What the Equifax hacking taught us about the end of anonymity online

In a major step towards treating people the way they deserve to be treated, proxy servers are going out of business, forcing online anonymity advocates to implement age verification technology to protect Americans from…

In a major step towards treating people the way they deserve to be treated, proxy servers are going out of business, forcing online anonymity advocates to implement age verification technology to protect Americans from fraudsters, content manipulators and even hostile foreign governments.

“All signs point to age verification being a tipping point for internet anonymity,” Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the free-market Cato Institute, said in an interview. “It probably came about because of global cyber-warfare threats.”

Internet identity theft, with a recent hacking and data breach at the credit bureau Equifax, has brought the concept of age verification into broad public consciousness.

In a perfect world, anonymity advocates wouldn’t have to worry about this. Proxy servers like Tor were and are decentralized and user-generated, providing a safe haven for those seeking anonymity online. A coin traded on anonymous website The Sheep Marketplace, which acts as a proxy, is still anonymous. The only way to establish that coin was with a user’s real identity — say, your own.

But since the 2013 Verizon phone hack, which revealed thousands of numbers hidden under Tor, a development that many saw as the catalyst for anonymity defenses across the globe, hundreds of Tor anonymity servers have closed down or will soon. Many assumed it was time to embrace identity verification technology like age verification, which is limited to giving permission to confirm that you are 18 or over in order to access an online site, regardless of the choice of site or password.

Privacy advocates and cyber rights activists can fearlessly argue for pseudonymity and anonymity, but have it really been effective? To find out, we carried out our own investigation, finding problems with anonymous and anonymous Tor website sites, which, in the past, have been at the center of major denial-of-service attacks. At least 15 sites became unaccessible or inaccessible due to ongoing or near-daily attacks between 2014 and 2016.

Many fake reviews, misinformation and malicious content are often posted on anonymous and anonymous websites, often through a hidden, anonymous forum. The anonymity provides vulnerabilities that enable criminal behavior and harm online communities. Abusers can post offensive content such as child pornography or racist spam and invade the private lives of victims.

This problem with anonymous/anonymous sites was highlighted in a 2017 report from the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology, which warned that digital data and identities are the biggest enemies of the Internet. “Democracy and freedom of expression will go up in smoke in a digital world of firehoses if organizations like Stratfor and WikiLeaks are to be believed,” the report said.

More recently, in the wake of the Equifax hack, the website Support.Info shut down, blaming “Anonymous groups targeting the website.” Among that same report are warning signs that attack groups — Anonymous, others like China or Russia, still at large — are determined to breach sites left and right. “The biggest issue here is that going forward we could see people target age verification to protect their own online identities,” said Harper.

Not everyone agrees that anonymity is the ultimate enemy. But its loss doesn’t necessarily mean anonymity will disappear. “The challenge in age verification is that it completely destroys anyone’s anonymity,” said Shaun Rodger, from the New America think tank. “If it doesn’t identify you, it doesn’t impact your situation.”

–Contact reporter Terry Allen at [email protected] or @cbarlen_cato.

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