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net.imperative

by Harley Hahn and Wendy Murdock


Anonymity

A reporter from the L.A. Times just called to see if we knew anything about a particular new Internet service. We asked, how did you get our number? He replied, I got it from a guy who runs an Internet company in Orange County.

Clearly, it's not easy to stay unknown these days (at least not when there are so many blabbermouths in Orange County).

The plain truth is that many people wish to remain anonymous: a state of being that is becoming more and more difficult to maintain. If you don't like all the junk mail that is sent to your home, wait until your e-mail address is sold and re-sold on commercial e-mail lists. Moreover, if you are attracted to those parts of the Net where people talk about things that nice people do not discuss (such as sex), just ask yourself what would happen to the wonderful variety of intellectual stimulation that characterizes these dark corners of the Net, if everyone's real name and address were appended to each Usenet posting and e-mail message.

Okay, most of the time you don't mind if someone knows your name and address when you mail a message or post a Usenet article. However, there are times when anonymity is crucial.

For example: A recent posting to the

alt.abuse.recovery
Usenet group was from a man who had sexually abused young girls, and who wanted to discuss his problem and related issues. You can argue back and forth as to whether or not such postings should be allowed. The point is, some people have a real need for anonymity when they participate in Usenet.

And you don't have to be a child molester to require privacy. Say that you work for Microsoft (or any other fine worldwide operating system company with predatory marketing habits) and you want to let people know that there are undisclosed bugs in the latest mission-critical, industrial-strength, enterprise-oriented product line. If you posted such information under your own name, it might go poorly for you at the office. Being able to send anonymous messages to the world at large allows you to blow the whistle and still keep your job.

Not convinced? OK, here is an everyday example that we are sure you can identify with. Imagine that you are the co-founder and Chairman of the Board of a large, worldwide operating system company with predatory marketing habits. You are of marriageable age, but you are so shy that the only dates that you have ever had have been set up by your mother. And, you never really know if the women that you see like you for yourself or for your money.

So you decide to meet people by responding to personal ads on the Net - but you know that, as soon as a woman sees your real e-mail address, she will figure out who you are. To solve this problem, you can arrange to send and receive your e-mail anonymously and, only when the time is right, do you reveal your real identity.

In fact, one of our best friends - who happens to be a fabulously wealthy co-founder and Chairman of the Board of a large operating system company - was able to find his wife in just this manner. They met when he responded anonymously to a posting on the alt.geek newsgroup. Imagine his surprise when, after a long electronic courtship, he found out that he and she worked for the very same company (just like Jimmy Stewart in the movie "Little Shop Around the Corner").

The important point is that, in any group of people, there are those who, for whatever reason, will not speak up unless they can do so anonymously. In Real Life (tm), you can retain your privacy by unlisting your phone number and renting a post office box. In most cases, you will be safe from prying eyes (as long as you don't give the information to a blabbermouth from Orange County). But what do you do on the Net?

If you participate in any of the real time talk-oriented resources (such as IRC or a MUD), you will find that nicknames are the order of the day. By burying your real identity under a cool pseudonym, you can become the person that you always wanted to be without risking someone finding out the truth. On some systems, there is a way of finding out who a person really is but hardly anyone bothers because, when you come right down to it, who cares?

When you use a system where everyone has a nickname, anonymity is not so crucial because, after all, everyone is pretending at the same time. But when you start sending mail and posting to Usenet, you are entering a different world in which most people do use their real names. In such circles, there are times when the simple desire to retain a sense of human dignity requires anonymity.

For example, we have always been amazed at the men who will write to, say,

alt.pantyhose
, and describe in detail how they like to wear women's underwear and stockings under their clothes to work, and then post the message from an Internet account that proudly displays their real name and the company they work for.

Although you may sneer at such people, we bet that if you were to be honest with yourself, there would be things that you would be glad to discuss with the world at large, if only you knew how to do so anonymously. So here is how it works.

The procedure is actually quite simple. All you need to do is send your message, along with the address of the person to whom you want the message to be sent, to a "remailer." This is a pogram that receives electronic mail and sends it back out to a different address. Along the way, the remailer strips out the entire header except for the Subject line. Thus, when the person receives your mail, he or she has no way of knowing where the original message came from.

Similarly, a remailer can also make anonymous postings to Usenet: instead of a person's address, you specify the name of a Usenet group. The remailer will strip out all of the information that identifies you and post the message anonymously.

There are a number of remailers around the Net, but we will discuss two of the more well-known ones: one in Finland and one in Berkeley.

The Finnish remailer - which is located on the machine named anon.penet.fi - is used by people all around the world, especially in those Usenet groups where discretion is often a necessity. The system works by assigning you an anonymous code name of the form "an" followed by a number. For example, your anonymous name might be "an007".

The remailer keeps a secret database of real addresses and code names. In the simplest case, someone who has your code name (say from a Usenet posting) can send you mail via Finland. For example, if your code name is an007, someone could send you mail by using the address: an007@anon.penet.fi

When such messages are received, the remailer looks up the code name in its secret database, and then forwards the mail to the real address. The person who sent the original message has no idea where it will ultimately end up.

Conversely, you can tell the remailer to send a message to a particular address. The remailer will do so, but all that the recipient will see is that a message has arrived from a user named an007. When the person replies to your message, it will go to Finland, from where it will be relayed to you.

Indeed, it is possible (and common) for two people to carry on an anonymous electronic correspondence where each of them has their own code name, and all the mail passes through Finland. (Remember this the next time you are in geography class and the teacher asks what are the major imports and exports of Finland.)

Similarly, you can tell the remailer to send an article to a particular Usenet newsgroup. As you might expect, the remailer will strip away all the identifying information and then post the article anonymously. The return address will be your code name at the Finnish computer. That way, if anyone responds to your article by e-mail, it will be automatically sent to the remailer which will forward it on to you.

The Berkeley remailer - which resides on a machine named soda.csua.berkeley .edu - provides a similar functionality, but works somewhat differently. The Berkeley mailer is based on the work of a group of people called Cypherpunks who take secrecy seriously. In particular, they did not like the idea of a secret database that contains all the code names and real addresses. Instead, they devised a system in which no permanent information is kept by the remailer.

When you send the Berkeley remailer a message to be forwarded, it strips off all the identifying information, and then sends the message to the address (or Usenet group) that you specified. However, the remailer does not assign you a code name or keep any record of the transaction. Thus, your identity is more secure.

However, you might ask, how can someone respond to your message? The Berkeley remailer adds a special area called a "response block" to the end of your message. The response block contains your address but in an encoded form. If the person wants to respond to you, all he needs to do is put the response block at the top of his reply and mail it to Berkeley. The remailer will decode the response block, recover your address, and then forward the rest of the message to you.

(There is a disadvantage to this system, however. A person cannot send mail to you unless he has a copy of your response block. With the Finnish remailer, you get a permanent code name that can be used at any time, like an anonymous post office box.)

The Berkeley remailer also has other security features. First, before forwarding a message, the remailer will wait a random amount of time. In other words, the mail does not go out in the order it arrives. This makes it more difficult for someone to connect a sender to a recipient by looking at the mail logs.

Second, for extra security, the remailer allows you to encode a message before you send it. When the message arrives, the remailer will decode it before forwarding it to the intended recipient. Similarly, there is a way to tell the remailer that you would like it to encode any messages that it sends to you. That way, if someone (say your system administrator) happens to be monitoring your mail, he will not be able to figure out what you are up to. True, he will see that you are sending and receiving mail from the Berkeley remailer, but the actual text of the messages will be encoded and safe from prying eyes.

Before you jump into the world of anonymous mailing and Usenet posting, there are a few short warnings that we would like to give you. First, do not put your name at the end of the message if you want to be anonymous. This is not as dumb as it sounds: many people have their mail programs set up to append a signature automatically to the end of each message before it is mailed.

Second, before you mail anyone an actual anonymous message, test the system by sending a message to yourself. This will allow you to ensure that everything works the way you think it should.

Finally, before you post an anonymous message to your favorite Usenet group, send a message to one of the test groups (such as alt.test or misc.test). Then, make sure that you can read your message and that everything looks the way you anticipated, before you send you your first real anonymous posting. Hint: When you send a message to a test group, there are a number of computers around the world that will pick up the message and send you an automatic reply. If you wish to avoid this service, put the word "ignore" in the Subject line.

RESOURCES

For information about the Finnish remailer, send mail to: help@anon.penet.fi

It doesn't matter what you put in the Subject line or in the message. If you want the instructions in German, send a message to one of the following addresses:

german@anon.penet.fi

deutsch@anon.penet.fi

And if you want Italian instructions, you can mail to one of:

italian@anon.penet.fi

italiano@anon.penet.fi

For information about the Berkeley remailer, send mail to: remailer@soda.csua.berkeley.edu

In the subject line, put:

remailer-info

It does not matter what you put in the body of the message.

Although we did not go into it, the Berkeley remailer uses a coding scheme called PGP (pretty good privacy) to encode messages. For information about PGP - which is widely used on the Net to encode regular mail - use anonymous ftp to connect to: net-dist.mit.edu

Then look in the directory: /pub/PGP

for a file named: pgpdoc1.txt

and start reading. There is a PGP FAQ (frequently asked question list) in the same directory, but it contains information for people who already know all about PGP. If you want a printed reference, O'Reilly and Associates publishes a book called "PGP: Pretty Good Privacy," by Simson Garfinkel. This book teaches you everything you need to know about PGP, and provides a wealth of interesting information about computer cryptography in general. The ISBN is 1-56592-098-8.

If you start to get serious about privacy, drop into the ongoing discussion on Usenet. For discussion relating to PGP, see: alt.security.pgp

PGP uses a feature called "public keys." Once someone has your public key, they can encode a message that only you can decode. The newsgroup:

alt.security.keydist

is for people who want to announce their public keys to the world at large.

For a general discussion of secrecy, the government, and how THEY are out to get us, you can read the group: talk.politics.crypto

If you are interested in the technical aspects of cryptography, check out the groups:

 sci.crypt
 sci.crypt.research

Warning: These groups are only for serious hard-core cryptography nerds (and the second group is moderated).

For information about cryptography in general, you can get a FAQ via anonymous ftp. Connect to: rtfm.mit.edu

and look in the directory: /pub/usenet/news.answers/cryptography-faq

The FAQ consists of a large number of files with the names part01, part02, part03 and so on. If you know nothing about cryptography, we suggest that you start with part03, which answers some basic questions.

If you are more interested in the underground aspects of secrecy, you can subscribe to the Cypherpunks mailing list. Send a message to: majordomo@toad.com

In the body of the message put the single line: subscribe cypherpunks

A Cypherpunk FAQ is available by anonymous ftp from: ftp.netcom.com

Look in the directory: /pub/tc/tcmay

And download the file named: CP-FAQ

The file is huge and, at first, almost unreadable. If you would like to start off with something smaller, get the file named: MFAQ from the same directory. (The file name stands for "most frequently asked questions.") The MFAQ file is a subset of CP-FAQ and is full of all sorts of interesting stuff that you are not supposed to know (or even think about).

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