When's enough enough?

Hal 74076.1041 at CompuServe.COM
Wed Feb 24 10:29:13 PST 1993


Paul Ferguson asks:

> Now, I'd like to ask the cypherpunk readership to clarify the need (or
> perhaps a better term may be "desire") for anonymous remailers? Maybe
> I'm not getting the "big picture", but it would appear to me that
> insurance of private communications is the area of intended interest
> here. I know that someone may declare my query as naive, but if you
> feel strongly enough about a topic, why wouldn't you want the
> recipient to know who you are, where you are and who they can respond
> to?

There are several different advantages provided by anonymous remailers.
One of the simplest and least controversial would be to defeat traffic
analysis on ordinary email.

Two people who wish to communicate privately can use PGP or some other
encryption system to hide the content of their messages.  But the fact
that they are communicating with each other is still visible to many
people: sysops at their sites and possibly at intervening sites, as well
as various net snoopers.  It would be natural for them to desire an
additional amount of privacy which would disguise who they were communicating
with as well as what they were saying.

Anonymous remailers make this possible.  By forwarding mail between
themselves through remailers, while still identifying themselves in the
(encrypted) message contents, they have even more communications privacy
than with simple encryption.

(The Cypherpunk vision includes a world in which literally hundreds or
thousands of such remailers operate.  Mail could be bounced through
dozens of these services, mixing in with tens of thousands of other
messages, re-encrypted at each step of the way.  This should make traffic
analysis virtually impossible.  By sending periodic dummy messages which
just get swallowed up at some step, people can even disguise _when_
they are communicating.)

The more controversial vision associated with anonymous remailers is
expressed in such science fiction stories as "True Names", by Vernor
Vinge, or "Ender's Game", by Orson Scott Card.  These depict worlds in
which computer networks are in widespread use, but in which many people
choose to participate through pseudonyms.  In this way they can make
unpopular arguments or participate in frowned-upon transactions without
their activities being linked to their true identities.  It also allows
people to develop reputations based on the quality of their ideas,
rather than their job, wealth, age, or status.

The idea here is that the ultimate solution to the low signal-to-noise
ratio on the nets is not a matter of forcing people to "stand behind their
words".  People can stand behind all kinds of idiotic ideas.  Rather,
there will need to be developed better systems for filtering news and
mail, for developing "digital reputations" which can be stamped on one's
postings to pass through these smart filters, and even applying these
reputations to pseudonyms.  In such a system, the fact that someone is
posting or mailing pseudonymously is not a problem, since nuisance posters
won't be able to get through.

Other advantages of this approach include its extension to electronic
on-line transactions.  Already today many records are kept of our
financial dealings - each time we purchase an item over the phone using
a credit card, this is recorded by the credit card company.  In time,
even more of this kind of information may be collected and possibly sold.
One Cypherpunk vision includes the ability to engage in transactions
anonymously, using "digital cash", which would not be traceable to the
participants.  Particularly for buying "soft" products, like music,
video, and software (which all may be deliverable over the net eventually),
it should be possible to engage in such transactions anonymously.  So
this is another area where anonymous mail is important.

We anticipate that computer networks will play a more and more important
role in many parts of our lives.  But this increased computerization brings
tremendous dangers for infringing privacy.  Cypherpunks seek to put into
place structures which will allow people to preserve their privacy if they
choose.  No one will be forced to use pseudonyms or post anonymously.
But it should be a matter of choice how much information a person chooses
to reveal about himself when he communicates.  Right now, the nets don't
give you that much choice.  We are trying to give this power to people.

Hal Finney

Version: 2.1


More information about the cypherpunks-legacy mailing list