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Perfect Anonymity: Is It Possible to Achieve It?
Different needs and different threat models lead to misunderstandings between people. Let’s say you want to leave the most anonymous comment possible on some social network. What do you need for it? VPN? Thor? An SSH tunnel? Well, all you have to do is buy a SIM card and a used phone at the nearest store, then drive a considerable distance from where you live, insert one into the other, post your message and hang up. You have completed your mission 100%.
But what if you don’t want to leave a comment just once or hide your IP address from any site? What if you want such an advanced level of anonymity that it will make the most complex puzzle with no room for any hack at any level? And also hide the very fact of using anonymity tools along the way? That’s what I’m going to talk about in this piece.
Perfect anonymity is mostly a dream, like everything perfect. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get really close. Even if you are being logged in by the system’s fingertips and other means, you can still remain indistinguishable from the mass of general Web users. In this article I will explain how to achieve this.
This is not a call to action, and the author in no way calls for any illegal action or violation of any law of any country. Consider it just a “what if I were a spy” fantasy.
Basic level of protection
The basic level of protection and anonymity looks roughly like this: client → VPN/TOR/SSH tunnel → target.
In fact, this is just a slightly more advanced version of a proxy that allows you to replace your IP. In this way you will not achieve any real or qualitative anonymity. Just one incorrect or default setting in the infamous WebRTC, and your actual IP is revealed. This type of protection is also vulnerable to node compromise, fingerprinting and even simple log analysis with your provider and data center.
By the way, there is a common opinion that a private VPN is better than a public one since the user is sure about his system configuration. Think for a moment that someone knows your external IP. Therefore, it also knows your data center. Therefore, the data center knows which server this IP belongs to. And now imagine how difficult it is to determine which actual IP is connected to the server. What if you are the only customer there? And if there are many of them, for example 100, it becomes much more difficult.
And that’s not mentioning that few people will bother to encrypt their drives and protect them from physical removal, so they’ll hardly notice that their servers are rebooted with initial level 1 and turn on VPN logs with an excuse of “minor technical difficulties in the data center.” Moreover, there is no need for such things either, because all your incoming and outgoing server addresses are already known.
Speaking of Tor, its very use may raise suspicions. Second, the exit nodes are only around 1000, many of them are blocked and not a no-no for many sites. For example, Cloudfare features an ability to enable or disable Tor connections through a firewall. Use T1 as the state. Furthermore, Tor is much slower than VPN (currently Tor network speed is less than 10 Mbit/s and often 1-3 Mbit/s).
Summary: If all you need is to avoid showing your passport to everyone, bypass simple site blocks, have a fast connection, and route all traffic through another node, choose VPN and you better be be a paid service. For the same money, you’ll get dozens of sites and hundreds or even thousands of outgoing IPs instead of a single-site VPS that you’ll have to painfully configure.
In this case it makes little sense to use Tor, although in some cases Tor will be a good solution, especially if you have an additional layer of security like a VPN or an SSH tunnel. More on this below.
Average level of protection
A medium protection level looks like an advanced version of the basic one: client → VPN → Tor and variations. This is an optimal working tool for anyone who is afraid of IP spoofing. This is a case of synergy where one technology strengthens the other. But make no mistake though. While it is really hard to get your actual address, you are still vulnerable to all the attacks described above. Your weak link is your workplace – your work computer.
High level of protection
Client → VPN → Remote Desktop (via RDP/VNC) → VPN.
Your work computer doesn’t have to be your own, but a remote machine with, say, Windows 8, Firefox, some plug-ins like Flash, some codecs, and no unique fonts and other plug-ins. A boring and plain machine indistinguishable from the millions out there. In case of any leaks or compromises, you’ll be covered again by another VPN.
It used to be believed that Tor/VPN/SSH/Socks allowed a high level of anonymity, but today I would recommend adding a remote workstation to this setup.
Client → Dual VPN (in different data centers but close to each other) → Remote Workplace + Virtual Machine → VPN.
The proposed scheme consists of a primary VPN connection and a secondary VPN connection (in case the first VPN is compromised due to a leak). It serves to hide traffic from the ISP with the goal of hiding your current ISP address in the data center with a remote workplace. Next goes a virtual machine installed on the server. I assume you understand why a virtual machine is so vital – to return to the most standard and banal system with a standard set of plugins after each download. And this should be done at a remote workplace and not at a local one, because people who used a virtual machine locally together with TripleVPN once opened the IP control page and were very surprised to see their address Current and real IP in the “WebRTC” field. I don’t know and I don’t want to know what software some developer will develop tomorrow and install in your browser without your concern. So just don’t think about it and don’t store anything in the country. Kevin Mitnick knew this 30 years ago.
We have tested this setup, the delays are significant even if you configure everything correctly in terms of geography. But these delays are tolerable. We assume that the user will not place the servers on different continents. For example, if you are physically located in New York, set your first VPN also in New York, your second in Mexico, etc., your remote workplace in Canada, and your last VPN in, say, Venezuela. Do not place different servers in the Eurozone as those governments cooperate closely, but on the other hand, do not spread them too far apart. Neighboring countries that hate each other would be the best solution for your chain 😉
You can also add automatic browsing of websites in the background from your current computer, thus mimicking web browsing. With this you remove the suspicion that you use some anonymity tools because your traffic always goes only to one IP address and through one port. You can add Whonix/Tails and go online through a public Wi-Fi in a coffee shop, but only after changing the network adapter settings, which can also lead to your de-anonymization. You can even change your appearance to not be visually identified in the same cafe. You can identify yourself in a number of ways, from your coordinates on a phone photo to your writing style. Just remember that.
On the other hand, most people are fine with an anonymizer, but even our anonymizer, after all our efforts to make it useful, still falls short in terms of surfing experience. Yes, a regular VPN is a normal and proper solution to bypass simple blocks with a good speed. Need more anonymity and are willing to sacrifice some speed? Add Tor to the mix. Want more? Do as mentioned above.
Fingerprints, such as attempts to detect VPN use, are very difficult to circumvent due to the time packets are sent from the user to the website and from the website to the user’s IP address (without consider blocking only specific incoming requests). You can cheat a check or two, but you can’t be sure that a new “nightmare” won’t appear overnight. That’s why you so badly need a remote workplace as well as a clean virtual machine. So it’s the best advice you can get right now. The cost of such a solution starts from only $40 per month. But note that you have to pay with Bitcoin only.
And a little afterword. The main and most important factor in your success in achieving true anonymity is the separation of personal and secret data. All tunnels and complicated schemes will be absolutely useless if you log in, for example, to your personal Google account.
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