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The Internet is a constant companion to people the world over and as technology improves it is becoming more accessible every day. With the amount of communication that occurs online, it was only a matter of time before anonymity became an important topic of discussion. Several so-called “anonymity networks” have been developed to facilitate anonymous communication by the citizens of the web. Because the use of these networks is already so widespread, the time is ripe for a discussion of their merits and potential government responses to this phenomenon. An anonymity network “enables users to access the Web while blocking any tracking or tracing of their identity on the Internet.” Anonymity networks generally use some combination of encryption and peer-to-peer networks to allow people to use the Web anonymously. Electronic encryption functions much like the codes that have been used by governments and militaries for centuries. Put simply, one computer will translate a message into a secret code and only computers that have the key to the code will be able to decrypt it. Encryption contributes to anonymity for the obvious reason that if a message is sent over the Internet and someone intercepts it, they won’t be able to decode it unless they have the key (or a very powerful computer depending on the level of encryption). The shortcoming of encryption is that is doesn’t protect the source or the destination of the communication, only the content of the message. Peer-to-peer networks are networks like Napster. When a person would download music on Napster, they were downloading it from another user’s machine. There was no central database where all the information was stored. These networks can contribute to anonymity in the sense that there isn’t a central server that is monitoring and recording all of the traffic in the network. Anonymity networks are most effective when they are more widely used. They rely on volume of communications to cloak individual communications. A good network will also require minimal computing power and consume few network resources, as all the encryption in the world won’t do any good if it makes the network too slow to be useable.
Most Common Types of Anonymity Networks
The Onion Relay (“Tor”) enables individuals to access sites and services available on the Internet in ways that are, at once, secure and anonymous. It does so by employing a decentralized, volunteer-run network of servers throughout the world. To use the Tor network, individuals operate through Tor clients, which cipher and decipher information and in turn make use of Tor servers, which relay information from a point of entry (or “node”), to other Tor nodes, to an exit node that delivers the user to a publicly accessible Internet location. Accordingly, when a user transmits and receives information vis-à-vis the Tor network, that information is both encrypted and encapsulated: encryption hides the user’s content, and encapsulation hides the user's identity.
Directed to the University of Washington Computer Science and Engineering Department.
University of Washington Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic
anonymity networks, Tor
Computer Law | Privacy Law
Sarah C. Eagle, Abigail St. Hilaire & Kelly Sherwood,
Tor Exit Nodes: Legal and Policy Considerations,
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.uw.edu/techclinic/7