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The Importance Of Anonymity On The Web

Jacob Appelbaum stands on stage at Linux.conf.au 2012 to deliver the final keynote on Friday morning, patiently waiting for his introduction from the conference organizer.

In his hand he holds a smartphone, capturing a photograph of his audience which he later says he uploaded in case his phone is confiscated at the airport on his way back to the United States of America, of which he is ironically a citizen.

However this isn’t hyperbole – Appelbaum has been detained for questioning at borders many times, in fact so many times that he’s “lost count.” In July 2010, Appelbaum was detained at Newark airport where his bag was searched, receipts photocopied, laptop inspected, and his three cellphones taken never to be seen again.

Jacob Appelbaum was detained not because he’s a genuine terrorist suspect, nor because he was trying to smuggle drugs or Kinder Surprises into the USA. Appelbaum was detained because he’s fighting for freedom and anonymity on the internet, a cause that’s as important as ever in our current society, often overlooked by the media, and under appreciated by most internet users.

Appelbaum begins by sharing the story of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who in the late 18th century developed a concept for an institutional building where all inmates could be watched by a sole guard at all times. Called the Panopticon, Bentham himself described it as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

“People behave differently when they know they’re being watched,” Appelbaum says, and in the last few years it has become increasingly easier for governments to keep an eye on citizens’ behaviour, even though laws are supposed to exist to prevent a government spying on their own people. Governments get around many of these laws by simply working together to spy on one another’s citizens, and then share the information between themselves in secrecy. An example is Project Echelon.

“I’ve got nothing to hide”

On the whole, many internet users are aware of the risks when signing up to services provided by companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have the ability to store data. Some may even know that cellphone carriers store all text (SMS) messages sent.

The awareness has been raised thanks to Wikileaks, the SOPA bill, firewalls in countries like China and now western countries (Australia and New Zealand have had firewalls for quite a while), and country-specific legislation which enables rights holders to request ISPs disconnect their customers with little proof of copyright infringement.

But when you talk with friends or family about this, the oft quoted response is “I’ve got nothing to hide” or “I’m not special.” Of course, you may not be special now, but who knows what might be considered “special” in the future?

It doesn’t take much to accidentally stumble across something you shouldn’t on the web, as Appelbaum says “it’s very easy to know someone who knows someone who’s on some government’s list.” Around the web, log files are stored with ISPs and cloud services that don’t have an expiry date. It’s easy for governments to cherry pick information that’s been collated through no fault of your own, and construct a story that fits their interest.

Appelbaum warns, “every log file stored around the world will tell a story about you. It may not be the truth, but it will be made up of facts.”

Wire-tapping is everywhere

Devices are built and shipped with tracking capability built-in and hidden deep in the firmware, ready to be activated whenever a government deems you as a person of interest. In Australia alone, Senator Scott Ludlum of the Green party in Australia told us that an astonishing 250,000 requests for metadata on individuals were filed by the Australian government last year. Metadata includes things like your location, the file name, type and size of things you’ve uploaded and downloaded but not the content, the recipients number of text messages you’ve sent but not the content, and URLs you’ve visited but again, not the content.

Because of this ‘loophole,’ governments often don’t require a court order or prior approval to make these requests and obtain this information. Their argument is that metadata isn’t important – but it is, and stories can be constructed to warrant your detainment off metadata alone.

In 2005, over one hundred Greek politicians including the Prime Minister himself had their mobile phones tapped by an unknown culprit in what became known globally as The Athens Affair. It led to the suicide of a 38 year old Electrical Engineer, caught up in a scandal that proved the dangers of mobile phone tracking software and the control it gives to not only governments, but anyone with the skill to hack it.

Censorship of the internet

Just yesterday, large sites such as Wikipedia, Google, Reddit and over 6,000 other websites including OMG! Ubuntu! ‘blacked out’ in protest of a bill with which you’re all familiar with. This morning, file sharing site Megaupload was shut down by the FBI, and the site founders arrested on piracy charges.

Appelbaum displayed slides of torproject.org blocked in countries such as Syria, Libya, Egypt, and China. That’s to be expected – the western world is acutely aware that the aforementioned nations have aggressive internet censorship in place. What might surprise you is that Appelbaum then showed slides of that same URL blocked on cellphone carriers O2 and Vodafone in the UK, and T-Mobile in the USA. Carriers that you use every day in democratic countries. Or so you thought.

“The United States is the next authoritarian state,” Senator Ludlum says, and the rest of the world needs to be aware that bills such as SOPA or PIPA will affect the world, not just the USA.

“Would you rather live under American domestic policy or American foreign policy?” Appelbaum asks, jokingly. “Well now there’s no difference.”

Self-censorship

Censorship is formed in a variety of ways. In China, a ‘spiderweb of shame’ prevents people from accessing banned websites and discourages internet users to even try. Searching for a keyword such as ‘democracy’ is very likely to enact some reaction from the authorities. In the US, legal threats are used to inspire fear in the populace.

When people know they’re being watched, their behaviour changes – and interestingly, the populace begins to censor themselves. For fear of being caught, users avoid controversial websites, avoid speaking out or joining groups to exercise their democratic right (such as Occupy or Anonymous), and stay away from anonymity networks like the Tor Project.

This simply makes it easier for the government to keep watch.

What can you do?

Free Software is extremely important in the war to maintain control. Users need to be aware of what’s going on in their phones, in the ISP data centres, in their laptops and in the cloud. Spread, advocate, and use Free Software to maintain freedom from surveillance, freedom from censorship, ownership of our machines, freedom from data retention and logging that can be used against you in the future, and freedom from fear.

Maintain anonymity on the internet because if governments don’t know who you are, their entire strategy falls apart. Use software like Tor (which we’ll introduce with another article next week) to hide your identity, and ensure that you do not remain ignorant. You may not be special now, but you might be in the future, and something is always interesting to someone.

Encourage mainstream adoption of anonymity on the internet, and contribute to projects that are fighting for internet freedom.

And lastly, educate yourself on legislation that might affect your ability to access information, and exercise your democratic right to ensure that legislation is not implemented that might destroy an open internet.