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Privacy and anonymity

Just how far does Big Brother's eye see?

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What's my IP?

Often an IP address is the only piece of information available to a webmaster to track your visits - assuming you've disabled cookies in your browser and don't mind SessionIDs. Web logs can be subpoenaed too. Did you download Nmap 4.01 recently? My understanding is that Fyodor has had an effective log retention policy for when the feds come knocking, but what about everyone else? Do you use Nessus? Ethereal? Metasploit? Have you tried the latest (and excellent) Back Track pen-test liveCD? These are common tools used for legitimate purposes. Most of us couldn't care less that these downloads are tracked back to our IP. But it's still a useful excercise to go through: finding out how easy it is to map your IP address to an approximate physical location.

Most of us don't have malicious intent, so what about tracking the attackers who do? In the news, the physical location of an IP address used to attack a service is often used to attribute blame to certain country or region of the world. I suspect these addresses are rarely the real origin of the attack, but it's a start. There are dozens of "show my IP" services out there already to find out your public IP address while you're behind a proxy. Need more information? Sometimes a simple WHOIS or dig lookup doesn't suffice. To help find an approximate physical location there's the free IP address locator and the IP-to-country database - both useful tools. Or you can find IP blocks listed by country of origin, in CIDR format if you prefer. The latter is useful if you run web services and receive repeated attacks from countries that don't need access to those services.

As with anything, all these tools can be used for good or evil. "Do no evil," is a mantra that most of us should agree with. I'm happy it was popularized by Google. Sometimes we simply desire to be anonymous for no other reason than to be anonymous, and so that others can't track us. No malicious intent at all. But finding privacy on the internet is not always so easy to do.

Making a choice

Most of us in IT have a certain sense of paranoia about privacy and security - often with good reason. During my own exercise to find out how hard it is to become anonymous, I've come up with a rather simple conclusion: it's all about deciding what amount of privacy and personal information I am willing to give up, in exchange for the goods and services I'm looking to have. As for me, I think I'll keep visiting public Wi-Fi hotspots and use those liveCDs for some time to come.

This article originally appeared in Security Focus.

Copyright © 2006, SecurityFocus

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