|André in Cap Ferrat, France|
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|Hunger for Power|
|Computer Privacy Handbook|
|Who Is This?|
[This FAQ, first published in 1995, offers a nontechnical overview of "remailers" to help you decide whether to use these computer services. When I first wrote this FAQ, remailers were an esoteric subject. Today, millions of persons use them. Links at Bacard's Privacy Page will connect you with specific remailers. I have written this FAQ for law abiding persons who value irony. You may distribute this (unaltered) FAQ for non-commercial purposes. Thanks to the many pro-privacy sites around the world which link to this FAQ. Copyleft 2012 by André Bacard].
In 1995, the Internet was largely a community of persons who trusted each other. It was considered Rude and Crude to send copies of a letter to more than 5 persons. Today, spammers email 5,000,000 copies at a time. In 1995, most people used their real names, addresses and telephone numbers on the Net. Today, aliases, "throw away" accounts and phony return addresses are the rule. In 1995, only the most despicable persons would place spyware, keyloggers or surveillance programs in people's computers. Today, mainstream corporations load their web sites with secret tracking programs. In 1995, universities in particular respected the privacy of their students, staff and faculty. Today, I visit universities which use keyloggers (programs which record EVERY keystroke) and cameras to monitor every person who uses their public terminals. Universities, libraries (bastions of "free inquiry"!) and other public networks use the laughable excuse that they need access to your passwords, bank accounts and email exchanges in order to protect users from "undesirable" websites.
In 1995, only a few people cared about email privacy because we, human beings, we not under constant attack.. Today, many individuals & corporations provide secure email services. Thus, the context for and meaning of "remailers" has changed a great deal.
A remailer is a computer service which privatizes your email. High-quality remailers are in sharp contrast to the normal email account at the average Internet Service Provider [ISP]. These accounts tend to be terribly un-private. In many cases, ISP could accurately stand for "Internet Surveillance Project". Almost every ISP can monitor, store and share your web wanderings and email with many "authorized persons" or "drinking buddies" without your knowledge. If caught, the ISP snoops have a built-in excuse: to wit, "We check mail at random as part of our 'security' system to protect our clients." In many countries, ISPs are explicitly monitored by government agencies for 'security' reasons, for trade secrets, for diplomatic gossip, etc.
|Why Are They Watching?|
In my opinion, ISPs should be required by law to provide every customer with a health message in the spirit of the campaigns against child abuse or cigarette consumption:
Until the late 1990s, a remailer allowed you to send electronic mail to a Usenet news group or to a person without revealing your true name or email address to the recipient. Today, web-based remailers permit you to send email using your real name (if you wish), while protecting your email records from the snooping eyes of your Internet Service Provider and others.
HushMail.com is an example of a popular "remailer". I have an account. HushMail encrypts my email inside my computer, so that nobody between my computer and the HushMail machine can read my email or attachments. In addition, all email between HushMail customers is encrypted. HushMail has various spam filters, one of which blocks all non-encrypted email. Before HushMail was created, very few persons had the motivation and technical skill to provide this level of privacy for themselves and their correspondents.
In the first version of this FAQ (published in 1995), all popular remailers were free-of-charge. Today, a number of services either charge user fees, or support themselves via advertisers.
Maybe you're a computer engineer who wants to express opinions about computer products, opinions that your employer might hold against you. Possibly you live in a community that is violently intolerant of your social, political, or religious views. Perhaps you're seeking employment via the Internet and you don't want to jeopardize your present job. Possibly you want to place personal ads. Perchance you're a whistle blower afraid of retaliation. On the other hand, you might be an honest bureaucrat who invites whistle-blowers. Conceivably you feel that, if you criticize your government, Big Brother will monitor you. Maybe you don't want people "spamming" or "flaming" your corporate email address. In short, there are many legitimate reasons why you, a law abiding person, might use pro-privacy email systems.
Let's take an elementary, imaginary example. Suppose that a battered woman, Susan, wants to post a message crying out for help. How can Susan post her message and receive responses confidentially? She might use a "PSEUDO anonymous" remailer run by André Bacard called the "SecretBacard.com" remailer. (This remailer is fictitious!) If she wrote to me, my "SecretBacard.com" computer would STRIP AWAY Susan's real name and address (the header at the top of Susan's email), replace this data with a dummy address (for example, <anon123@SecretBacard.com> and forward Susan's message to the newsgroup or person of Susan's choice. Also, my computer would automatically notify Susan that her message had been forwarded under her new identity <anon123@SecretBacard.com>. Suppose that Debbie responds to Susan. My computer will STRIP AWAY Debbie's real name and address, give Debbie a new identity, and forward the message to Susan. This process protects everyone's privacy. This process is tedious for a person but easy for a computer.
Many businesses use this remailer principle. For example, CraigsList.Org, a global community bulletin board allows persons to rent apartments, sell cars, post events, etc. If I place an ad, CraigsList assigns me an address like anon-123@CraigsList.org. When someone writes anon-123@CraigsList.org, his or her mail is transferred ("remailed") to me. Dating services such as Match.Com can provide a similar privacy buffer between you and the public.
The above business models employ what I call PSEUDO anonymous systems.
Most people use the expression "anonymous remailer" as short hand for two radically different types of remailer systems.
A "PSEUDO anonymous" remailer is basically a "trust relationship". The fictitious SecretBacard.com (described above)is a PSEUDO anonymous remailer. You must trust that I have the personal integrity and the technical skills to protect your records within the SecretBacard.com computer. In addition, you should realize that all your transactions with SecretBacard.com may be:
In practice, there are reasonable limits to trust. Someone might get a court order to force a PSEUDO anonymous remailer operator to reveal your true identity. The Finnish police forced Julf Helsingius, a remailer pioneer and a global hero to privacy activists, to reveal at least one person's true identity. This legal attack forced Julf to close his remailer.
The advantage of most PSEUDO anonymous remailers is they are user-friendly. If you can send email, you can probably understand PSEUDO anonymous remailers. For instance, the CraigsList community bulletin board is very convenient.
Truly ANONYMOUS remailers are a different animal. If used properly, they can provide far greater privacy than PSEUDO anonymous remailers. However, in general, they are much harder to use than their PSEUDO anonymous cousins. In my experience, truly ANONYMOUS remailers are used almost entirely by computer programmers & hobbyists who love the technical ins and outs of the Internet. People tend to use these ANONYMOUS remailers to post controversial messages on controversial (highly monitored) UseNet groups. I rarely receive mail generated by ANONYMOUS remailers.
There are several types of ANONYMOUS remailers, including:
Note that I refer to remailers in the plural. People who want maximum privacy route their email through three or more remailers. In theory, this insures that NOBODY (no remailer operator, no Internet computer operator, and no snoop) can read both the origin of your email and the destination of your email. Furthermore, many remailers have time delay options. For example, you can tell the remailer to hold your message for one hour before it passes along (remails) your message to the next remailer. In practice, nobody can force an ANONYMOUS remailer operator to reveal your identity, because the operator has NO CLUE who you are! In addition, all the email which passes through the remailer is encrypted.
I recommend you start by reading Wikipedia's Anonymous Remailers Article and following it's many links.
If you live and breathe computers, check out the Usenet group alt.privacy.anon-server. At this Usenet group, you can find the names and locations of ANONYMOUS remailers, reliability ratings, and software programs to help you automate the use of these remailer networks.
If you don't know the difference between a bite and a bit, I recommend you go to the secure web-based systems found at André Bacard's Privacy Page. Study these web sites carefully before you open a free or fee account.
In the beginning, all remailers were free to users (but not to the people who ran them!). How could a remailer administrator charge people who wanted maximum privacy? How could administrators ask for a credit card number or take checks? Several years ago, there was no technical solution to these problems.
In 1995, I wrote:
In the future, remailer operators might charge for
their services. Privacy is valuable. For example, offshore
banking is one of the world's biggest businesses. It is easy
to imagine Remailer, ETC., a cyberspace company that goes
beyond Mailbox, ETC. (the existing company which rents snail
My prediction came true. Today, many remailer operators charge fees for the same reason you like a salary; namely, to pay for your food, housing, Internet connection, etc. For extra fees, you can get extra services -- such as a place to store your encrypted files online. This service can be helpful when you travel.
Why does André Bacard spend hours writing FAQs? Why do some people volunteer to help other persons walk across the street? Some people set up remailers for their own personal usage, which they may or may not care to share with the rest of us. Some persons are educators or activists. Joshua Quittner, co-author of the high-tech thriller Mother's Day, interviewed Mr. Julf Helsingius for Wired magazine. Helsingius, who ran the world's most popular remailer for three years until he retired in August 30, 1996, said:
It's important to be able to express certain views without
everyone knowing who you are. One of the best examples was
the great debate about Caller ID on phones. People were really
upset that the person at the receiving end would know who was
calling. On things like telephones, people take for granted the fact
that they can be anonymous if they want to and they get really upset
if people take that away. I think the same thing applies for email.
Living in Finland, I got a pretty close view of how things were in the
former Soviet Union. If you actually owned a photocopier or even a
typewriter there you would have to register it and they would take
samples of what your typewriter would put out so they could identify
it later. That's something I find so appalling. The fact that you have to
register every means of providing information to the public sort of
parallels it, like saying you have to sign everything on the Net. We
We always have to be able to track you down.
A few years back, Microsoft (with its hotmail.com), Yahoo!, and many other companies began offering free-of-charge, web-based email accounts. You could call these "remailers" (in the broad sense of the word). These email accounts can provide a high-degree of privacy, if you:
In my view, the bold & bright persons at HushMail.Com have pushed remailer technology to a new level. Hushmail is continuing the pro-privacy revolution started by Julf Helsingius in Finland in 1993. [See link at Bacard's Privacy Page]. HushMail created the world's first web-based, fully-encrypted, user-friendly email system.
An "ideal" remailer:
Many top-rate remailers do NOT satisfy all these requirements. However, these remailers are far superior to your ordinary Internet Service Provider. So please don't make yourself crazy looking for the "perfect" solution. Life is not perfect.
If a remailer does NOT permit PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) or other strong encryption, reasonable people might assume that the remailer administrator enjoys reading forwarded mail.
ZipLip.Com, based in Silicon Valley (USA), offered high-quality, web-based, encrypted email for years. I used Ziplip's service since it began.
Ziplip posted this message on its website in April 2005:
Ziplip Secure Services
Thank you for using ZipLip's free secure mail
service. We appreciate your patronage and wish
to inform you that we will be discontinuing our
service on June 30th, 2005. For various reasons,
including new U.S. legislation which significantly
impacts the individual's privacy rights, ZipLip is
no longer able to provide its free secure email
services with any reasonable assurance of privacy
and security, particularly in the context of a hosted
service. We will revisit the service issue when our
legislature reinstates our privacy rights.
Please make the necessary arrangements to use another
Webmail service before June 30th. We are unable to offer
any data migration services. We sincerely apologize for
any inconvenience caused.
A responsible user:
Here is a quote from one remailer administrator:
This remailer has been abused in the past, mostly by
users hiding behind anonymity to harass other users.
I will take steps to squish users who do this. Let's
keep the net a friendly and productive place.... Using
this remailer to send death threats is highly obnoxious.
I will reveal your return address to the police if you do this.
Legitimate remailer administrators will NOT TOLERATE serious harassment or criminal activity. Report any such incidents to the remailer administrator. A typical contact address for a remailer called SecretBacard.com might be:
Having said that, I must report that I receive email such as this:
Someone is using a FU**ING remailer to call me a hateful
person. I want to get my FU**ING hands on that FU**ING
person and kill him for spreading the vicious lie that
I have a bad temper. Why won't the FU**ING jerk who runs
the remailer help innocent victims like me?
It is not easy to run any enterprise, much less a remailer!
For most low-security tasks, such as responding to personal ads, PSEUDO anonymous remailers with passcode protection are undoubtedly safer than using real email addresses. However, as author John Steinbeck noted, all the best made plans of mice and men have weaknesses. Suppose, for example, that you are a government employee, who just discovered that your boss is taking bribes. Is it safe to use a PSEUDO anonymous remailer to send evidence to a government whistle-blower's email hot line? Here are five points to ponder:
For these reasons, hard-core privacy people are leery of PSEUDO anonymous remailers. As I noted earlier, these people use Cypherpunk or Mixmaster programs that route their messages through a series of ANONYMOUS remailers. In addition, they use PGP encryption for all messages.
Other sophisticated privacy experts avoid computers and use good-old-fashioned ways to communicate. President Richard Nixon, for instance, liked to roll up his pants legs and walk into the ocean surf while whispering into his friends' ears. Trust and social engineering, my friends, are beyond the scope of this FAQ.