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Privacy and anonymity

Just how far does Big Brother's eye see?

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Privacy and anonymity on the internet are as important as they are difficult to achieve. Here are some of the the current issues we face, along with a few suggestions on how to be more anonymous.

Online privacy issues are in the news every week now. This is good for us, because when it's newsworthy and notable it means people still care about the privacy of their personal information in some fundamental and important way. Privacy on the internet (or rather, a lack thereof) has been with us for ages, but as technology converges we are all forced to make some important new choices about what we are willing to disclose. Let's start with a few examples.

Recent events have found the Electronic Freedom Foundation warning users not to use Google Desktop's new "search across computers" option, which stores a user's indexed data on Google servers for up to 30 days. It's making headlines, but it's just the tip of the iceberg. In recent weeks we've also heard about government attempts to subpoena information from Yahoo, Microsoft and Google. Perhaps a subpoena for all the files indexed on your Google Desktop is not that far away. Then there are the wiretaps in the US by those three-letter agencies, which we're just hearing about now. First reported by the New York Times, these were wiretaps on US citizens that were sometimes done without requiring court approval at all. I don't know about you, but even when I'm not doing something wrong (which is most of the time), I get very nervous when I hear about privacy issues popping up in this way.

This is on top of all the old news that barely makes headlines anymore: botnet Trojans controlling access to your computer's data and stealing your identity; rampant spyware infections that have been with us for years and are sometimes quite nasty; the fact that only about a third of the public even know what spyware is; and finally, there's even the occasional military breach that exposes the personal information of people who probably value their privacy very much.

Where are we headed with online privacy? Well, perhaps you should publish your darkets secrets in a public blog right now and get it over with. The fact is, we haven't had much, or any, privacy online in quite a while. In the search for privacy, what do we have to do to become anonymous on the internet?

Privacy starts with you

Many people, and security people in particular, value their privacy. We don't like to be tracked and followed. Most of the time this desire does not stem from any malicious intent, but rather from the knowledge of what others who are more malicious than us can do with this information. Our day starts at the office: nothing is private on your office computer, and most people know this already. It is a corporate asset, a tool to conduct business that can (and perhaps, should) be searched at any time. Fine, let's move on to the home computer then. At home one can do "other" things with his computer besides just work.

Most people start with their local system - clearing out their web browser cache, recent URL lists and more with tools of yesteryear like TweakUI. But as broadband connections have become inexpensive and pervasive, we are increasingly being tracked by our IP addresses at home. If you have high speed internet at home, odds are your IP address is relatively static now - cable and DSL modems are often assigned the same IP address for up to a year. Website owners can track your repeat visits much more easily - what time you arrived, how long you stayed, and how often you come back. Nothing new here. Many of us disable cookies in our browsers too, but that semi-static IP address at home can have just as big an impact on your privacy as cookies do.

Often the most anonymous place to surf the web is still with a laptop at a coffee shop with free WiFi, or at an internet cafe. But one day even these places will require a fingerprint for authentication before you're granted access, and you'll have to worry about your fingerprints too. For now however, we have other concerns.

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