Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Anonymity in an Information Age

Reports that the government is seeking information from the search engines on user searches is troubling. Not just because Big Brother may want to watch us ... although that in itself is cause for some nervousness, but also because it highlights just how much information about us is floating around in accessible domain.

First the government stance - how can the government ask a company to violate an implied (if not explicit) confidentiality agreement with its users is baffling and, I think, inappropriate. One of the hallmarks of our justice system is that the normal people are free from unreasonable scrutiny without probable cause. Last time I checked, even an adult looking for porn is legal, and such an adult has the right to privacy that is not trumped by the need to protect children.

Whoa, you may say, isn't this the guy who supports the administration policy of wiretapping to find terrorists. Yes, I do - when there are a bunch of crazy bastards looking to blow my balls off, I tend to have a slightly different view of privacy. Even in this area, I think giving the government free reign should only be an interim solution. One of my favorite journos, David Brooks of the NY Times, himself a conservative, chided the administration for not pushing through a new solution that would address the outdatedness of the FISA laws while addressing the privacy concerns of this policy.

What I found more interesting though was the fact that Google and other search engines actually store such information for some duration of time. We don't know if there are links to the IP address of users. The government has clarified it does not want that information, so for now, there is no effort to track user patterns, but that's not to say a hacker or third party couldn't misue this information. Call it the democratization of information - we need not just worry about Big Brother, but also Lil Tim. Coming closely on the heels of a realization that your cell phone call records can be purchased for a few bucks, this really underscores the loss of privacy online. (For example, I received a letter from my broker that some banking information for several users appears to have been stolen, although they do not know who the victims are)

So what can we do? I took the first step, installing an anonmyzer at home. My pick for the freeware Tor, that can be used with IE or Netscape but that is especially convenient with the Firefox browser. For more information, visit the Tor website. I have only just made the switch, and it appears to slow down my online performance, so I may turn it off when necessary (especially easy to do in Firefox). It takes about 15 min for a non-geek computer user like me, so it should be a breeze for savvier users, and may take a little more time if you type with one finger. The instructions on how to donate bandwidth were a little more obtruse, so if any of you figure it out, please let me know.

Postscript I found I could improve by Tor performance by making one change suggested on a blog - to edit the config file to use sock4 instead of sock4a (don't ask me what it means!) My searches online also yielded this list of anonymous public servers that you could use as a proxy server. If you have access to a proxy server at work, you may not be anonymous. Visit this site and click on 'Proxy Test' and ensure your IP address doesn't show up. Also confirm by clicking on the 'Environmental Variables' button on the front page to ensure none of your information is being transmitted.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

> So what can we do? I took the first step, installing an anonmyzer

I thought that the first step to take would be to stop blogging, to remove your picture from your blog (if you have one there), and to start using a pseudonym for all other activities online!

By the way, how do you know that the tools that you use, do really protect your identity? Maybe you were meant to think that, and now people can watch you even more closely, because you really might have something to hide... [see http://www.coyoteblog.com/coyote_blog/2005/10/i_thought_this_.html]

-Sriram

Karthik Narayanaswamy said...

Hmm interesting point. RE: the anonymous blogging though, I've thought about this and my view is that while blogging, I control the information in the public domain. I have no issues with individuals knowing my views on free market economics or abortion (although I've said I may turn anonymous if I suspect it's in my best interests). What is troubling is when data miners can scrounge around for information whose flow I cannot control, discovering, for example, that maybe I have a thing for women in tall boots (which I do ... oops, did I say that aloud!).

The issue of the tools themselves being a problem is an interesting idea. After all, we are having this discussion precisely because we suddenly realized that one of our tools (search engine) does a lot more than we thought!