Can A VPN Offer 100% Anonymity?
In most instances using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is quite sufficient to hide your online identity; however as Cody Kretsinger, who was using just one of these services, the UK based company Hide My Ass, had to find out, this might not always be the case. For the record, I do not condone illegal uses of VPN services or the Internet in general. So lets look at what happened:
In September 2011 the FBI arrested Cody Kretsinger, a 23-year old Phoenix resident and charged him with conspiracy and unauthorized impairment of a protected computer, the Sony Pictures website. According to Reuters, Kretsinger pleaded guilty to both charges and could face up to 15 years in prison. “I joined LulzSec, your honor, at which point we gained access to the Sony Pictures website”, Kretsinger, known online as “recursion”, told the judge after entering his guilty plea, as reported by Wire. LulzSec was considered a spinoff of Anonymus, a world-wide operating group of hacker-activists.
Earlier, in March 2011, the FBI had arrested a core member of LulzSec, Hector Xavier Monsegur, also known as “sabu”, who apparently turned into an informant for the FBI. In June hackers associated with LulzSec, allegedly including Kretsinger, hacked into SonyPictures.com and compromised personal information of more than 1 Million users. Sony Pictures had to notify 37,500 users that their personal info might be at risk.London based Virtual Private Network provider Hide My Ass (HMA) appears to have played a vital role in Kretsinger’s arrest.
Hackers assume fake online identities and go to great length to hide their location and other identifiable details for obvious reasons. A leaked IRC chat log revealed that hackers, including Kretsinger aka “recursion”, boasted about their illegal activities online and used HMA to conceal their identities.
It appears that the FBI traced a hack into Sony back to an IP address owned by HMA and promptly got a UK court order, demanding logs from HMA and incident HMA dubbed the “LulzSec Fiasco” in a post on their blog on September 23rd, 2011. When leaked IRC chat logs revealed that some LulzSec members used HMA to conceal their identities they didn’t take any action they state on their blog; however, later they made it clear that "Our VPN service and VPN services in general are not designed to be used to commit illegal activity. It is very naive to think that by paying a subscription fee to a VPN service you are free to break the law without any consequences. They then went on to say that “We would also like to clear up some misconceptions about what we do and what we stand for. In 2005 we setup HMA primarily as a way to bypass censorship of the world-wide-web whether this be on a government or a corporate/localized scale. We truly believe the world-wide-web should be world-wide and not censored in anyway.” In later edits of this blog post they indicate that they do not log a user’s activity, just the log-on and log-off events, that they do this to identify abusive users, that they complied with UK law and finally, that there isn’t a UK law prohibiting them to aid Egyptian to access social networks, such as Twitter, which was blocked by that country’s government.
While I appreciate HMA addressing these issues openly rather than swiping them under the rug, like many other companies would have done, they do point to a serious flaw in the system. When you are selling a service that claims to protect a users privacy, hence identity, you can’t turn around later and reveal just that to authorities without appearing at least a little insincere.
Virtual Private Networks are used for many purposes, accessing blocked websites, accessing region restricted content, bypassing network filters, accessing Twitter, Facebook and Skype in countries that block such connections, or simpler applications like protecting your privacy when accessing a public Wifi spot and stopping your Internet Service Provider (or ISP) from snooping into your business.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that VPNs can also be used for outright illegal activities, copyright violations and hacking for example. All VPN providers know this and, while their terms and conditions always state that their services are not to be used for illegal activities, they derive a portion of their revenue from users who signed up for just that purpose, something all VPN providers are aware of.
As a VPN Service Provider your main selling points are privacy, anonymity, presence (as in how many countries you have IP addresses in) and speed. At the same time you are also running a business (if we neglect any hobbyists and non-profits for a moment) that was setup to make money, and as any legal entity you must comply with the laws and regulations of the country you are operating in. Many (if not most or even all) lease bandwidth and IP addresses from other providers, and abusive behaviors of their customers can easily jeopardize their business. Usually the term abusive behavior when used by a VPN service refers to bandwidth hogs, subscribers with (much) higher than average bandwidth usage, potentially slowing down the service for others. With speed being one of the main selling points it is easy to see why.
In response to the HMA LulzSec case, many VPN providers now quite prominently claim on their sites, that they don’t keep logs; yet many terms and conditions also alert users that they will investigate suspicious behavior, apparently referring to, what they consider to be, illegal activity. My question then is this: If a provider does not log your IP address and does not log your activity while using their system, how would they be able to investigate anything?
Please share your thoughts in the comments. In particular I'd love to see your thoughts regarding the following questions:
- Do you use a VPN?
- Do you really trust your VPN provider to keep your personal information confidential?
- As a VPN provider, how do you protect your user’s privacy and identify abusive subscribers?