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Anonymity Online – Why Bother?

First of all before we consider whether we all need any anonymity online, then lets first think about what the current position is. There is a common misconception that as you sit in the privacy of your home, casually surfing the web that you have some modicum of privacy.  No one really knows what web sites you visit, what videos you watch, emails you send and messages you post to forums.

The Friendly Chinese Internet Police?

Well I’m afraid that’s completely wrong, you have pretty much zero privacy by default.  Everything you do online is potentially monitored and definitely logged.

Here’s the deal – there are specific reasons why you have no anonymity –

HTTP – Hyper Text Transfer Protocol
A fantastic invention, a way for different web servers and clients to communicate with each other. It is a fast, efficient protocol – a very basic language where you can request a web page or item and the web site can respond and deliver it to you. Without doubt it has been a major contributer to the popularity of the world wide web, but it has some security flaws. In fact it has no concept of security at all, it’s all in clear text so can be intercepted and read with ease.

ISP – Logs
For privacy reasons this is probably the major concern, you see sitting in your ISPs datacenter are logs of everything you do online. Each web site you visit, every video you watch, email you send and picture you download – it’s all there and linked to your account. If you like it’s a complete and total record of absolutely everything you do online. Did I drink a bottle and a half of Shiraz last month and watch the Kylie Minogue Agent Provocateur Video six times, well there is a list at my ISP and available saying exactly what I did online (although the Shiraz part is my little secret). Needless to say this is the first place any official person would look if they wanted to see what you did online. These logs are routinely accessed without your knowledge by lawyers, governments, agencies, police forces. For instance the previous UK government were embarking on a project to put all these logs in a central database so they could be accessed even easier – from the desktop of your local government official for example! – UPDATE – recent events suggests that in the UK and the USA, the intelligence agencies didn’t wait to access this information they simply made copies via projects like PRISM.

IP Address
It’s just a little set of numbers that allows you to communicate over the internet. Well yes, but it’s also a set of numbers that can identify your exact location and the computer you are sitting at. If you’re using your home computer the number is linked with whoever pays the internet bill. To illustrate this I’ll describe a recent event, this is becoming extremely common and illustrates our lack of privacy

This particular example is from Europe (although it’s happening a lot in the US as well), where many media and publishing companies are attempting to recoup lost revenue from their films and music being shared online. To do this they have engaged various legal firms to force ISPs to hand over the names and addresses of people who have downloaded their films or music over the internet. The ISPs have of course are easily able to satisfy this request and will send the lawyers names and addresses of anyone who has downloaded a particular film for example. The lawyers then send demands to all these people offering an out of court settlement or a threat that it would be taken to court. Here’s a link to the initial story – ACS Law firm Pursues Downloaders

So Why Does it Matter ?

Blocked By Hulu, Pandora or the BBC

This is probably one of the biggest reasons that people try and hide their location online. A few years ago the internet was pretty much open, I could access the same websites and content as anybody else in the world. But now big business is moving in as the media companies are supplying incredible amount of content online. Hulu is amazing – thousands of shows streamed online for free, BBC Iplayer provides arguably the best programmes in the world all without a single advert and Pandora a music lovers dream. But whether you can access these or thousands of other media sites depends on your location (or more specifically the location of your IP address). Hulu and Pandora are blocked to anybody who doesn’t have a US address, BBC blocks non-UK addresses – every main media site blocks international access.

It’s all kind of sad but has led to a huge rise in popularity of VPN/Proxy based software. These protect your location and enable to access to these sites – the professional networks like Identity Cloaker have servers all across the world – allowing you to select a Canadian one to watch Canadian TV, then switching to a US IP address or UK when you want to watch UK TV like the BBC.

Government Censorship

Whether this is an issue for you is again dependent upon where you live. Many of the middle eastern and African countries are heavily censoring the internet access, in Thailand literally thousands of sites are blocked, Turkey has filtered many gay and lesbian sites plus hundreds of others. Any social media or discussion site is at risk from many governments who won’t allow criticism of the ruling party or regime. Even many democratic nations like Australia have embarked on policies to filter or censor the country’s internet feed for one reason or another. Of course at least in Australia you at least won’t have to worry about being thrown in jail if you blog or criticise the government – a fate that has succumbed to thousands of people in countries like Burma, Syria, Iraq, China and a host of others.

The need or requirement for anonymity varies across the planet – for myself in reality it’s a matter of protecting my privacy and allowing me to watch any media site like Hulu or the BBC (or my favorite through the French VPN – M6 Replay). But for many it is a necessity to protect their well being from despotic and brutal regimes.

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