Bloggers’ search for anonymity
By David Reid
The internet has given the individual unprecedented power to reach out to millions but some governments are cautious, even hostile, to giving their citizens free access to ideas they deem too democratic and dangerous.
Bloggers can face harsh penalties from some regimes
Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia: they are all popular with holiday makers but they also censor and even lock up journalists and bloggers.
This is why the media rights group, Reporters Without Borders, has published The Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents.
“There is another side to the picture post-card,” said Robert Menard, secretary general, Reporters Without Borders. “There are around 100 people in jail in Tunisia and the entire media is controlled by the powers that be and there are bloggers who have been locked up just for criticizing the Tunisian president.”
In many countries a journalism student covering a demonstration of school children would be commended for his initiative.
In Syria, student Mesud Hamid posted photos on the net of Kurdish pupils demanding equal rights. He was arrested while taking an exam at university.
“I was tortured,” he said. “For one year and three months I was held in a cell measuring one metre by two. I didn’t see the sun or sky for all that time.”
Mr Hamid has since fled to France.
So what do you do if you want to escape detection from authorities who might not like your work as much as you do?
The Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents is pretty technical but it also contains some simple tips, so you can say what you think without having to worry the censors or cyber-police too much.
If you want to protect your anonymity you can use a proxy, using a proxy is very simple. Anybody can do it even if you’re not a geek
Julien Pain, Reporters Without Borders
“The first thing is don’t write anything under your real name,” said Julien Pain of Reporters Without Borders.
“Even if you are using a pen name, then you have to be careful because the authorities can track you down on the internet.”
You might be tight-lipped about who you are, but your computer is screaming your presence all over the net.
All net-connected computers get assigned an IP address – which ensures that they data you request is sent to the right place.
It can let people know which websites you have visited, which e-mails you have sent and which articles you have posted. But if you are clever you can cover your tracks.
“If you want to protect your anonymity you can use a proxy, using a proxy is very simple. Anybody can do it even if you’re not a geek,” said Mr Pain.
Now there are two ways you can do this. An open proxy is essentially a computer, based elsewhere on the web, through which you can surf, send e-mails or post articles anonymously.
You have to change your IP address to one listed on various sites and, in principle you should be able to work anonymously.
“In principle”, because open proxies can also be used by hackers, so administrators often block them after a few days.
Another option might be a web-based proxy site abroad like Anonymouse or ProxyLord. They are going down well among surfers and bloggers in China.
China’s censorship machine blocks information in various ways
“The authorities would not be able to trace the IP because you’re doing this through a proxy site, and that’s probably the most efficient way now for the readers in China now to visit officially blocked websites,” explained Xiaorong Li, a research professor at the University of Maryland.
Proxies have their drawbacks as they can be blocked.
But for a very effective, albeit technical way of staying anonymous you could use The Onion Router (TOR). This is so called because the data it sends between computers is encrypted in successive layers like an onion. The data also takes an unpredictable path through all the proxies making up the TOR network.
Each proxy peels off a layer of encryption, revealing the next proxy it has to go to. Intercept the message at any point and the identities of both sender and recipient are protected. Not until it arrives, can the message be read.
Firewall of China
There are less technical ways of avoiding censorship. In China filters seek out specific words that the authorities consider contentious.
The mere mention of Tiananmen Square would be enough to get you noticed. But you may, however, be able to fox the filters.
“If you want to put the words June 4th, you put a comma or a period in between June and 4th, so they are not one phrase and that enables this word to evade detection through the filter, because the filter works by phrases: June 4th or 1989,” explained Xiaorong Li.
“If you put some kind of punctuation between the words they become not a phrase but readers can perfectly understand what you are saying.”
There is no sure-fire way of staying anonymous on the web and avoiding detection. But if you are careful about what you do, you can cut down your chances of being caught up by the cyber-police.