What Are The Limits To Online Anonymity?

from the not-so-clear dept

Online anonymity is always a controversial topic, and Public Citizen and the EFF have filed a brief in a case in Arizona that raises some interesting issues about the limits of internet anonymity. The case concerns someone who anonymously used a service to take an email from a married company CEO to his mistress, and forward it to other execs at the company. Rather than the CEO accusing the anonymous emailer with privacy violations, he had the company accuse the user of hacking into their email system, noting that there was no other way the email could have been revealed. The company then went after the anonymous emailing service the person used to try to determine his identity. There is no evidence that the content really was illegally obtained, but a judge has ruled that the service needs to give up the info on the emailer. There’s an appeal going on, and Public Citizen and the EFF are asking that the court to recognize that there should really be evidence of wrongdoing before anonymity is removed. Obviously, there needs to be some sort of balance between potential wrongdoing and anonymity, but anonymity is an important thing to support as well — and so it should only be removed under very clear circumstances when a clear crime has been committed.

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Comments on “What Are The Limits To Online Anonymity?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Mike, are you a commie liberal pinko?

Just joking of course, you can go back to your bird watching at the conference.

All jokes aside, why should people expect to be anonymous when it comes to the internet? What rules of nature does the internet break to be free of identification? If cameras in public places can use facial recognition (which of course doesn’t work, but thats not the point) and not violate the law, why should someone expect to remain hidden on the internet?

For every regular citizen that is hurt by identification, I can name a child molester or terrorist or criminal (or downright mean person, I mean, some CEO gets some on the side and someone gets mad? Come on, a bunch of prudes or mo’s?) also gets by.

Think about it, is it really better to protect the dark side so someone can go around thinking they are anonymous? I seem to remember that on this site, you announced someone’s identity (at least company) when they had posted thinking no one would know where it came from. I don’t blame you, and its your website, but its still pretty much the same.

Alex says:

Re: Re:

In the “real world” it is your right to remain anonymous until you choose to give up this right. When you walk down the street, you don’t have to wave a placard stating your name, address and intentions (yet). There are many valid reasons to remain anonymous, and frankly I’m getting sick of this “if you have nothing to hide then you have no reason to hide it” mentality. Did you really have to throw in the “child molester” trump card?

Think about this: what if it’s the guy’s mistress who forwarded the e-mail? What if it’s an employee who was accidentally sent it and was outraged by what they read? What if it was a child molester or a terrorist? OMFG.

kweeket says:

Re: Re: Re:

One thing to consider is that being able to be anonymous at ALL is someone of a modern phenomena. Figure that for most of human civilization, people tended to live in smallish groups and didn’t travel too far from home. Even today, if you live in a small town it’s likely that everyone you come in contact with will know your name and probably your family history as well. Only with city living and an increasingly mobile population does “real world” anonymity become truly possible.

I’m not saying anonymity doesn’t have its purposes, just don’t confuse it with a “right”. However, there are important legal battles being fought on this issue all the time – with mixed results. For example, although the US Supreme Court reaffirmed that the First Amendment protects the anonymity of those who post political criticism on the Internet, the Patriot Act gives the government the right to read our e-mail and track our Internet use. Doesn’t anyone see the contradiction in that?

In this latest case, I hope the court upholds that more evidence of wrongdoing needs to be provided before removing anonymity. It would set a legal precedent that could be used to refuse the RIAA next time they demand to unmask some anonymous file sharer accused of copyright infringement based solely on their IP address appearing in some log file.

Valhalla Rising says:

You should have the right to anonymity until it can be shown there is evidence or at least strong suspicion of wrongdoing. Otherwise its like saying theres a criminal using the web somewhwere and we are not sure who it is yet, so we are checking everyones computers so start handing over your passwords and account info. This CEO is using company resources to go after a private vendetta, im sure thats frowned upon as well. Maybe he should have his e-mail checked by the court too.

Guy says:

where should we draw the line

in something like this is think i’ts very easy to see what should go on the judge should be able to review the info and decide if there was wrong doing and if there is let it be admited into evidence

easy as that if there was no wrong doing then the judge does not admit in court at all simple and i myself think we should draw the line at Child pornography i don’t care who you are is you look at any of it you shoukd go to jain in the regular population and let some guys know what your in fo and see what happens to him/her

Joe Nonlawyer says:


It seems like this is the same as anybody having evidence of a criminal’s identity in the “real” world. Get a warrant or a subpeona and go get the evidence. If it’s really that sensitive then get it under seal and review it in the judge’s office before showing it to the whole world.

Take a real-world example — there’s a broken car window outside a bar. It’s possible that there was wrongdoing, and if so then the thief is “anonymous” for the time being. If there’s reason to believe that there’s evidence of the crime in the security tapes of a bar then police can get a warrant to search the bar. Viewing the video (server logs) will make the thief’s identity known (or prove that it was just an animal / tree branch / etc). The criminal is indeed “anonymous” in the real world until caught, but that shouldn’t give them protections they don’t have in the real-world.

Joe Nonlawyer says:

What's so special about online

I guess the point of above (#10) is just that “what’s so special about online cases?” We already take care about not publicly identifying people who are just being investigated but not charged, and there’s no reason the policy should be different offline. EFF is trying to generate special protections for online criminals without giving a clear reason why online crime should be given higher standards of proof than offline.

Mr. Correct says:

Where Should We Draw The Line

Lets get this straight right now you god damn retards.

1. Making child pornography = illegal
2. Owning child pornography = illegal
3. Viewing child pornography = NOT illegal

What’s the difference? Simply put, someone viewing something like that doesn’t always mean it’s in that person’s possession. While viewing it might be highly unethical and immoral… it is by no means a crime.

So lets not get into the whole “Because you watch child pornography you’re a criminal just like the one who made it”, because you’re flat out INCORRECT!!!

You might not like the person for their sick fetish… but that doesn’t mean they deserve your loathe and hatred AND judgement, you ignorant god damn twits.

Anonymous Coward says:

OK, even though its off topic, viewing and storing kiddie porn is actually against the law.

As for due process, doesn’t the article say the company went after the provider to give up the info and the judge agreed? Sounds to me like all the legal procedures were followed. Judges are the ones that issue warrents, at least in my non professional understanding of the law.

Where is the beef?

Lay Person says:

Anonymity has its place

Anonymity has its place but for an evil CEO to go about trying to protect his reputation from being evil? Makes no sense to me.

Just what is this CEO trying to recover? The fact that he is married and is betraying his wife? Or the fact that everyone, now, knows about it.

Hmmm…which is worse? Obviously, the only bad guy here is the person who unveiled the betrayal to the CEO’s wife. Yup the CEO is underhanded and he should continue to do so at all cost. Seems the CEO is the only one who should remain anonymous!

PhysicsGuy says:


this went way off topic… as far as online anonymity… if the person in question went about it correctly, there would be no way to know his identity. if you sign up for a free (anonymous) e-mail account and only access it with a proxy or from a library computer, how would anyone ever know your identity?

as far as the completely off topic argument that has followed… i don’t understand how the act of seeing anything can be viewed as illegal. The making of such, and possesion of such yes… but seeing? if a person is purposly going out there and finding this stuff, while they’re viewing it they’re in possesion of it, it does after all have a physical representation of bits in their ram. however, if some person imagined seeing something of the sort, there is no difference between that and actually seeing it in relation to brain activity. memories and such are essentially indistinguishable from the actual experience that created them from the standpoint of neurons firing. the brain doesn’t know the difference between what is happening and what its remembering, it’s the process that keeps us awake that clouds our memories, hence why dreams can often be so vivid and lifelike, to your brain you really are experiencing the dream, the dream is real. so are we now to police people’s imaginations as well? the law certainly doesn’t define these things from the standpoint of neurology. as much as i’m against kiddie porn i’m also for free will. the day we remove one’s ability to imagine is the day we forfeit the single most imporant thing that makes us human. also, i’d like to point out that possesion of something requires one to currently be in possesion of it. you can’t (thank god) arrest someone for possesing marijuana in the past, if you could i’d have to move to canada.

Reliable Source says:


Turns out news organizations all over the web are reporting that this person’s identify has FINALLY been released.

After weeks of legal pressure and public criticism, the company has turned over information to authorities that disclose information about the person’s reported email address AND their reported static tcp-ip address. Authorities are now scrambling to trace the email and IP addresses further. If you have any knowledge of this individual, you are encouraged to contact your local police department via non-emergency channels — please do not call 911.

email address: elvis@yuckfou-authorities.com
IP address:

Thank you for your attention in this matter. Our homeland security may depend on our vigilence.

Donald Duck says:

What Are The Limits To Online Anonymity?

Good Topic and great point of view! Look at what pops up on google ad’s sense on this web page.
Stealth Surf
Only solution that does not leave tracks on computer and network.
Anonymous Surfing
Helpful Links for Anonymous Surfing
Anonymous surfing
Anonymous Surfing Solutions Up-To-Date anonymous surfing
Surf Anonymously
Don’t Let your Employer See What You’re Doing Online! Free Trial.

One of those has a private email service LOL
Did you see that “DONT LET YOUR EMPLOYER SEE WHAT YOUR DOING ONLINE” and some of you people want them to? BY COURT ORDERS? ARE YOU NAZI’S OR stasi members.

If some of you was online and the email was on a main server and you forwarded to all the board members to read in a secret email forward system. You’ll get FIRED cause you think it would be ok for the company to asked a court room to ID you. You could lose your $400,000 thousand dollar job, then SUED and probably face a FINE or a stint in prison, there goes the wife, the giant house and brand new toyota.

You realize that if you can crack into the CEO’s email then you can read every thing about that company, I’m sure there has got to be more then who the guy was screwing in his high raise office window ๐Ÿ™‚ in his email system.

May be the CEO is smelling something ‘fishy’….lol about this secret emails and dreamed up his own internet LAWS that now we all have to live by them. LOL what planet is he on?

He should have to prove that their sever was CRACKED into and it was not some one with passwords to the server and what not inside the company that was sending these emails to all of the other board members and prove it wasn’t even his LOVER or his own kids playing with his computer mad that their father was screwing around on their mother?

I’m thinking of the companies President, VP some one who wants to be at the next stock holders meeting and introduced as the NEW CEO or a security person working on their behalf.

Systems always have backdoors with master passwords and the people who runs the computers has that backdoor. Regardless we have standards in america and one of those virtues is freedom to be anonymous and not to be so retarded like that CEO?

If the email company saids we give you privacy then they better own up to their words! Or it should be law suit heaven. They would be out of business over night if they are on dow jones then there stock could go from $50 bucks to .13 cents.

So would every company like that so that court ruling sucks like a “Toothless hooker in a CEO office”!

I believe that the internet is a world wide internet and it’s not just USA laws that apply. If they showed the court system that the email sever was in North Korea that was used to email the other board members of that company then foreign laws do apply for the email company so they can say NO and appeal. Anonymity is a big business but I think it serves a purpose in a crooked world like we live in. You have to have some anonymity to be human.

BBC NEWS | Programmes | Click Online |

The cost of online anonymity
In countries where free speech is limited, hiding your true identity online is becoming big business.


The judge is just wrong. There has to be bonafide evidence that the CEO’s email was CRACKED INTO by some foreign out side source.

The court must look into the technology of today and make sure it was not a USB drive, scan disk or downloaded into a palm pilot, cell phone or a watch stuck into the CEO’s own computer from an employee.

Then later emailed out from a laptop a Tablet or a black berry from an starbucks using a secret forwarding emailing company that you found on a google ad while reading Tech Dirt. While you were sipping on your hot cappuccino coffee eating your illegal big mac and smoking your illegal marlboro, thinking your be Anonymous from your CEO?

You know if the person was really savay they would have paid Kinkos or UPS used their computers to forward to the secert emailing company or that black building with guy’s in rain coats and sunglasses. In so many corners in america called a ‘library’.

By the way lets not pretend that we live in CHINA and you can’t have Anonymity. Just think if we was in some type of Nazi nation and you had no Anonymity at all and you was jewish. You would be in a camp some day! so yes Anonymity is legal here and has been since we fought for those rights in 1776!

I hope the person used

Tor (anonymity network) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Tor (The Onion Router) is a free software implementation of second-generation … Tor operates an overlay network of onion routers that enables two things: …
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tor_(anonymity_network) – 30k – Cached – Similar page

I would like to point out that the CEO didn’t have a PRIVATE COMPUTER some type of LAP TOP he could have used to email his SLUTS with?

He couldn’t found a way to keep these emails private using ‘BLOW FISH’ or delete those emails just incase some one would read them and forward them to all the board members?

I believe that the court system should have reviewed his behavior and not the EMAIL companies behavior. In other words what type of security do you have installed in the CEO computer? I mean if that is leaked out then we could get a great scoop for stock trades and so on. By the way what company is this TechDirt ๐Ÿ™‚ HP ????? LOL ๐Ÿ™‚ it’s was Dunn and SHE WANTS TO KNOW!!!!

I’ve read some of these post they go off the deep end I didn’t read that the CEO was with any thing but another adult. If he wasn’t the judge wouldn’t be on his side at all!

If the CEO was doing any thing ILLEGAL and he wanted to know who TOLD… would that make sense to force the email company to give it up?

I also would like to point out that I don’t see a crime here. Forwarding emails is not a crime!!!!!!! Cracking into the computer network has to be proven period that would be a crime, you make cracking into his computer illegal not a private emailiing company FORWARDING EMAILS.

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