New Tools for Online Anonymity, Digital Privacy from Canadian Developers

By: Lee Rickwood

June 27, 2013

New trends in digital journalism and online reporting – not to mention the need for safe, secure and private Web browsing in general – show the growing need for online spaces and digital tools that can deliver a reasonable amount of anonymity and protection.

"A reasonable amount of anonymity" is offered by journalists and expected by whistleblowers using new tools for online identify protection.

“A reasonable amount of anonymity” is offered by journalists and expected by whistleblowers using new tools for online identify protection.

The need of reporters to be able to protect their sources – be they corporate insiders, government whistle-blowers or smartphone movie-makers – is recognized in human rights pronouncements and national constitutional documentation around the world.

Nevertheless, reporters say they must take “extreme precautions” these days to protect their sources and themselves.

There’s a ‘chill factor’ in the air, with both corporate and governmental online surveillance and meta-data collection activities that are worrisome to some, intimidating to others. So, too, the single-minded prosecution – persecution to some – of alleged whistleblowers is disconcerting.

Warning about the consequences to civil liberties and democratic social structures of a seeming unfettered ability to monitor, track, identify and interrupt online communications in her recent book, Consent of the Networked, author and senior research fellow Rebecca MacKinnon says “The legal frameworks, technologies, and corporate-government relationships that facilitate opaque and unaccountable digital surveillance have grown entrenched…”

But there are those seeking to entrench new tools, techniques and technologies for the protection of online identity.

The respected U.S, publication The New Yorker Magazine has recently released what it says is an anonymous document sharing tool, so that sources can contact the magazine and its reporters in order to convey potentially controversial information or revelatory documentation without necessarily revealing their identity.

Strongbox, the New Yorker says, offers at least “a reasonable amount of anonymity” for those who convey information to the magazine but don’t want to be found. “Even we won’t be able to figure out where files sent to us come from. If anyone asks us, we won’t be able to tell them,” the publication described.

Strongbox was put together by Aaron Swartz and Kevin Poulsen; their underlying code, dubbed DeadDrop, will be open-source when fully implemented, meaning it can be used and tweaked by others.

Strongbox is a process as much as a product; conveying documentation involves multiple computers, thumb drives, strong encryption, and Tor.

Tor is free software and an open network that helps defend against certain kinds of network surveillance used by Internet service providers and government security agencies.

Tor is free software and an open network that helps defend against certain kinds of network surveillance used by Internet service providers and government security agencies.

Tor is free software and an open network that helps defend against certain forms of network surveillance known as traffic analysis.

Tor is free to download, and it works by widely distributing online transactions across the Internet to make determining a person’s location based on activity online much more difficult.

Tools like Tor are for anyone who wants control over his or her online footprints, but as whistleblowers and tipsters can protect their identities, and journalists can protect their sources’ location, the journalistic value of Tor is significant, certainly as The New Yorker sees it.

Some governments see the value, as well, particularly those where citizens and human rights activists seek to document and fight censorship, surveillance and filtering on the Internet.

That’s the stated mission for Psiphon, software developed at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. Having created the original design for the censorship circumvention software, the Lab spun out its mature development into a private Canadian corporation (Psiphon Inc.) in 2008.

Since then, the award-winning privacy platform has been used to engender a higher degree of online safety, security and anonymity, describes

Citizen Lab Leader and University of Toronto Professor Ron Diebert addresses the audience at an International Privacy Day symposium. (Photo by Jon Horvatin)

Citizen Lab Leader and University of Toronto Professor Ron Diebert addresses the audience at an International Privacy Day symposium. (Photo by Jon Horvatin)

Professor and Lab leader Ron Diebert in his speaking engagements and presentations.

A new digital tool called Tails can also be used to protect identity and support anonymous Internet use.

Tails is a live DVD or live USB that pushes connections to the Internet through the Tor network; developers say it leaves no trace on the computer you’re using, and that all files, e-mails and instant messages are encrypted using sophisticated cryptographic tools.

What’s more, even video chat rooms can be better protected, say the Canadian developers at Priologic Software, based in Victoria, BC.

Its new Tawk.com solution is built on the emerging open source browser standard called WebRTC, for real time communication.

Tawk says it addresses the privacy issues that arise when exposing local capabilities and local streams to the ‘Net by putting communications out over more secure HTTPS or HTTP over SSL connections. The tawk.com app is available for certain browsers and mobiles devices.

Search engines, too, are getting a secure make-over, as developers seek to defend their users’ privacy and civil liberties – as well as their IP addresses and search results.

Two such entities, based in the Netherlands and so not directly subject to all those regulations, warrants, court orders or surveillance programs that have hit the headlines in North America recently, say they collect no personal data and therefore cannot hand any over.

StartPage provides a private portal to Google search results, while Ixquick provides private results from other search engines.

StartPage and Ixquick CEO Robert Beens notes that automatic encryption is on all his company network connections, making it harder for others to eavesdrop and see what his clients are searching for. He underscores that StartPage and Ixquick never store user data, like the IP addresses and search queries that make up other companies most valuable assets.

Beens adds that the company will soon expand its privacy services with the addition of a new private email product called StartMail. StartMail will offer a paid, private email platform with strong encryption, he described, adding that a beta testing program is now underway.

Commotion is not currently a secure circumvention tool. At some point that may change, but even the value of community controlled digital architectures in protecting anonymity when necessary is a value to developers at Commotion, which can be used to build a local communications infrastructure using existing tools and mobile devices.

Meanwhile, a new Online Survival Kit from Reporters Without Borders offers practical tools, advice and techniques on how to circumvent censorship and to secure network communications and data.

The handbook will grow and expand over the coming months, its contributors describe, so that everyone can have the means to resist censors, governments or interests groups that want to control news, filter information, gag dissenting voices or keep the light from getting out.

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submitted by Lee Rickwood

 

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