – July 29/2011
What You Need to Know About the Internet Snooping Bill (and How You Can Protect Yourself)
by Adam Dachis
On Thursday, the US House of Representatives approved an internet snooping bill that requires internet service providers (ISPs) to keep records of customer activity for a year so police can review them as needed. Here’s what this bill means for you and what you can do about it.

BoingBoing – July 29/2011
House Committee passes bill requiring your ISP to spy on every click and keystroke you make online and retain for 12 months
Posted by Cory Doctorow
The data retention mandate in this bill would treat every Internet user like a criminal and threaten the online privacy and free speech rights of every American, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have recognized.

The Oldspeak Journal – Aug 1/2011
U.S. House Bill H.R. 1981 Approved To Create Massive Surveillance Database Of Internet Users
The bill would also allow access to the data by attorneys litigating civil disputes in divorce, insurance fraud, and other cases that have nothing to do with the protection of children on the internet.

“It would give the government sweeping authority to mandate the collection and retention of personal information obtained by business from their customers, or generated by the business in the course of providing services, for subsequent examination without any reason to believe that information is relevant or necessary for a criminal investigation,” EPIC President Marc Rotenberg  further testified.

Wikipedia: IP address
An Internet Protocol address (IP address) is a numerical label assigned to each device (e.g., computer, printer) participating in a computer network that uses the Internet Protocol for communication.

Wikipedia: Universal Resource Locator
In computing, a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is a Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) that specifies where a known resource is available and the mechanism for retrieving it. It is also referred to as a Universal Resource Locator and in many technical documents and verbal discussions it is often used as a synonym for URI.

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