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Anonymity in Communications and Publishing

Many people value having their online and offline identities separate. They may be making statements that could result in economic or political backlash, harassment or even death threats. Others may be whistleblowers, shedding light on corporate or government behavior, or human rights advocates working against repressive forces, or parents who want to make a safer place for their children to grow and learn. In many cases, individuals using pseudonyms to communicate, or who communicate using no name at all, rely on this security.

Importance of Anonymity

Anonymous communications have always been a crucial element in social and political discourse in the United States. Take a look at the Supreme Court’s repeated rulings on the right to anonymous free speech, as protected by the First Amendment. Another, often-quoted 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission states:

Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views… Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority… It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation… at the hand of an intolerant society.

Anonymity tools for communications and publishing

A number of tools have been created for anonymous communication and publishing on the internet.

Peer-to-peer (P2P) systems enable users to chat, talk, share files and more. Anonymous P2P systems are an area of particular interest, as they prevent adversaries from linking participating users to the content they share. Keep in mind that adversaries can act as users, so users must remain hidden with respect to each other.

One common weakness in many anonymity solutions is that they fail to provide anonymity for all participating users (i.e. publisher, server and reader). Many are good at providing anonymity to the reader and publisher, but not to the servers or creator of an index.

A three-tunnel system is one possible way to ensure anonymity for all users. In this system, three anonymity tunnels are used. Publishing tunnels and reading tunnels ensure sender anonymity. The third type of tunnel, the rendezvous tunnel, protects the anonymity of the server.

Anonymous Remailers

From the time an email is sent, it accumulates the trails of every machine it passes through, along with the date, time and IP address. This “stamp” takes up space and is essentially meaningless for the recipient, and as such, it is usually hidden by email programs. Checking out the headers can trace an email message back to the author.

Those interested in anonymous communication might want to consider anonymous remailers. A remailer refers to an address through which an email passes before it continues on to the intended recipient. The remailer clears all the headers that might disclose the sender’s identity.

There are a number of remailer systems available. Some provide the individual with an anonymous address to which other people can send email, which is then forwarded to the individual’s actual address (this is known as “pseudo-anonymous”). These remailers maintain a database of real names, so identities can be traced, or the owner of the database might be forced to disclose identities. Other remailers function through the “fire and forget” principle and don’t keep any logs. Many remailers use encryption.

Free Haven System for Anonymous Publishing

Another tool is the Free Haven System (FHS), a new generation of anonymous publishing services. FHS is based on a network of servers known as ServNet. Each server in the community holds segments of some documents referred to as shares with are created from documents through using Rabins Information dispersal algorithm. Files are also exchanged between servers based on a buddy system.

FHS relies on a reputation system to encourage accountability. This is based on the performance of a server in transactions within the ServNet, rather than a more complex digital cash system. Servers are referred to by their pseudonym in the network, which ensures server anonymity. Overall, the FHS design emphasizes distributed, reliable, anonymous storage and publication over efficient information retrieval.

Other anonymous tools that work to enable anonymous communication and publishing online are discussed in further detail in this article.

Summary

This article takes a look at anonymity in communications and publishing, and the tools used to accomplish this. Anonymous speech is an important aspect of the social and political environment in the United States and has been protected repeatedly by the Supreme Court. The article focuses on anonymous online communications and publishing and focuses on tools including anonymous P2P systems, three-tunnel systems, the Free Haven System (FHS) and anonymous email remailers.

CIPP Exam Preparation

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/Information Technology (CIPP/IT) exam, a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Applications of anonymity tools – communication and publishing (III.E.c.iii.1.)
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