Anonymity and the Internet

From Slate:

Anonymice on Anonymity Wendy.Seltzer.org ("Musings of a techie lawyer") deflates the New York Times' breathless Saturday (March 19) piece about the menace posed by anonymous access to Wi-Fi networks ("Growth of Wireless Internet Opens New Path for Thieves" by Seth Schiesel). Wi-Fi pirates around the nation are using unsecured hotspots to issue anonymous death threats, download child pornography, and commit credit card fraud, Schiesel writes. Then he plays the terrorist card.
But unsecured wireless networks are nonetheless being looked at by the authorities as a potential tool for furtive activities of many sorts, including terrorism. Two federal law enforcement officials said on condition of anonymity that while they were not aware of specific cases, they believed that sophisticated terrorists might also be starting to exploit unsecured Wi-Fi connections.

Never mind the pod of qualifiers swimming through in those two sentences -- "being looked at"; "potential tool"; "not aware of specific cases"; "might" -- look at the sourcing. "Two federal law enforcement officials said on condition of anonymity. ..." Seltzer points out the deep-dish irony of the Times citing anonymous sources about the imagined threats posed by anonymous Wi-Fi networks. Anonymous sources of unsubstantiated information, good. Anonymous Wi-Fi networks, bad.

This is the post from wendy.seltzer.org:

The New York Times runs an article in which law enforcement officials lament, somewhat breathlessly, that open wifi connections can be used, anonymously, by wrongdoers. The piece omits any mention of the benefits of these open wireless connections -- no-hassle connectivity anywhere the "default" community network is operating, and anonymous browsing and publication for those doing good, too.

Without a hint of irony, however:

Two federal law enforcement officials said on condition of anonymity that while they were not aware of specific cases, they believed that sophisticated terrorists might also be starting to exploit unsecured Wi-Fi connections.

Yes, even law enforcement needs anonymity sometimes.

Open WiFi networks are a good thing. Yes, they allow bad guys to do bad things. But so do automobiles, telephones, and just about everything else you can think of. I like it when I find an open wireless network that I can use. I like it when my friends keep their home wireless network open so I can use it.

Scare stories like the New York Times one don't help any.

Posted on March 25, 2005 at 12:49 PM • 20 Comments

Comments

Bill GodfreyMarch 25, 2005 2:55 PM

I don't keep an open wireless point myself. Same reason why I don't keep an open proxy server.

1. I want to stay off block lists. If someone uses my IP for abuse, it may get listed.

2. That (ab)use *might* lead to a police officer on my doorstep.

3. I do not wish to assist abusive behaviour. Spammers, etc can find someone else's link to abuse.

4. Someone I trust can ask me for the password.

Yes, open wireless points can be used for good things. Closed wireless points can be used for the same good things.

ScateMarch 25, 2005 2:59 PM

One of the things that bothered law enforcement in the article was that they could no longer break down doors with impunity. Previous to WiFi, law enforcement could assume that any data associated with a particular IP address was related to the customer who was assigned that IP address. Open WiFi routers throw a monkey in to that equation.

Law enforcement seems to have an increasing thirst for additional police powers, including the elimination of that pesty anonymous "Free Speech" thing.. Clearly, more power makes the job of the police easier, but then absolute power would make their jobs absolutely easier.

DavidMarch 25, 2005 6:03 PM

I think you're pretty far off here, in several ways:
1) I see no irony in the use of anonymous sources to report on why anonymous access is being used for crimes. The underlying logic sounds something like, �You can�t criticize one form of anonymity as bad while simultaneously arguing that other forms of anonymity are good.� That doesn�t make much sense. Surely you think there are both �good� forms of anonymity (voting, HIV tests, etc.) as well as bad (anonymous candidates for office, anonymous people accessing your company�s computer network, etc.)

2)You say, �Open WiFi networks are a good thing. Yes, they allow bad guys to do bad things. But so do automobiles, telephones, and just about everything else you can think of.� Yes, but if you use as automobile to rob a bank, the automobile can be traced in a variety of ways (license, make, model, tire treds, etc.). If a telephone is used to make a bomb threat, again, the source of the line can generally be traced as well. Surely you�re not proposing we make telephones and automobiles untraceable as well???

Don�t listen the mullahs of privacy fundamentalism at EPIC and EFF, Bruce. They�ll mess with your mind.

BugMarch 25, 2005 6:38 PM

Couple quick comments to above:

1) David's right that there're no hypocricy in anonymously criticizing another kind of anominity, but that doesn't make the quote less ironic.

2) I'd say a better example is street signs. Bad guys can use them (to evade police, find the bank, etc.), and can do so untracably unless you happen to be there when it happens and recognize them as bad guys. But its only when faced with immanent invation by a foreign army that we go painting over all the signs.

A F(r)iendMarch 25, 2005 8:45 PM

I haven't bothered to turn on WEP on my wireless router because it's more convenient than having to run a different script for every place I use wireless. That said, my router does keep a log of MAC addresses that connect to it. While MACs can be spoofed, I suspect most people wouldn't be savvy enough or wouldn't bother. Since I know what MACs belong to my machine, I'd know right away if someone else was using my network.

ScateMarch 25, 2005 11:07 PM

"1) I see no irony in the use of anonymous sources to report on why anonymous access is being used for crimes."

I'd say Bruce is right about the hypocrisy. In the article, the idea that people might have a legitimate need for anonymity for any purpose is given short shrift. The article really only reported on how the police think anonymity is bad for law enforcement because it makes bad guys harder to track. No mention is made of possible good uses for anonymous access to the internet, including the ability to make political comments without the government keeping track of you.

So, the hypocrisy is because the police are using anonymous speech so they can avoid the consequences of going public with their views. In fact they may have committed a "crime" by talking to the NYT without permission from their department. Or it could be that they don't want their names known to avoid harassment. These are very similar to the reasons why people may wish to speak anonymously on the internet.

While the issues of anonymous internet access and anonymous speech to reporters are not exact analogs, they are sufficiently analogous for a legitimate comparison. I'd venture to say that the same police who think that non-anonymous internet use makes their professional lives easier would also think that newspapers who only report using non-anonymous sources would also make investigating crimes easier.

To those who say that privacy advocates are paranoid, I'd merely point to the Total Information Awareness project that was run under the direction of convicted liar John Poindexter (overturned on a technicallity, but convicted none-the-less.) This supposedly discontinued progress was so comprehensive and invasive as to be parody proof. But discontinued or not, just the fact that it was even attempted shows that what you say on line is being tracked, whether by the government or some other private party, say by a litigious religious organization famous for SLAP copyright suits. The analog in newspapers is that right now their are reporters facing jail time for keeping anonymous sources secret from investigators.

Anonymity has legitimate uses. If we are to live in a free democracy we need to protect the ability of Americans to criticize the government without fear of being charged with sedition or declared to be "Enemy Combatants." --A likely scenario? Hopefully not, but the current administration's stance on the constitution and the bill of rights is not encouraging.

ScateMarch 26, 2005 2:25 PM

"supposedly discontinued progress" in paragraph 5 should read "supposedly discontinued project"

--gotta be careful with that spell checker auto suggest...

Chung LeongMarch 26, 2005 2:47 PM

It's interesting to note that the people who worry so much about privacy on the Internet are the same people who support munipical Wi-Fi networks. The EFF, for instance, has become involved in a fight in Texas (see http://savemuniwireless.org/). Exactly how they reconcile these two stances is beyond me. If you do not want government surveillance of your online activity then you would certainly not want government ownership of the network.

The privacy implication of municipal Wi-Fi networks to me is obvious. In order to access government services online, you often have to enter your social security number. This means the government can connect your SSN to an IP address. If you use a government-run Wi-Fi network to access the site, then it can resolve that IP address to the MAC address of your Wi-Fi adapter. The government can thus in theory connect every piece of data that flows through its network to an individual.

Mark JohnsonMarch 26, 2005 4:11 PM

One of the advantages of living on a rural dead-end street way out of town with lots of land around me is that I don't have to mess with Wifi security. My Wifi signal doesn't even reach out to the street and even if it did, I'd notice a car out there in a heartbeat. Plus no one wants to travel way out here when there's plenty of easy targets in town.

Just in case, though, I run Airsnare and have it set up to email me if an unknown MAC connects to my network.

http://www.snapfiles.com/get/airsnare.html

ScateMarch 26, 2005 7:42 PM

"MAC address of your Wi-Fi adapter. The government can thus in theory connect every piece of data that flows through its network to an individual."

But, unlike your IP address, you can change your MAC address locally. So, WiFi has the potential to offer more privacy than a hard wired connection.

JimboMarch 26, 2005 9:19 PM

Umm, what illegal activity can you do on an unsecured wireless network that you can't do by paying cash to use one of Starbuck's connections?

Also I'm rather bothered by prosecutions of people who use an open connection -- surely its rather like taking a drink from a hose outside a person's house that's already on, no?

Burak SadicMarch 27, 2005 8:54 AM

Anonymity might be a concern for the governments but accessibility is a more important concern for me (and many netizens)

Registration of all hotspots may seem fancy for the governments but for " the " criminals it will not be hard to find fake IDs for showing at McDonalds or Starbuck's (social engineering tricks even remove the need for showing an ID, just think of credit card usage)

And how can the WiFi streets or university campuses that are created for free access be controlled? Most likely they will be closed if related legislations are in use :(

Internet is poisoned and dirty (worms, script kiddies, bots, spam) compared to the years before 2000. And this trend will rise geometrically. At least accessibility from everywhere is an improvement and I want to use it.

Some may say I am contradicting but I do not think " the governments' " main aim is cleaning the Internet (just browse through Bruce's blog, it has tons of entries on the contrary)

Cheers

Roy BadamiMarch 28, 2005 8:37 AM

It's always seemed fairly likely to me that people engaging in criminal activity -- at least those with any sense -- will increasingly use open wi-fi networks in the (probably justified) belief that it will make them harder to trace.

That's the main reason I secure my home network, and encourage others to do likewise. I don't want to be the subject of a police investigation into credit card fraud or child pornography.

The fact that such an alegation may well not make it to court, and if it does I would almost certainly be found innocent, doesn't change the fact that it's a situation I'd rather not have to deal with...

It's a double edged sword, of course. By securing my network with WPA, I reduce the risk of being a suspect in an investigation of the misdeeds of others. But in the unlikely event that criminals do succeed in making unauthorized use of my network, I will face a much harder time in court proving that to be the case...

-roy

blamanjMarch 28, 2005 11:50 AM

The article seemed pretty silly to me, given that you can, in almost any city in the US, walk into a public library and anonymously use a computer for free.

Terrorists in our libraries! What next?

GeorgeMarch 28, 2005 12:47 PM

I may not use anonimity often to obscure my actions, but I want the capability and RIGHT to do so if need be. Not to take illegal action, but let us say indiscreet action.

Several of the examples given here (voting, HIV, library 'net) are NOT anonymous - there is a layer of accountability that legally cannot be traversed... but may be technically traversed if implemented poorly.

I think that there are some astute people who are waiting for society to become apathetic enough about non-anonimity, then they'll sneak it in to everyday lives. But there are ALWAYS fools - Britain has cameras everywhere and sh!t happens. Rental cars have GPS and people still speed. CSI shows you crime won't pay...

Israel TorresMarch 28, 2005 1:17 PM

the pure utility of using anonymous entry points into the net has been in practice for ages. The understanding that with connecting to something you cannot see equally protects an attacker from not being photographed thus staying anonymous to such a degree as one would if they were to use a public service such as a library or starbucks where there would be a form of public/private surveillance for other reasons. However in an investigation all forms of evidence are used especially when video cameras or witnesses are in play. this enables "bad guys" to do bad things EASIER. :)... a lot easier, and even laughably easier.

Israel Torres


ScateMarch 28, 2005 5:55 PM

"The article seemed pretty silly to me, given that you can, in almost any city in the US, walk into a public library and anonymously use a computer for free"

This option is getting less common. One library system I visited requires that you use your library card number to log in to use the internet. This, combined with the Patriot Act, means the government can track your internet usage at this particular library.

pigletMarch 28, 2005 7:01 PM

"The privacy implication of municipal Wi-Fi networks to me is obvious. In order to access government services online, you often have to enter your social security number. This means the government can connect your SSN to an IP address. If you use a government-run Wi-Fi network to access the site, then it can resolve that IP address to the MAC address of your Wi-Fi adapter."
Is that true? I cant believe it!

Jeff BakerMarch 29, 2005 12:43 AM

The rant about SSN and municipal wi-fi is just bizarre. I have a municipally-provided electrical utility, and I don't have to key in my SSN every time I turn the lights on. I have municipally-provided streets but nobody tracks my SSN when I walk around town. In fact, I don't think my local government has ever asked me for any identifying material of any kind, and certainly not my SSN.

The Internet Protocol provides the possibility of end-to-end secure communications, if you are truly worried about your municipal wi-fi provider snooping your traffic.

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