The above cartoon by Peter Steiner was published in the July 5, 1993 issue of The New Yorker, just as the World Wide Web and the Internet in general was gaining widespread popularity. The cartoon conveys the freedom of anonymity that communicating over the Internet provides?no one knows who you really are.
However, this is only true in a very superficial sense and only for casual purposes. For any serious person, institution, or government, identities of Internet users are relatively transparent given enough determination. This is because of the nature of the technology–the Internet was not designed with anonymity in mind. For instance, the TCP/IP protocol (the main protocol of the Internet) requires computers to use an IP address, which is by definition a unique identifier.
Fortunately, there are several open source tools that do make robust anonymity on the Internet possible. Steven Gibson on Security Now highlights two of these: TOR and Freenet. I’ve written about TOR before (which works great) but Freenet was new to me.
Freenet is an anonymous distributed database containing files scattered over users’ hard drives all over the world. Users of Freenet are required to make a portion of their hard drive available to store parts of other users’ files. However, these files are encrypted so there is no way to tell what being is stored on your hard drive. Further, when downloading from Freenet, there is no way to tell who you are downloading from.
This technology is very powerful and allows fully anonymous communication, ostensibly encouraging free speech. Unfortunately, this same technology can be used to harbor and distribute criminal information of all kinds. As with other powerful technologies, good is enabled as well as the bad.