Friday, July 01, 2011

How anonymous are you online?

They Don’t Know Me, Or Do They?
By Tshering Cigay Dorji (Ph.D)
Published in Drukpa, December 2010 Issue on Media


Today, many Bhutanese make various anonymous comments in online forums ranging from kuenselonline.com to bhutantimes. com. One of the things that may be on minds of many of these online posters is if their real identity be found out.

Tracking the real identity of an anonymous poster may not be straightforward but it is nonetheless possible. First of all, your computer is identified by a unique IP address. That IP address may not be visible to the forum readers, but it is recorded in the log file of the website you visit. This can be viewed by the administrators of the website.


So, the first possibility for tracking the anonymous poster is that the government or the aggrieved party could ask the website administrator to release the details of the IP address of the poster either directly or through a court order. Once the web administrator releases the IP address, the search can be narrowed down to a particular locality or organization. Once that is done, it would not be too difficult to pinpoint the person.

Now, if it so happens that the website administrators refuse to divulge the IP addresses, another way to find out the poster’s whereabouts is to lure him to click on a particular link by sending him a private message. There are sites on the internet that provide such services. One such site is http:// shivampatel.net/trace/.

The anonymous posters have one more weapon in their arsenal, proxy servers – a server that retrieves web pages for you, providing only its own identity to the sites it visits. That means if you connect to bhutantimes. com using a proxy server and make a post, the bhutantimes.com website would record the IP address of the proxy server and not your real IP address. Hence, even the administrators of bhutantimes.com would not be able to identify your real IP address. But, the proxy server would still record the details of your IP address. So, if the proxy server releases your IP address, you could again be tracked.

Another point of concern for anonymous posters is the ISP logs, the records maintained about your online activity by your local Internet Service Provider. Some ISPs record the details of different websites visited by an internet user. Even the anonymous proxy servers cannot circumvent this. One way suggested to overcome this is to use a DNS server other than the one given by your ISP, provided that the ISP allows it.

The trackers have another analytical tool in their hand these days. Many people make public comments and posts under their real identity in their personal blogs and Facebook pages. But they post anonymously on online forums like bhutantimes.com. Using sophisticated data mining tools, or even by simple analysis, it would not be very difficult to connect the anonymous posts to a real person. In recent years, there are also software tools for ‘authorship profiling’ which can identify an anonymous author by automatically analyzing the diction and syntax of anonymous posts and comparing with the sample texts written by suspected people.

In short, there is no such thing as ‘anonymity’ on the web. It just depends on what extent the trackers are willing to go in order to track you. If they are not so serious about pursuing you, you could escape anonymously. But if they are willing to go to any extent in uncovering your identity, there are enough footprints you have left online and tools in their hands to track you. All I can suggest for you to make it a little more difficult to be tracked is to use the anonymous proxy servers (use carefully as some free proxy servers may not be authentic), change your DNS servers if possible, change usernames often, and not write similar posts under your real name in personal blogs and Facebook pages.


The writer has a doctorate in computer engineering from Tokushima University, Japan

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