A reader asked me if only using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) was enough to protect his anonymity online. I suspect he was not pleased by my response because he wanted a simple answer and computer networking is anything but simple.
The words privacy and anonymity are often used interchangeably and it is a huge mistake to believe they mean the same thing. Just ask Cody Andrew Kretsinger who lived in Phoenix, Arizona. I wrote “lived” in past tense because young Cody made the mistake of thinking that simply using a VPN made him anonymous as he committed various violations of the law. After the FBI showed up at his door with an arrest warrant, Cody lived for a while in jail and federal prison. Privacy and anonymity are absolutely not the same, as Cody learned the hard way.
Anonymity in the online age of the internet is something extremely difficult to achieve. Your chances of remaining anonymous are improved if you only use internet cafes, never use the same one twice, and wear gloves and a disguise when you do so. But what honest person is going to do that?
Privacy is easier to achieve in public or from the comfort of your own home by using a VPN. Using a VPN for this purpose can keep your web browsing, video streaming, and other activities private, but only so long as someone does not want you to be private anymore. That “someone” could include the FBI, Scotland Yard, and even Netflix.
In the case of Kretsinger he apparently believed that since he was in the U.S. and used a foreign VPN named HideMyAss based in the U.K. his identity would remain unknown. Unfortunately for him, his ineffectual efforts to hide his hacking failed to slow down law enforcement investigators. Those officials simply asked HideMyAss for the name, address, and phone number of the person who was using the “private” VPN account. HideMyAss complied and Cody soon went to jail for his involvement in the hacking of the computer systems of Sony Corporation.
There was some short-lived outrage and indignation from other HideMyAss customers complaining that the company should have resisted revealing its customer’s identity. For its part HideMyAss responded that its terms and conditions clearly state that its services shall not be used for any illegal purpose.
Many VPN companies advertise they do not log customer activity. This is not exactly a lie, it just does not mean what customers think it does. Make no mistake about this: no VPN server could function without the technical necessity of keeping some kinds of logs, and VPN providers do cooperate with law enforcement agencies and other companies all the time. If they failed to do so then they would come under the scrutiny of law enforcement as well as their upstream providers.
I hope this makes a little bit clearer that there is a big difference between privacy and anonymity. If you use the internet you are almost never anonymous, especially if anyone wants to know who you are and where you are.
Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8@SMAguru.com.