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PhoneBoy Explains: Anonymous Remailers

Usually when I write an edu-torial, it is because some sort of external event happened that I feel compelled to write about. Someone asks me a question enough times or an event happens in the world that gives me a place to start writing from.

This article was invoked by what I felt was some sad news. Johan Helsingius, creator of the popular "anon.penet.fi" anonymous remailing and Usenet news posting service, decided to close down his service. He based his decision on what he calls "the current uncertain legal status of the privacy of e-mail" in Finland, the country in which this service resides. Johan is allowing for people to communicate thru his service "non-anonymously" so that those people whom are only known by their anonymous IDs can establish some other form of communication, anonymous or otherwise. Full details about the closing of this service can be obtained from Johan's web site at http://www.penet.fi.

So what is an anonymous remailer? How does it work? Why would you want to use one?

Each remailer works somewhat differently. Some allow you to only "send" messages out. Others allow you to receive messages, too. Others still allow other features. The mechanisms for how all this works varies from remailer to remailer. But basically, what happens is that you are able to send a message and all traces of where it came from are removed, unless you give specifics in the text of your message.

There are plenty of "send-only" remailers out there. Each one has a different interface and take different precautions to insure your message reaches the recipient in an anonymous fashion. These tend to be "more" anonymous because nobody knows who you really are. The downside to these remailers is that it's hard to "participate" in the Internet community with one of these remailers because people can't communicate directly with you because they don't know who you are.

anon.penet.fi was probably one of the best remailers available and was very much ahead of its time as, from the get-go, it allowed people to participate and converse anonymously. To get an anonymous ID on anon.penet.fi, you could either sign up for one or send email to someone who had one. People would then be able to contact you thru  that anonymous email address. Whenever they sent you email, all traces of where their message came from would be removed and (if they didn't already have one) would get an anonymous ID assigned to them. This created a "double blind" system to insure anonimity all around. The email you receive thru this anonymous ID would automatically be  forwarded to your normal email account. The "double-blind" system insures the anonimity of the person(s) wanting to remain anonymous. Okay, they're not "totally" anonymous because the people running the remailer have to know how to get email back to you. The key to your "true identity" lies within the operators of the remailer, whom you must trust to "not reveal" your identity.

How, for the burning question: Why would you want to use any of these services? Let's say you worked for Microsoft and they were your only Internet access point. You had some "unpopular" views about Mr. Bill that you felt should be expressed over the Internet. Or you wanted to talk about a sensitive subject like child abuse or drug abuse and do not want to be identified. Maybe you want to place personal ads. There are any number of legitimate reasons why you might want to communicate in an anonymous fashion.

Unfortunately, there are many ill-legitimate reasons why you would want to be anonymous like to break laws or generally be annoying. But that's the dobule-edged sword of the Internet itself. The Internet enables people to communicate freely to exchange ideas and bring us all closer. But anonyminity, like email itself, is just a tool. In the right hands, it can be a useful tool to bring about change. In the wrong hands, it can do great harm.

Here are some links relating to anonymous remailers:

The remailer list:
http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~raph/remailer-list.html

The anonymous remailer FAQ.
http://www.well.com/user/abacard/remail.html


C-List #Cybersecurity Celebrity, Podcaster, #noagenda Producer, Frequenter of shiny metal tubes, Expressor of personal opinions, and of course, a coffee achiever.