Computer Crime Research Center


Anonymity in Cyberspace: Finding the Balance

Date: July 09, 2006
Source: Computer Crime Research Center
By: Mohamed CHAWKI

... for illnesses like AIDS; or information about birth control or sexually transmitted infections.
Anonymity is effective in promoting freedom of expression. Julf Helsingius asserts that anonymity is beneficial because it gives people an outlet for their opinions, even controversial ones. He argues that it is “ good to bring out things like that in daylight because that actually allows you to start processing it, see how people react to it, and so on”.[34] This may have sort of a cathartic effect in that it allows people to get their feelings out without physically hurting people of other cultures, races, etc. Moreover, anonymity hinders some methods of controlling the actions of other people. This is an additional argument in the usefulness of anonymity in the protection of freedom of expression. There are many long-standing precedents for anonymity in publishing. The responsibility of a journalist not to reveal their sources is recognized almost universally. Many authors write under pen-names and there are still some cases where the true identity of the author has never been discovered. Even the Federalist Papers were published under a pseudonym. Most newspapers publish letters to the editor and help columns and allow the letters to be anonymous or signed with a pseudonym and many newspaper articles are merely credited to “AP Newswire”. Additionally, anonymous peer reviews of proposals and articles are common in academic circles.[35]
In Forensic Advisors v. Matrixx Initiatives, [36] a Maryland Court has been asked to order the disclosure of the identity of subscribers to a newsletter. In this affair, Matrixx, a pharmaceutical company was seeking a publisher’s subscriber list to use in connection with a lawsuit filed against numerous individuals who posted allegedly derogatory comments about the company to an Internet discussion board.[37] Privacy and civil liberties advocates including EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center have filed an amicus brief in support of the publisher’s right to protect the list.[38] The brief argues that the list ought to be protected under Maryland law that protects a journalist’s sources. They further argue that subscribers have a right to remain anonymous under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, since disclosure of the list would deter readership and violate established privacy rights. In ACLU v. Miller , [39] the American Civil Liberties Union got an injunction against the enforcement of a Georgia statute that prohibited a person from falsely identifying herself while sending e-mail, posting on the Internet, and more (one of the problems with the statute was that it was too vague). The court ruled it was appropriate to give an injunction, among other reasons, when there was the potential for chilling free expression. The court agreed with the state that its purpose in enacting the statute--preventing fraud--was a compelling state interest, but decided against the state because the statute was not narrowly-enough tailored to its purpose.[40] Finally, anonymous communication can be achieved in real life by sending an unsigned letter or making an anonymous phone call. From the large number of users who take advantage of anonymous services on the internet, it can be seen that these services are truly necessary and fill a specific need. The availability of the technology to set up such an anonymous server also makes the elimination of such servers virtually impossible; as soon as one is shut down, another one is created. The current availability of such services eliminates the need to forge an identity or use another person’s identity to correspond anonymously. People on the net are anonymous to some degree anyway because of the inherent characteristics of the medium.
Services providing additional anonymity are only expanding on this feature of the net. Pseudonymity comes in useful in that it allows users to send mail to pseudonymous users in response to their mail or post. People are able to respond to emails that they like or dislike or that they find offensive or disruptive. This makes the pseudonymous user more responsible for his or her actions than the completely anonymous user. They are still accountable for their actions on the net but are protected from “real world” damage.
Abolishing anonymity servers is not necessary since the technology exists to produce kill files which allow users to choose for themselves what they consider offensive. This allows individuals to filter out anonymous posts and emails which they dislike, while still reaping the benefits afforded by anonymous services. Although some people will automatically discount any anonymous postings, other people don’t care who wrote it, as long as it is intelligent or funny. Still others use anonymity specifically to allow their opinions to be judged on their merit, rather than by the name attached to them.

Although anonymity is extremely important for the protection of human rights, it is also tied with cybercrimes, or it is claimed that it would allow criminals to use the Internet without the possibility of detection.[41] With respect to cyberspace, identifying an electronic crime scene can be a daunting task when the perpetrator may have routed his communications with the victim through computers in three or four countries, with obscure networks that are inaccessible to investigators. Additionally, perpetrators could make things much more difficult and complicated by using technology and encryption techniques that provide a high-level of anonymity or assuming the identity of an innocent person. Moreover, the scale of cybercrime can exceed that of real-world crime in terms of the degree of harm[42] inflicted by a single crime.[43]
Criminals who wish to use a computer as a tool to facilitate unlawful activity may find that the Internet provides a vast, inexpensive and potentially anonymous way to commit unlawful acts, such as fraud,[44] the sale or distribution of child pornography, the sell of guns or drugs or other regulated substances without regulatory protections and the unlawful distribution of computer software or other creative material protected by intellectual property rights.[45] For example, some services like anonymous re-mailers can plainly frustrate legitimate law enforcement efforts despite providing privacy and encouraging freedom of expression. In the first case to be prosecuted in Queensland, a woman received e-mail correspondence that began amicably, but then became more threatening once she sought to end the communications.[46] She ultimately received death threats from the offender and threats to have her pack raped, videotaped and uploaded on the Internet.[47] In another case brought to court in United States, a University student harassed five female students after buying information about them via the net. The student sent over one hundred messages including death threats, graphic sexual descriptions and references to their daily activities.[48]
In another recent case, a phisher [49] e-mail claiming to be from MSN was sent to computer users. It said: “we regret to inform you that technical difficulties arose with our recent update. Unfortunately part of our customer data base and back up system became inactive”.[50] This authentic-looking message offered a toll free telephone number in addition to a web link and urged individuals to click on the link to the phony web site. The message then informed individuals that they needed to enter their personal information. Later on, they realized that they were victims to this phishing attack.
Thus, territorial-based strategies tend not to be effective against online anonymity because they are designed to prevent the citizens of one nation-state from preying on each other, not to prevent their preying on citizens of other nation-states.[51] In this respect, Marc GOODMAN has succinctly stated:[52]
[L]aw has evolved to maintain order within a society. Each nation-state is concerned with fulfilling its obligations to its citizens… [N]o nation can survive if its citizens are free to prey upon each other. But what if they prey upon citizens of another society? What if the citizens of Nation A use cyberspace to prey upon the citizens of Nations B and C? Is this a matter that is likely to be of great concern to Nation A? There are historical precedents for this type of behaviour that may shed some light on what will ensue in cyberspace. The most analogous involves high-seas piracy and intellectual piracy. Both involved instances in which societies were willing to allow (or even encourage) their citizens to steal from citizens of other societies. In both, the focus was on crimes against property the motivation was purely economic. [T]he conduct took place at the ‘margins’ of the law: high-seas piracy occurred outside the territorial boundaries of any nation and therefore outside the scope of any laws; eighteenth-century American intellectual property piracy [53]occurred when the legal status of intellectual property as ‘property’ was still evolving. Both were outlawed when they became economically disadvantageous for the host countries. One can, therefore, hypothesize that countries may be inclined to tolerate their citizens’ victimizing citizens of other nations if (a) the conduct takes place at the margins of the law and (b) results in a benefit to the victimizing nation. The former gives the victimizing nation plausible deniability when confronted with its tolerance of illegal activity; the latter is an obvious motive for tolerating the activity.
Accordingly, law enforcement agencies are faced with the need to evaluate and to determine the source, typically on very short notice, of anonymous e-mails that contain bomb threats against a given building...
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2008-06-09 11:47:32 - Sorry for the multiple messages, I pressed... Albert Nonymus
2008-06-09 11:46:24 - Interesting read, for the... Albert Nonymus
2008-06-09 11:45:53 - Interesting read, for the... Albert Nonymus
2008-06-09 11:45:37 - Interesting read, for the... Albert Nonymus
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2006-08-10 22:16:48 - I agree with you that anonymity should not... Marianna
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