Cloak and Swagger: A Brief History of Anonymous Identity Protection on the Internet
Anonymity has proven itself a vital property of society. Dating back to the beginnings of time, anonymous writings have been found in many great literary works, including but not limited to Cave Paintings, Hieroglyphs, The Bible, Tom Sawyer, as well as the same Federalist Papers that helped in the ratification of the US Constitution.
The founder of 2Ch, a popular anonymous forum in Japan, said,
“… delivering news without taking any risk is very important to us. There is a lot of information disclosure or secret news gathered on Channel 2. Few people would post that kind of information by taking a risk. Moreover, people can only truly discuss something when they don’t know each other.
If there is a user ID attached to a user, a discussion tends to become a criticizing game. On the other hand, under the anonymous system, even though your opinion/information is criticized, you don’t know with whom to be upset. Also with a user ID, those who participate in the site for a long time tend to have authority, and it becomes difficult for a user to disagree with them. Under a perfectly anonymous system, you can say, ‘it’s boring,’ if it is actually boring. All information is treated equally; only an accurate argument will work.” (Source: Wikipedia)
There is very little room for argument as to how anonymity protects ideas, society and ultimately, the freedom of humanity. However, anonymity has also become an important tool to protect oneself from the many dangers of the Internet.
• • •
In the early days of the Internet, IRC Networks which, at the time, did not mask IP addresses and hostmasks, quickly became the World of Warcraft for the youth and angry alike. A popular network, known as Eris Free Networks or EFnet, became a group warzone where users would compete to take control of IRC channels and IRC nicknames. Essentially, one would be able to utilize a form of DOS attack to disconnect other users and servers from the network. Some of these attacks consisted of sending a specific ICMP packet which confused routers, while others consisted of simple traffic/packet floods. These attacks were used against both the IRC servers to incite a network-split as well as specific users in order to remove opposition groups from control of IRC channels and nicknames.
Groups eventually utilized Eggdrop bot networks which consisted of multiple IRC clients spread across multiple geographic networks to maintain connectivity to IRC, and essentially, maintain control of IRC channels and nicknames even in the event of network-splits and bot floods. Many of the bots and individual IRC connections were run through high powered UNIX Shells in order to utilize more stable connections with bigger pipes. With this came the birth of multiple vanity hosts, which utilized the “reverse DNS” of IP addresses to portray custom messages in user’s hostnames.
A revolutionary solution arrived when dalvenjah launched DALnet, and with it, channel and nickname registration services. However, quickly it became a reality that cloaking IP addresses was still important, even with the absence of channel and nickname wars.
At this point, more experienced (aka higher level) users (aka script kiddies) were able to utilize tools such as Teardrop, Smurf, Boink, Ping of Death, amongst others against the less experienced (aka newbies). Some of these led to instant blue screens [of death], while others hilariously crashed the TCP Network Stack causing a dialog box to open indicating the computer would restart in 60 seconds. With long boot times on the slow computers of yesterday, the re-spawn time associated with a death in World of Warcraft is a far cry from the 5+ minute waits caused by these restarts along with the potential busy signals when dialing into ISPs.
As such, for the receivers of these attacks, there were very few laughs. This made it increasingly important to protect one’s IP address with the use of UNIX shells as well as IRC bouncers. Finally, anonymizing and cloaking one’s IP address became so important in preventing hacks, attacks, and serious smacks (worse than getting slapped by mIRC’s trout) that innovation was introduced by binary and Mysidia (Darkfire.Net/Sorcery.Net) in the creation of built-in IRC cloaking on IRC servers which has, today, become adopted in the majority of IRC networks’ codes.
Fast forward today, a different mischief in IP usage has begun. While script kiddies and individuals used to be the perpetrators of negative IP usage, today, corporations have begun to use IP addresses as well for data tracking. On August 4, 2006, AOL released the data for millions of searches by millions of users. Programmers were able to cross-reference the “anonymized” data to figure out who entered each search query. This was a massive breech of data privacy which led to severe embarrassment for many.
Projects such as Do Not Track attempt to protect users by providing an opt-out from data tracking and mining. However, there seems to be very little reason at this time for corporations to comply with these projects. Further, projects such as YouHaveDownloaded that provides P2P BitTorrent download data by IP, have helped to re-emphasize that IP privacy is ever so important. In fact, cross referencing BitTorrent data with Skype P2P traffic leads to a direct breech in identity and, essentially, privacy. Additionally, anonymous crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin suffer from these same problems, especially when not used with a patched Bitcoin client.
Today, many users opt to protect their identity using Tor and VPN services. The protection of our privacy and access to anonymizing identity protection services is an important must as we build the Internet, which is, today, still just a newbie.