Without a Trace
By Brett Burney
Many people wrongly believe that the Internet bestows a grace of anonymity on their email and surfing activities. People say the darndest things in email messages, and I’ve witnessed many legal professionals irresponsibly surf to lewd or obnoxious websites.
Unless you take the necessary precautions, your Internet activity can always be tracked.
Who’s Following Me?
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating a cyberbunker mentality when it comes to interacting with the Internet. I’m simply suggesting caution rather than ignorance when it comes to your activities on the Web.
Every computer that is connected to the Internet is assigned an Internet Protocol (IP) address, much like every cell phone is assigned a phone number. The IP infrastructure is what controls packets of data around the Internet, and correctly delivers email messages and websites to your computer.
Depending on your specific network setup, your computer may have an internal IP address that is assigned to it from your local router or Internet Service Provider (ISP). Although your actual computer may not have a unique IP address when it jumps on the Internet, your ISP and hardware routers filter the traffic down to you.
If you’re interested in discovering your IP address, you can visit sites such as www.whatismyip.com and www.ipchicken.com. These sites simply report back what any website you visit can see immediately: your current IP address. In other words, your IP address identifies you on the Internet. When you visit a website, the site has to know your IP address so it can deliver the page to your computer.
If you’d like to explore the concept a little bit further, you can take your IP address and perform a “WHOIS” search. A WHOIS search provides additional information on who owns and maintains the particular IP address or domain name.
The American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) provides a very good WHOIS search engine right on their front page. Once you copy your IP address from www.ipchicken.com or www.whatismyip.com, you can simply paste it into the WHOIS box on www.arin.net and see what information it provides.
If you have Internet service through a cable modem or DSL, the WHOIS search will probably provide contact information for your broadband service provider. That means that the particular IP address your computer is using has been assigned to you by your ISP. That’s a good thing, since it does provide a minimal level of privacy, although your ISP can certainly be subpoenaed for the information pertaining to your computer.
If you’re at a large firm or big company where you have an IT team that has set up your network for you, you may see more specific information for your IP address, like your company’s contact information.
Incognito in Cyberspace
There are conceivable circumstances when you would prefer to be as anonymous as possible on the Internet. One scenario could be when you’re exploring the public website of the opposing side, and you would prefer to mask the fact that you’re from a law firm. There is nothing wrong in doing this: you simply just don’t want to tip your hat to the other side and let them know you’re investigating their site.
You may also want to hide your IP address from those websites that record the information for marketing purposes or spam victims. Your IP address can be tracked to see what pages you visit on a website so your interests can be recorded.
Beyond those scenarios, there may not be many other reasons for a legal professional to remain anonymous online, because the fine line between professionalism and abhorrent behavior can be easily crossed. On the other hand, I believe it is imperative for legal professionals to understand the concept of anonymous surfing so they can be aware of the practice in case they come across it at some point in their career.
If your computer’s IP address is visible at all times on the Internet, it would be logical then to use a middle man to obtain a little cyberprivacy. That’s exactly what a proxy server does. A proxy server sits between your computer and a website. When you surf to a website, the proxy server “stands in” for your real computer so that the website sees the IP address of the proxy server instead of your own.
Proxy servers have a variety of uses in the Internet world. Many ISPs will use proxy servers to cache popular websites so they can have better control over their Internet traffic. In other words, your request to visit www.cnn.com may not go to CNN’s main server, but rather a proxy server owned by an ISP. This means the site can download much quicker to your machine.
But a proxy server can also act as a filter for your Internet traffic. This usually means that your Internet traffic gets briefly rerouted to another server on the web before going to its final destination. Because the traffic hops to an extra server, you will see an impact on your general surfing speed. Anonymous surfing services are great, but you will probably get frustrated with the notable loss of speed on your surfing habits.
There are several free anonymous services you can use. You can visit sites like www.the-cloak.com, www.anonymouse.org, or www.behidden.com ( Anonymizer.com used to be the generous provider of free anonymous web surfing, but alas they have discontinued their offering). These websites are usually chock full of ads for their funding, and they regularly limit the amount of surfing you can do through them. That only makes sense because they are providing a free service that includes transporting a lot of data through their servers every day. These services may also place ads on the pages you visit in yet another attempt to gain some more advertising dollars.
While the ads and restrictions may be annoying, these free services are really the easiest and quickest way to surf anonymously. You wouldn’t want to surf like this all day long, but these sites are great if you simply just want to explore a questionable site for a few minutes. I should note, however, that none of these free anonymous proxy services will protect your computer from any spyware or malware that may be lurking on websites, so please use extreme caution and keep your computer updated with the latest security patches.
If you get more serious about this anonymous surfing thing, you could elect to purchase an application that will take over most of the tasks. Anonymizer offers their “Anonymous Surfing” package for $29.99 that has been around for many years. GhostSurf from Tenebril Inc. offers a bit more protection for $39.95. Both of these applications install on your main computer and communicate with company-owned secure servers to accomplish the same purpose of the free anonymous surfing sites.
Go Forth in Privacy
As I’ve mentioned before, there is no need to use anonymous surfing services all the time. I personally only use one of the free anonymous surfing websites when I’m visiting a questionable site that I don’t trust for one reason or another. I just want to put an extra barrier of privacy between my computer and the site.
Again, the biggest downside to any anonymous surfing service is the hit you’ll take on surfing speed. Because the services run your Internet traffic through another server or two, that adds time to your surfing activities. This is fine for a few minutes to check out a website, but it’s not something you’ll want use for a lengthy amount of time.
Brett Burney is principal of Burney Consultants LLC, where he focuses his time on bridging the chasm between the legal and technology borders of electronic discovery. Prior to establishing Burney Consultants LLC, Brett spent five years at the law firm of Thompson Hine LLP, where he worked with litigation teams in building document databases, counseling on electronic discovery issues, and supporting them at trial. Brett is also a frequent contributor to Law.com's Legal Technology Center and writes a monthly legal technology column for LLRX.com. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.