Anonymity on the Internet first became an issue in the late 1980s when newsgroups were created that discussed sensitive or taboo topics (i.e. alt.sex.fetish). Valid email addresses were required for posting on most sites; only a few allowed fictitious email accounts to keep participants’identities safe while they freely discussed controversial opinions. By the time the 1990s were in full swing, newsgroup servers that required valid email addresses for participation were seen as an easy target and overrun by spammers. To thwart the spammers and protect the privacy of their participants, many online venues changed their rules to allow invalid emails and pseudonyms for the purpose of posting.
Not surprisingly, the advent of nameless posting caused a huge online growth spurt, resulting in a tremendous number of people embracing their newfound “anonymous”freedom of expression. While most used their new anonymity wisely and only to protect their own identities, some chose to use this incognito status to vilify or harass personal acquaintances, public figures and anyone else that came into their line of sight. Commonly known as “trolls,” these individuals continue to delight in creating an atmosphere of hate and discontent while hiding behind anonymous email addresses. Activities can range from infrequent off-color remarks to full-blown daily bullying with far-reaching and sometimes tragic consequences. Just this year, a young girl committed suicide after being cyberbullied by anonymous posters on the site www.ask.fm.
That being said, there are numerous reasons people choose to use anonymous email addresses. Some acquire false emails to foil spammers and Internet hackers, or simply to protect their identities when searching for potentially sensitive or embarrassing information. Other individuals desire the privacy an untraceable address confers for darker reasons. One anonymous email site proclaims that their service is the perfect way to catch a cheating spouse; find out if your friends are “real”friends; give warnings to people; play an email joke on your friends; and evade detection if your private email is banned by the recipient. Some of these sites do note that if you use their services for illegal activities (death threats, abuse, slander, etc.), they will publish your IP address. An Internet Protocol (IP) address is a numerical label assigned to any device participating in a computer network that uses the internet for communication. It allows anyone with the address to track information back to the device from which it came. In addition, many anonymous email providers disclose that sending an email anonymously may open you up to a fraud or libel offense, even if you didn’t mean to commit one.
Law enforcement agencies generally encourage anonymous tipsters, but anyone that’s even a little Internet savvy will know that these days nothing online is truly anonymous. While sending an anonymous email to the average Joe might not be immediately traceable, any well-informed individual can create or purchase software that can trace your IP address. And, of course, a court could force it to be divulged.
In 2009, the Manhattan Supreme Court saw a case involving a New York model, Liskula Cohen, who brought a libel suit against someone anonymously posting comments on a blog hosted by Google’s blogger.com. Some comments were defamatory in nature and Ms. Cohen attempted to get a court order to reveal the names of the individuals so she could pursue legal action. Ms. Cohen won when Google was forced to reveal the identity of the pernicious blogger, one Rosemary Port, a Fashion Institute of Technology student who called Ms. Cohen a “skank”and an “old hag”online. Not to be outdone, Ms. Port sued Google to the tune of $15 million, charging that Google “breached its fiduciary duty to protect her expectation of anonymity.”Ms. Cohen ended up dropping her defamation suit after Ms. Port was unmasked, but Ms. Port’s lawsuit fizzled as well since Google was simply acting on a court order.
During the case, Port’s lawyer, Salvatore Strazzullo, claimed that there is an inherent right in the First Amendment to speak anonymously and that should apply to the Internet. He further insisted that blogs are a “modern day forum for conveying personal opinions, including invective and ranting, and shouldn’t be regarded as fact.”
In further response to the rulings in this case, Daniel Solove, a law professor at the George Washington University School of Law, observed that the rules for Internet anonymity are still being formed. In general, a plaintiff must meet certain guidelines before forcing someone to reveal their online identity, but as shown by the outcome in Cohen v. Port, any good lawyer can manipulate those guidelines.
Should this type of anonymity be allowed? The senior editor of Slate, Emily Bazelon, weighs in on the side of full disclosure, stating that, “We so err on the side of ‘Oh, free speech, everywhere, everywhere, let people defame each other and not have any accountability for it.’ And I think in free societies, that is generally a big mistake. And yes, you can make small exceptions for people who truly feel at risk, like victims of domestic violence are an example, but most of the time it is much healthier discourse when people have to own up to what they are saying.”
In contrast, websites such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation point out that anonymity is absolutely critical to plenty of online users: medical patients seeking advice on coping with a potentially embarrassing disease such as sexual transmitted infections, irritable bowel syndrome and more. The site also claims anonymity is important to businesses that want genuine feedback from customers; people seeking divorce advice; LGBT youth that need help coming out to their parents; individuals seeking mental health support; and the job seeker who doesn’t want his job search to compromise his current employment, among others.
It follows that disallowing anonymous email addresses grants spammers and hackers greater access to your online persona and files. Typically, spammers crawl the web for the @ sign to harvest email addresses. If your email address has been posted online, chances are a spammer will find it eventually. Spammers also use a technique known as “social engineering”to get your friends and co-workers to give them access to their computers. Social engineering usually comes in the form of an email from a known entity with an attachment that, once opened, downloads malware or spyware onto the computer to retrieve their contacts. Besides using computer software and programs that “guess”email addresses, spammers also use “harvesting”to capture email addresses. Harvesting methods include trading or buying lists from other spammers and using special harvesting bots to spider web pages, mailing list archives and other public forums to glean email addresses. The latter is made especially easy when someone forwards a joke or other humorous email and recipients forward it on to their contact lists instead of using “BCC”(blind carbon copy). The cycle of forwarding emails leaves all of the forwarded addresses visible to anyone receiving the message.
To protect yourself from spammers, you can install anti-spam software; set up spam filters on your email; consider not responding or opening suspicious emails; and even develop a tough-to-guess email address by using underscores, special characters and numbers in your address. However, the best protection by far is to set up a disposable (anonymous) email address for use when signing up for online services and newsletters, posting in chat rooms, or posting on blogs. After activating the spam filter on your anonymous account for double protection against spammers, you can simply forward mail coming through it to your primary email account.
These days, people concerned about email privacy issues also use websites like the Tor Project, Tails, Linux Journal, FreeNet, HotSpotShield and more to batten down the hatches on their individual Internet privacy. All of these sites offer secure email addresses for the privacy-minded, although now it seems like any attempt at achieving Internet privacy may turn Big Brother’s eye your way. For example, Tor was a project originally developed by the U.S. Navy to assist advocates of democracy in authoritarian states. Since the project has gone mainstream, it is currently being monitored by another Department of Defense agency, the NSA.
Unfortunately, just clicking the links provided in the paragraph above might mark you as a target for surveillance by the NSA. A recent article in Computerworld exposes the truth behind the NSA tracking program XKeyscore, which is being used to track individuals who show an interest in Internet privacy services. According to German sources, “the XKeyscore rules reveal that the NSA tracks all connections to a server that hosts part of an anonymous email service at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. XKeyscorealso records details about visits to a popular Internet journal for Linux operating system users called “the Linux Journal – the Original Magazine of the Linux Community”, and calls it an “extremist forum.” Linux is a computer operating system based on free and open source software development and distribution. The underlying source code may be used, modified, and distributed—commercially or non-commercially—by anyone and as of last year, 95% of 500 fastest supercomputers in the world use this code to operate.
Popular security pundit, Bruce Schneier, further notes that XKeyscore is able to do its surveillance in real-time, lending chilling credence to former CIA system administrator Edward Snowden’s statement about being able to spy on any American in real time from his deck.
So what’s the future of anonymous emailing? Certainly, anonymity in the hands of the unscrupulous can be disruptive, hate producing, and even fatal. Anonymity can threaten our nation’s security and provide a safe haven for evildoers of all types. Yet, the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the right to anonymous free speech as protected by the First Amendment. An oft-repeated quote from the 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission reads: “Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical minority views…Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority…It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.”
Taking away our power to shield our online existences from intrusion by unprincipled individuals or questionable agencies hampers our ability to protect our most valuable asset: our identities. Although rules should be in place to prevent and punish outright cyberbullying and other disruptive or harmful practices, I believe in our right to safeguard our personal information from the schemes of nefarious online lurkers, governmental or otherwise, should be upheld.
Nikki B. Williams is a freelance writer based in Houston, TX. She has written for a variety of clients from the Huffington Post and D.C.-based political action committees to Celtic jewelry designers in Ireland. You can contact her through her website, nikkibeewilliams.com.