Let’s Talk About Anonymity Online

Let me show you what it looks like from the internet’s point of view when I go to a simple website using a normal Browser (Brave):

111.222.333.444 – – [18/Dec/2019:16:29:05 +0000] “GET / HTTP/1.1” 200 7094 “-” “Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux x86_64) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/78.0.3904.108 Safari/537.36”

The 111.222.333.444 would be my IP address. With that, anyone can get a lot of information about. With just a simple google search, you can actually see in the general vicinity where an IP address originates from. For example, the public IP address for Google is 172.217.23.238. You can use services like https://whatismyipaddress.com/ to what company owns an IP and a map to where it is located. In this case, the IP for Google is probably in a datacenter in Kansas. When I look up my personal IP, the website shows a map of Prague and the company that I use for my internet provider.

What does this mean? To any website that I visit and I don’t say who I am, I am anonymous but I am trackable. My IP address and many other things about my computer and my browser give me an unique fingerprint. From the website that I run, if I wanted, I could see a list of every IP address that ever visited, where they come from, what kind of computer they use, what browser they use, what resolution their screen is, and a lot more. A law enforcement or legal organization can easily find out who I am personally by contacting my internet service provider and then I am no longer anonymous at all. Anonymity is a very tenuous concept online. It really isn’t difficult to find out who someone is in real life if you have the means to do so.

Now let’s change gears. You’re probably heard about Tor. I know I’ve written about it a lot here. Tor is a way to make yourself both anonymous and untrackable. Furthermore it makes your true IP address a secret so even law enforcement have a very hard time tracking down someone using it. Your ISP doesn’t know what you do online.

Let’s see what it looks like when visit my website using the Tor Browser:

45.66.35.35 – – [18/Dec/2019:16:49:41 +0000] “GET / HTTP/1.1” 200 7094 “-” “Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0; rv:68.0) Gecko/20100101 Firefox/68.0”

The IP address is not mine. It belongs to an exit node which is run by a Tor volunteer. These IP addresses are publicly known and are often banned from many websites (we’ll talk about that later). Even though I am still running Linux, Tor Browser says that I am running Firefox on Windows 10. In fact every Tor Browser user appears to be running Windows 10 and they all have fake IP addresses.

If I do something that people don’t like, the best they could do it to contact and possibly ban the exit node but it is no simple feat to find someone using Tor. It takes a lot of big-government level money and resources to do so and even then it takes a lot of work.

Why is this important? Isn’t the amount of privacy that I have online enough? After all, if I log into Twitter or Reddit, I can create a new account and never tell anyone my real name. I am anonymous aren’t I?

To a point, you are anonymous but only on the most basic level. Again, it takes very little to pinpoint who you are in real life. Do one of these types of people sound like you? This list was written from a specific point of view. The thing that gets me most of all is that there are people in this world and perhaps in your country who are willing to use violence to keep opinions that they don’t like quiet. It is easy to keep quiet and hope not to get caught up. It is difficult to speak what you believe where the consequence could be loss of employment, injury, imprisonment, or even death. Anonymity isn’t cowardice. Sometimes it’s the only safe way to be heard.

Before I finish up, I have to talk about the negatives of anonymity. First and most obvious is that many online companies do not want you to be anonymous. They make money from giving you ads and tracking what you do. Do not be surprised if many website, including Google, stop working when using Tor. They have no reason to allow you to use their services if they can’t make money off of you and every reason to discourage it.

Secondly, bad people also use Tor. Not nearly as many as there are on the open internet, but they are there. Some are criminals. Some are merely trolls. A few do terrible things under the cover of anonymity online. Those are probably the stories that you have heard in the media and not about those who live under repressive regimes.

Not everyone agrees with me, but I believe that anonymity is important and it is crucial for safety online.

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