Digital "Nymity" in a Paranoid Age

It just so happens that I'm an exhibitionist -- I write about my life every week in various locations. But let's just say that I'm a little weird. Most people don't want to share their lives with the public, and when they do, they don't want to do it using their real name.

That's the beauty of the Internet, as we all know: you can tell as much about yourself as you want, and often you can be as anonymous as you wish.

Three decades into the Internet era, being anonymous has become far more complicated than getting yourself a pseudonym. Online, you can have as many pseudonyms as you like. A few of them might be traceable back to your real identity, a few might not, and a few might be more reliably "yours" than your real name (think encrypted digital signatures). In fact, the Internet has complicated the issue of identity so much that we've had to invent a whole new way of talking about it. Like the Eskimos, who allegedly have a zillion words for "snow," we of the Internet culture have many words for anonymity.

Computer security expert Ian Goldberg's "nymity slider" is probably the most useful way of thinking about this situation. He divides digital identity into four general points on a continuum. It start with "verinymity," which is the most "you" of all your identities: verinymous information would include, for instance, your address and your social security number.

Further along the continuum is "persistent pseudonymity," which would cover noms de plume that you use regularly and consistently used online nicknames that can be traced back to your real name pretty easily. Most people on the Internet have identities that hover somewhere around the persistent pseudonymity part of the slider.

But further along still, there's also "linkable anonymity," which covers things like frequent-buyer cards and phone cards -- identities that you use over and over again, but which don't necessarily have any connection to your verinym. (Everybody knows you can get a Safeway card under a fake name, right?)

At the far end of the nymity slider is "unlinkable anonymity," a term for the kind of totally anonymous identity you have when, for example, you use cash to make a one-time purchase from a stranger. It's not an identity that can be traced to you, nor do you use it over and over again. Unlinkable anonymity is totally anonymous because it's a one-shot identity, the single appearance of a self who never returns.

Even though I'm an exhibitionist, I like the idea of unlinkable anonymity. People need it, especially now that what you do online can get you thrown in jail and branded a terrorist. Who knows why you might want to be anonymous? Maybe you want to send a sexy e-mail to your lover, or maybe you want to stay in contact with your local anarchist group. Maybe you're just a privacy freak. Who cares? It's your fucking right to be as anonymous as you want.

And I know just the place for you to go if you still want to take advantage of unlinkable anonymity while it lasts. Download the anonymous remailer program known as Mixmaster -- you can find it on SourceForge.net. A free, open source software project that's been going strong for 10 years, Mixmaster is currently being run by San Francisco security consultant Len Sassaman.

Used mainly for sending e-mail and posting to newsgroups anonymously, Mixmaster ensures that you can send data over the Net anonymously. The beauty part is that because Mixmaster works via a network of servers, your data can't be traced back to you for most of its journey through that network. So, if somebody tries to intercept your mail en route to its destination, they won't be able to figure out who it's from or where it's going. That means the script kiddies and feds snooping on the lines could pluck up that data and still never figure out whose it is. Yes, that's right -- Mixmaster can even protect you against Carnivore, the FBI's Internet snooping tool.

My friend Joyce (her real name) says she's sick of all the fake names floating around -- people layer on the nicks and pseudonyms like there's no tomorrow. Anyone who has ever traveled in Burning Mannish circles knows what I mean. Robert Nguyen at work is Bonky Dog on the playa and DJ Phreec at the turntable. It's anonymity for anonymity's sake, and that's not what I'm trying to get at here.

Some people need to remain unknown for their safety and not just for fun. Mixmaster is for people who aren't just fucking around -- and, of course, the more we use it, the safer it will be for those who need it. As they say, anonymity loves company.

Annalee Newitz (realname@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who needs something stronger than Imitrex. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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