On Episode 7 of The Edge of Innovation, we continue our conversation on what it means to be anonymous, and look at why it is not possible.
Jacob: And I’m Jacob Young.
Paul: On the Edge of Innovation, we talk about the intersection of between technology and business, what’s going on in technology and what’s possible for business.
Phones as Proof of Identity
Paul: So, again, we’re trying to talk about anonymity. So, I have pondered, “Okay, how do you become anonymous?”
Paul: Alright. One of the things that has been a prerequisite is to have a phone nowadays. You have to have a phone in order to receive a text message or a phone call, which is proof of who you are, a validation of who you are. Well, there’s unfortunately, a huge loophole out here, where you can go to Wal-Mart and buy a phone. And if you buy it with cash, there is no record of you buying that phone.
Jacob: Right. That phone’s not connected by Visa’s data to Paul Parisi.
Paul: Right. I have to usually buy a card to charge it, or something like that. You know, a SIM card with 100 minutes on it or something. But now I have that. Now, there could have been a surveillance camera that caught me purchasing something at Wal-Mart at that time. The thing that’s unknown to me, which I don’t believe is the case is I do not believe Wal-Mart or your local neighborhood convenience store says that at, you know, at 9:45PM somebody bought a prepaid cell phone. But if they did, of this serial number. Okay? I don’t think they’re registering that. They would be wise to, because then, when I go and make that, you know, that bomb threat with that call, there’s things called an IMEI number, and different codes that are recognized by the cell system, that can tell what phone made that. And it’s physically in the phone.
So, I could say, “Oh, my gosh. You know we have this phone out there that people, this person is calling and threatening a bomb threat.”
Paul: Hmm. We want to do something about it. We want to catch this guy. So, if the IMEI number is registered to that serial number, and we could find out that it was bought at 9:45 at Wal-Mart on the 15th, we could look at the camera footage and see that, “Gee, it was a guy that was six feet tall with black hair and glasses.” And oh, my gosh, when we find this guy in the lineup, it looks just like him. It looks just like me.
The other thing that happens when you use a cellphone is they know where you are. They know from both GPS and also from cell tower use, so which cell tower you’re near. So, if you go and buy one of these prepay phones, and you use it from your house, they are going to know that somebody is using this phone from that house.
So, okay. So, we go out and we buy the phone. And we go somewhere, I guess, near our house. You know, within 10 miles or something.
Jacob: You just stand in your neighbor’s front yard.
Paul: Yeah. You go and stand in your neighbor’s front yard, and we go to Google, and we want to register for an account.
Okay. So, let’s… We go to the local McDonald’s. We have this phone. We are using their Wi-Fi, which is free. We don’t have a proxy server. We don’t have anything yet. We just have a computer.
So, now, we need to do some things to secure our computer. We need to go and change, which is, what is called the MAC address. The Media, Access Control Address. And that is the serial number of the network card in your machine. It’s relatively easy to change.
You can override it in the software, so if you figure that out, you go with your laptop and you change the MAC address. You also download a browser that allows no tracking whatsoever. You might even run an OS that allows no tracking whatsoever.
You go to Google.com, and you want to sign up for a new address.
Browsers to Use for Anonymity
Jacob: Right. Now, would TOR or something like that be one of those browsers that does not allow for…
Paul: It would. Google doesn’t like tor. And if you use Chrome, Chrome is engineered to give Google as much information as possible. So, don’t use Chrome.
Paul: You could use private mode in Internet Explorer, private mode in Opera, or private mode in Firefox. And they’re relatively good. If you want to be extremely careful, use something called Tails, which is an operating system and browser environment that allows you to boot on an ISO.
There have been rumors that the FBI tracks everybody who downloads Tails. I find that difficult to believe, but okay. Let’s say they do.
So, I go to my McDonald’s. I change my MAC address so that my machine can’t be tracked. And I go to a browser that doesn’t share the fonts I have and all the different things that could be used to fingerprint me.
And I have my trusty little phone there. I go to Google, and I… I… You could try and use a proxy server if you happen to have one, but again, we’ve just been born. We don’t exist.
If you use a proxy server, Google will say, “I’m sorry. You can’t access us that through this proxy server.”
So, anyway. So, I have my phone sitting there. I go to Google and I sign up, and I say, “I want a new email address.” Anonymous@google.com, let’s say.
It says, “Well, in order to validate you, you have to give us a phone number.” Well, where do I get a phone number? Well, I have a phone number.
Jacob: You just bought one, right?
Paul: I just bought one. And so now, I have gotten around the chief way in which they validate that you’re real.
Paul Now, we need to assume that Google has a fingerprint of me from that browser, from whatever it could get. And a browser that’s clean is as much as a fingerprint as a browser that has all the different fonts and all those things in it.
So, we go to the next step. We say, “Gee, I want an account at wherever it might be- Amazon or whatever. And I can do this by buying gift cards. So, I can go out and buy gift cards with cash, and now I am relatively anonymous on the web.
Now, I need to be very careful because I don’t want to log in with that Google acct at my home or with a different browser.
Jacob: Which means you probably need to turn the computer off in a sufficiently dead way, where it’s not going to like occasionally ping.
Paul: Yeah. That’s not as much as the concern. The concern is doing something humanly stupid, where you just forget you’re not connected, but you’re connected, and you use that browser and it opens, and it goes back to your Google page and automatically logs you in, like it does. Because if you drive around with your phone, I mean, with your computer, and you use it, use it in New York City, fly to London, and open your browser up, you’re still logged in to Google.
Paul: But they know you’re in London and in New York. You were in New York, and now you’re in London. So, the fact of the matter is you have a legitimate, you’re a legitimate brand new user on the internet. You’ve validated yourself through this phone. Now what could the authorities get on you?
Well, there was a phone that was used at this McDonald’s, because they know that both from the cell phone tracking, from the GPS location, potentially in the cell phone. They know that from the McDonald’s Wi-Fi logs. They can look at your MAC address and see, “Okay. Is was a MAC address.” They could go back, and if they knew it was a Dell MAC address, they could say who owns, who did you sell that MAC address to, that computer with that network card that had that MAC address to?
But since we’ve changed it now, they can’t go to Dell and… You know, they could go to Dell and they say, “We never issued that MAC address.” Again, this would be a lot of work. But, you know, detectives would have to do it.
Jacob: Well, just the idea of having to go through all of the work of getting this stuff set up and then like, for example, buying stuff on Amazon anonymously, having to go get the gift cards. I mean, it just sounds like you’re committing.
Paul: Yeah. It’s definitely work. Now, the problem with buying something on Amazon is you need to have it delivered.
Paul: So, unless it’s a digital good, you need I have it delivered somewhere.
Jacob: Now if it were a digital good, would they be able to track like, oh, there’s a code. You downloaded this Beatles album, and now you’ve got it playing on this computer.
Paul: Early in the iTunes days, there was rumors, I don’t know if it was true but when they switched from proprietary to mp3, when you could download mp3 that you could effectively give to somebody else, that your name was in the meta data. I don’t know if that was ever the case. And I don’t know that about Amazon, actually. That’s a great question to really look at that and see if it is.
Now, the name isn’t going to be sitting there, Paul Parisi. It’s going to be some big hash on the name. But you could go in and potentially strip those out. But if I were doing it, I would make it so you couldn’t strip it out and it would be part of the data in the file.
So, I don’t know. That’s a great question. It’s plausible.
Paul: To your point. So, you could buy something, and you put it on a server. And so you buy it as new person, and then you go and put it up on a server as yourself. You know, as your real self. If Amazon could track that and say, “Well, you just stole that. You just bought it, and now you’re giving it away. Where did you, your real Jacob, get that from?
Well, I downloaded it illegally somewhere else? Or a bought it as my anonymous self? So, that could be a problem in that sort of payload, using a payload to track who you are.
It is difficult with these prepaid phones. That is the biggest loophole for becoming anonymous. Or it’s the biggest opportunity for becoming anonymous.
There are also, you know, there are phone apps that will, that will, as a service, allow you to make a phone call through this app, that they promise is anonymous.
Paul: Well, that’s okay. But you’re trusting them. And they must have some logs or something. Maybe they don’t, you know, but there’s all these different services out there that do that. And they make it very easy to do it. So, it could be that it is anonymous, or it might not be. So, some of the proxy servers, for example, this is a great example.
You buy a proxy server service. If it’s an American company, they have to keep logs of who used the proxy service. So, I know that Jacob bought it, and I know that he used it at 9:45PM, and he went to this weapons website, and he bought, you know, five nuclear missiles. And that’s illegal. Well, all the US does, government does, is go to that and say, “Let me see the logs,” and we can now correlate that and see that it was Jacob.
So, if I used overseas proxy services, companies that are overseas, they have different log keeping. And there are several companies that don’t keep any logs.
So, the issue is, is even… American companies can do that. They can say, “We don’t keep logs.” So, if you don’t have them, there’s nothing to produce.
What is a Right?
Jacob: Right. This seems to kind of touch on the issue of, you know, is the internet inherent… Does it have to be inherently anonymous? Or is an inherent right that then has to be protected by free speech or something like that? Because if we’re a country will legislate that sort of thing, I strikes me as getting to that sort of dynamic.
Paul: You know, I don’t know, personally, what is a right? You know, what…? We have personal agency in our actions. And there are certain things that our society has deemed to be inappropriate. Going into a building and yelling, “Fire” whether you’re anonymous or not is wrong. Most people will say that it’s wrong. I mean, you should be aware that there, there is this whole postmodern philosophy that permeates our culture, and the example I give will be absurd. But we are moving quickly towards this level of absurdity, that if you want to say, “There is a fire,” you should be able to say, “There is a fire.” You don’t even need to believe it. You just, you should be have that right to express yourself.
And the postmodern philosophy says that whatever you think is whatever you think, and it’s good. And we can do this, or we can do this. And whatever circumstance, we define what is right in that circumstance. That is the fundamental sort of tenet of postmodern philosophy. And most of what you see in society is based on that. And America right now is at a crossroads where you can’t tell anybody that something is wrong, down to the point of some, you know, early childhood education things, where it’s okay for a kid to believe two plus two is five.
Paul: I know that sounds absurd, but there are people that want to, you know, it’s better to encourage and empower the child, rather than say, “No, there are rules and facts.” So… Having said that, you know, your question is, is should it be anonymous, or should it be, should we have control over what we say and do.
And really, what you’re asking isn’t should we have control over what we say and what we do and what the government observes, because we already have control over that. We don’t need to do the wrong thing or the right thing. And we need to be responsible. See… And that’s really the gist here is who is responsible. And the ration, rationale of thinking that well, the government shouldn’t be able to watch me doing things that are irresponsible and hold me accountable to them.
Well, okay. But if you are being a responsible individual in a society, you should take that on yourself. And I think that’s really the crux of the issue. So, you know, we’re talking about, you know, I’ve given you a way to do things that you shouldn’t do.
Paul: But you should be a conscious active participant in society, and it shouldn’t be a problem. You shouldn’t do those things, because it’s not best for you. It’s not best for you to go into a school and say there’s a fire.
Paul: But you know, “I want free speech.” Well, that doesn’t extend to that, because it’s not reasonable.
Jacob: So, is anonymity on the internet, is that an act of free speech then?
Paul: I don’t think so. You know, you could be a dissident in, in a country that is being, that is suppressing your, your views on society. So, you want to say that this country, this government is wrong. Think of North Korea. Somebody wants to say something. Well, anonymity would help that person.
Now, they’re in a highly controlled state, so for us to come over from the outside, to say, “Oh, you need to allow anonymity,” well, the government in Korea, North Korea is going to say, “That’s crazy. Why would we do that? We don’t want the results of that.”
So, you know, you have some semblances in America of anonymity. You know, you can go to a chat board and sign in and say something. If you say something that’s illegal and inflammatory, you, you probably will find that you don’t have the anonymity that you thought you did. If you use this technique I’ve told you about, yeah, you could do that, you know.
So, you know, I think the thing really focuses on personal responsibility. I mean, free speech is a privilege, I think, not a right, because you have to use some judgement when you exercise free speech. Now, you know, in America, we have people on all sides of different political persuasions, and sociological persuasions, and they can say things that are deeply offensive to another persuasion. And that is protected. But it isn’t protected to go into a room and say there is a fire.
Paul: So, there is a reasonableness there. And there is almost a pride in America in that ability of somebody to say something offensive. And I think we need to protect that, because at some point, somebody is going to say something that’s offensive to you. And if you had the ability to punitively punish them, that would not be a free and open society.
Paul: So, you’re saying, how does that translate to the internet and how does the internet do that. And I don’t think… I mean, again, there’s a semblance of anonymity because of the technology. You know, if you, 200 years ago, if you wrote a note and posted it to a wall or a door and nobody could identify your handwriting, maybe you pieced it together out of magazines, they couldn’t figure out who you were. It was just not possible.
Now, they might go and dig through the trash and find out that you cut all the letters out of the magazine in your trash, they might be able to say, you know… But it wasn’t simple. It’s not simple now, but it wasn’t, I couldn’t comprehend that it was simple then.
So, I don’t know if that answers your question.
Jacob: No. I mean, I guess in some ways as we’re talking about this, I am beginning to think about how, you know, it’s funny. I, you know, I love my wife dearly, but if she sits next to me, I get, while I might be, you know, looking at Facebook or something like that, I, I feel like, “Why are you watching over my shoulder?” Like there’s kind of like a you’re watching over my shoulder. This is slightly annoying. There is a sense in which some of those aspects of being able to fingerprint and the anonymity rubs us the wrong way. But I’m not… I guess I’m just curious, is there something to be concerned about with, you know, the way in which we are fingerprinted and should we be more cautious about those things. Or is it just kind of a part of, you know, this is just the way the world is, and get used to it.
Paul: Well, I think it is the world, the way the world is. So, tough. If you want the use the services, you ultimately control what you do. That’s really the personal responsibility. You can reduce your fingerprint to nothing.
Paul: Don’t use Facebook. Don’t do this. But you make a value judgement every time you use it. The value outweighs the, the personal information I’m giving away. And you know, so, I don’t know what people are worried about. You know, because, you know, let’s, you know, if I were interested in basketball, and the government outlawed basketball and was going to send jack-booted thugs to go around and kill everybody that was interested in basketball. And the people were behind it, that’s a pretty absurd statement. I mean, you know, you could talk about, you know, polarizing ideas, such as pro-life or pro-choice. So, one of those becomes, you know, completely unacceptable and they send out thugs to kill the people that believe it. That’s a little absurd, you know, for a… But it isn’t absurd given our history of the 20th century of what’s happened, you know, in Nazi Germany, you know. Just by being a certain race, you could be killed, you know.
So, the technology allows the government to identify those people, you know, and is it ever going to happen again? Gosh, I hope not. But it has happened. It’s, it’s weird because we could be theorizing about this. But what happened is, is it actually… You know, if you were sympathizer to a, a Jew in, in Nazi Germany, you could be killed.
Paul: Wow. So, you know, let’s extrapolate that our silly thing, if I liked basketball, and they put basketball on my Verizon cable, and everybody who watches it gets a visit by the jack-booted thugs, that’s absurd. But it happened.
Jacob: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: You know, the more polarizing thing, really, actually a more absurd thing, you know. I mean, you know, you could say, “I like, you know, b-science fiction movies,” you know. And, you know, they’re really bad. Well, this obviously you have no judgement and don’t deserve to live. You know, that would be more reasonable than what’s actually happened.
So I don’t know. Again, we all have the option to opt out. You know, so you can just choose to not participate. That is the ultimate in privacy, the ultimate in anonymity. You know, use cash for all your transactions. But, you know, I don’t think you’re going to go home tonight and say I’m giving up all my technology.
Also published on Medium.