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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Being Blank in Bright Waters


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In a world of billions of people, the individual becomes a little more anonymous every day. And every day millions find their online privacy and anonymity being stripped away bit by bit.

So why wait until the end of this column to cough up my brutal conclusion: True privacy, like true security, is a myth. The concepts of true privacy and anonymity online were invented to make you and I feel safe and secure in cyberspace, when the environment is really hostile and threatening.

I'm tired of my privacy and anonymity being stripped from me at every turnat the airline ticket counter, at the entrance to any federal building, and even at major amusement parks, where these days you can't enter without being practically subjected to a full body search.

So I suppose the Internet's various privacy-raping technologies should just be taken in stride, considered just another cog in the machinery of those corporate and government forces allied against the John and Jane Doe's.

After all, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy reportedly said, "privacy is dead, get over it." So I suppose that's it. Game, set, and match. We all lose.

Well, not quite.

You see, I'm taking extreme measures in the fight to regain my privacy, to regain my anonymity. I'm taking myself out of the grid. I'm "Going Blank."

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The Opposite of ID Theft

Going blank isn't an original idea. I stole it "20 minutes into the future" from the old cult cyberpunk series "Max Headroom."

In Headroom's disaster of a digital world, everyone was connected to "The Network." In Headroom's world only outlaws had on-off switches on their TV sets. And the "rebels" were those who erased themselves from the corporate computer databases; they appeared to not exist, hence the name "Blanks."

So the idea is the opposite of identity theft, that nefarious upward-trending practice in which some low-life literally steals your digital being. By stealing your social security number, your birth date, and a few other easy-to-access pieces of information, a crook can turn your life into a living hell. An identity thief can destroy your credit, your reputation, and your career.

"I'm sorry Mr. Doe, we simply can't hire a senior executive that has done time in Folsom prison on a child molestation conviction..." Yes, even the identity thief's criminal record can haunt you.

The solutiongoing blankallows you to live the life of a data outlaw. It's identity theft in reverse, if you will. Yes, I know, books have already been written about "how to make yourself disappear." The feds do it on a routine basis through the Witness Protection Program.


An online acquaintance "scribbled" every single online message he'd written over the course of several years, leaving behind a single new entry: his electronic suicide note.


Still, I have an extensive digital trail out there to eradicate. On some sites, using a simple command, I can "scribble" my messages, which wipes them from the storage disk, instead of merely hiding them from public view. This technique ensures that future snoops can't possibly dredge up any embracing or self-incriminating postings I may have made. This tool was blasted into my psyche when an online acquaintance "scribbled" every single online message he'd written over the course of several years, leaving behind a single new entry: his electronic suicide note.

And recently I learned that James Rutt, CEO of Network Solutions, the domain name company, executed a similar "scorched bit" policy to make sure no muckraking reporter would have access to any embarrassing comments.

I'd have a fair number of Usenet messages to hunt down and slay; a "kill bot" might be able to handle this feat.

I'd also have to say goodbye to my electronic friends and colleagues. To accomplish this, I'd set up a fake free email account and register with a free Web hosting site so I could construct my own "memorial" Web site, complete with a link to an obituary in some small town weekly newspaper, the kind of periodical in which you can pay to run an obituary of your own writing, no questions asked.

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Electronically Eaten Alive

In 1996, when columnist Joel Klein was busy lying to everyone who asked him whether or not he was the "Anonymous" author of Primary Colors, he told the New York Times Book Review: "Anonymity imposes a strict discipline and an almost religious humility."

I find truth in this statement. It's difficult being anonymous online. Any digital security zealot can tell you that the practice of rigorously padlocking your electronic communications is inconvenient. The stronger the protection, the more inconvenient. That's why most people don't encrypt their communications; they can't be inconvenienced for a few seconds. And that's why e-commerce sites are pathetic sitting ducks for any 16-year-old digital cowboy with a packet-sniffing script, a carton of cigarettes, a pot of coffee, and couple of days to kill.

In the war of convenience versus security, convenience wins every time. The headlines are littered with sensationalized "Hacker Attack" stories to prove out the maxim. Sloppy security administrators should be flogged in front of a streaming video Web cam ... but I digress.

The same inverse ratio of high security and inconvenience applies to online privacy and anonymity. Sure there are steps you can take to try and make sure you're anonymous, but they are kludgy; they slow you down. Most believe the trade-off isn't worth it. And for those that put up with it and endure the delays, the ultimate insult is that there are no guarantees your efforts are going to keep that veil of anonymity from being ripped asunder.

Who can forget the infamous episode of the "anonymous" remailer in Finland being raided by local law enforcement authorities? The operator of the site rolled over and released all the information requested of him. It was a chilling lesson in the fragile dance between anonymity and the reality of online life.

Even us smug Internet users that quietly believed we were getting away with something by jacking in with a cable modem instead of a DSL line are now getting a rude awakening.

What few realize is that cable TV and modem subscribers have congressionally blessed privacy protections bordering on awesome. Known as Section 551(h) of the Cable Act, part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, any government law enforcement agent seeking to tap a cable modem must present "clear and convincing evidence" the subscriber is engaged in a crime before the court will approve the email tap.

For a phone line, even a digital one, the cops only have to show probable cause, which is a much less stringent legal standard than for the cable modems.

In addition, any time a law enforcement official shows up at the doorstep of a cable operator asking for any kind of information on one of its subscribers, that subscriber has to be notified, in advance, of the release of any information (or the installation of any kind of wiretap) so that the subscriber can contest the request in court. Sweet deal, no?

"No" says the FBI, which is now making noises that it wants to castrate the Cable Act's privacy standards for fear cable systems will become a safe haven for criminals.

The FBI already has "Carnivore" out there waiting to devour my email. Even if I'm not Carnivore's target, the digital beast still ingests my messagealong with all the others on the target's ISPand then is summarily supposed to spit it out if it doesn't pass muster. But can the FBI be trusted?

During a congressional hearing in July, FBI officials actually had the audacity to couch their defense of Carnivore in a "we're from the government, trust us," manner.

No thanks. I'll think I'll just hang out over there in the noise and go blank.

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Author

Brock Meeks (brock.meeks@msnbc.com) is chief Washington correspondent for MSNBC.


©2000 ACM  0002-0782/00/1000  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2000 ACM, Inc.


 

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