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Practical Solutions to Anonymity Online
December 9, 2006
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Anonymity: A condition in which an individual's true identity is unknown. This would seem to be the answer to an internet user's concerns whether for surfing the web, file sharing or using an unfamiliar computer without leaving ones details behind. As clear as the potential benefits to anonymity are the path to success is not clearly marked. This is not an attempt to cover all the potential avenues to this nirvana, rather give some practical advice; the following discussion will attempt to illustrate the avenues known to work well enough to recommend.

First off surfing the web; how one goes about surfing the web 'anonymously' differs from solution to solution with varying results. The easiest way to surf anonymously with some expectation of speed would be to use a paid anonymizing service. There are free versions of anonymous proxies readily available, but in truth one's anonymity is only as good as the individual(s) running the servers and though free anonymous proxy's abound, their reliability, speed and trust factors are low in general. Proxies work by allowing your data to pass through others servers in order for your originating IP address to be that of the proxies rather than your own, one as a matter of course, has some distance between themselves and where ever they surf as a result; there are a number of paid services which offer a measure of reliability, speed and trust, which are in fact more practical in the long term.

Secondly there are users who use various computers who would like to leave as little or no information behind and would like to have a reasonable expectation that any information they divulge online won't be recoverable by unscrupulous individual's after the fact.

Lastly there are users who would like to have their file sharing activities be unknown to their ISP, their neighbor and even to the individuals with which they are sharing files with.

To address anonymous web surfing one would first have to ask whether anonymity was for personal or security purposes. If the answer was the security, the free Tor product could be recommended . Tor uses multiple servers to obfuscate ones true IP address which is highly effective but alas quite slow. Tor allows a user to connect to a chain of onion routers within which data is passed from one to the other in no particular order but the data will only move as fast as the slowest link in the chain. The second solution is a paid solution, which is a good paid web surfing anonymizing program such as Anonymizer, which routes one's data via an encrypted SSL, through their proxy servers out to internet in general and is returned through the same server. In the case of TOR your data is anonymized through the use of many servers giving one a measure of anonymity and is secured through the anonymous onion servers whom have little knowledge of one another. Anonymizer allows ones data to be anonymized though the use of the Anonymizer's anonymous servers and will be as anonymous as the protections provided by the business running the service to its customers.

Using an unsecured computer to do ones online business without leaving a trail on the computer used has been a difficult an daunting task with many partial solutions concocted to give one peace of mind with generally poor results. Until the last couple years there was not a good and practical software solution baring compete virtualization ala Virtual PC and its ilk; thankfully a lot of work in the application area has been done in this area which has bore fruit. Two successful solutions are Sandboxie and ones choice of bootable or "Live" Linux distributions. First Sandboxie, as it's name implies, is a virtual 'Sandbox' within which software can run which is a kin to the virtual machine technology which is gaining prominence among the three big Os's presently. Sandboxie works my imposing itself between the operating system and the application and monitoring everything the application does, when changes to the files on one's system are requested by the application, Sandboxie creates temporary files and affects these changes to these temporary files; once shut down all these files are deleted. The sophistication of Sandboxie and thoroughness of it's developers allows it to succeed where others have failed in this regard. Using a bootable OS such as the many live Linux distrabutions presently avialable also give a no trail solution to running software but with limitiations due to OS compatiblity.

Anonymous file sharing is a vast area to cover but it can be divided into two categories; one would be anonymous p2p applications and the other anonymizing mainstream p2p applications. The former is a contentious topic here on Slyck and in general. The first and free way to be anonymous while file sharing is to use an application which is designed from the ground up to hide the participating users from one another. The two applications which are regarded as at least moderately anonymous are Ants and Mute. These applications use routing schemes proven to obfuscate one on the network in which they participate and are rather effective, but again are typically much slower than open p2p applications. If one has the desire to use a more familiar open file sharing application in conjunction with an anonoymizing service, such as paid proxy or vpn service, the benefits would be reliability and speed as well as the larger community based upon these networks.

It is important to note that this review is but a snap shot in time as far as the state of anonymity while online, and as such should be in question at all times. Security is a word I've carefully avoided during the body of this article and for good reason. Security implies a state in which one is absolutely secure and none of the solutions suggested are that; any solution suggested about security in general should be taken with a grain of salt. Security is not an absolute in the real world but a continuously moving mark with an escalation of technologies at work and should be treated as such. The solutions suggested to date are practical in nature and are open to debate for the more security savvy, I'm sure these individuals will be willing to debate the pros and cons in the resulting thread. So let the debate begin.


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File-Sharing/P2P Related :: Software

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