When I write this weekly column, Im anything but anonymous. My name, e-mail address and picture are displayed prominently, and it doesnt exactly take elite hacker skills to figure out my office phone number.
In the other areas of my life, however, I like to stay anonymous. I dont want the people working at a bookstore to know not only every book Ive ever read but also every book Ive ever taken off the shelf. I dont want the networks and cable companies to know every TV show or movie I watch. And I certainly dont want the phone company listening to my calls to determine what kinds of products I might want to buy.
I think most people want to maintain the same level of anonymity. And although its true that some companies have made moves that compromise privacy in some of these areas, they tend to do so very carefully because they understand the consequences if they go too far.
But its getting increasingly difficult to remain anonymous on the Internet. Users can try to work around the system in certain ways, such as fake registrations and refusal of cookies, but, in the end, its a losing game. After all, your ISP has your entire Internet surfing record right at its fingertips, and even if you trust the ISP, it takes only a subpoena for the government or an organization such as the Recording Industry Association of America to get at your information.
Thats why its important to so many of us to find tools that can provide true anonymity while using the Internet.
With anonymity, dissidents in countries with oppressive regimes can read news and information that would otherwise be censored; people can go to sites that discuss controversial issues without fear of ending up on a government list; and crime victims can participate in support forums without fear of revealing their identity.
There are also benefits for businesses. Anonymity lets an organization view information about competitors without tipping them off, and it can provide protection against hackers by obscuring connection points.
However, there are many who argue against tools that provide true anonymity and would probably fight to make such tools illegal. The entertainment industry would see these tools as an obstacle to its ability to track file-sharing networks. Some ISPs would see these tools as a threat to control over customers.
And many will argue that these tools need to be headed off because of their potential negative effect on law enforcement. They argue that anonymity protects criminals and terrorists, making it possible for them to elude the law.
But publicly available anonymous networks can actually improve security and law enforcement. Agents can more easily carry out research and investigations when they are anonymous, and informants can feel safe about providing valuable tips when they dont have to reveal their identity.
It looks like the U.S. Navy agrees with me: It is currently helping to fund Tor, one of the more promising technologies available today for providing anonymous Web use.
An open-source project, Tor seeks to provide anonymity through a technique called onion routing. Onion routing basically works by implementing numerous routers through which communications will pass. As data passes through the Tor network, each point knows only where the data is going and where it came from. As the network gets bigger, it becomes increasingly difficult to trace a connections origin. Although the Tor project is still early in its development, it shows much promise. It seems like it will be simple to deploy the application on both the server and the client. And if Tor reaches critical mass, people will finally be able to surf the Internet without fearing their moves are being traced.
To companies that worry anonymous networks will be a boon to file sharing: Im sorry, but youre going to have to face the reality of your business model in much the same way horse-and-buggy sellers had to face the automobile.
And to those who fear this technologys use by criminals: Well, the bad guys already have access to tools that hide their identity. If networks like Tor become criminal, only criminals will have them.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.