Internet Anonymity at Risk as Real Costs of Free Speech Weighed

By Cronin, Mike | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 16, 2010 | Go to article overview

Internet Anonymity at Risk as Real Costs of Free Speech Weighed


Cronin, Mike, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


If it were up to Marcus Ranum, Internet users would have to buy rights to an e-mail address.

A fee of $1,000, for example, would deter cyber criminals and spammers because communicating on the Web would no longer be free, Ranum said. They couldn't accumulate infinite numbers of online identities without paying.

The dollar figure cited is simply a hypothetical -- it could be any amount that would act as a deterrent, said Ranum, chief security officer at Tenable Network Security Inc. in Clearfield County.

"Realistically, your Internet service provider would take care of it," he said. "It would work exactly like a cell phone. You sign a contract with your cell phone company. If you send 15,000 text messages, you get a huge bill and the company knows where you live."

There are others who, like Ranum, support removing anonymity on the Internet as a way to reduce cyber crime, cyber bullying and even cyber attacks. They say a Web that identifies all its users makes those users accountable and traceable.

But opponents argue anonymity is crucial to the free flow of information on the Internet and preservation of civil rights. Some say not only would bad people merely circumvent such efforts, eliminating anonymity is simply impossible.

"Attempting to build such a system is futile and will only give criminals and hackers new ways to hide," said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer of London-based BT Global Services. One problem would be proving the person connected to a machine's IP address actually sent the relevant message.

Schneier described applying the idea in practical terms: "We'd need agencies, real-world organizations, to provide Internet identity credentials based on other identification systems -- passports, national identity cards, driver's licenses. We have nothing that comes close to this global identification infrastructure."

Even if that type of system existed, it would make identity theft a more profitable crime, Schneier said. People would lose Internet IDs just as they do a driver's license or passport today, he said. Schneier believes a person intent on remaining anonymous could send information through an "anonymity server."

Dave Farber, a former chief technologist of the Federal Communications Commission and a Carnegie Mellon University distinguished career professor of computer science and public policy, agreed that removing anonymity is technically impossible.

"On the average, we've done well the way we are," Farber said. …

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