Do Sites like WikiLeaks Guarantee Anonymity?

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Nowadays there are a lot of sites created after the example of WikiLeaks. The most popular of them are Al Jazeera Transparency Unit and SafeHouse, launched by the Wall Street Journal. There are also a lot of regional sites such as Balkanleaks, Indoleaks and Brusselsleaks.

All these web sites support publicity and freedom of speech but very often they don’t guarantee anonymity to the users providing information. For example, the Wall Street Journal promises to protect its sources but at the same time SafeHouse terms of use read the following: "We reserve the right to disclose any information about you to law enforcement authorities or to a requesting third party, without notice, in order to comply with any applicable laws and/or requests under legal process."

Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former WikiLeaks member and IT security expert, does not recommend using such sites because "they are insecure to begin with and people haven't thought about this properly before they started to run such a site." Recently Domscheit-Berg has created his own web site called OpenLeaks, that serves as a mediator between users providing information and media organizations that make it public.

However, to protect your online anonymity and privacy it’s better to use special tools that were developed to these purposes. The most popular of them are VPN and Tor. Tor isa  free software but it is not as secure as the best VPN services that you pay for. It doesn’t secure the whole session of data transmission, that’s why it is possible that your sensitive information will be compromised. VPN services, on the contrary, create a secure tunnel for the entire data transfer and minimize the risk of hackers’ attacks.

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Internet Censorship Spreads all over the World

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The Internet has already become the most popular tool for mass communication. Every year the number of people using Internet grows, but at the same time more and more governments implement online censorship in their countries. Nowadays there are about 40 countries that have web censorship; compared to 2002, when there were only four.

Protecting internet privacy is of crucial importance for users from different places. That’s why some people consider any form of government intrusion to be a violation of their rights. But others think that every freedom should have its limits and admit that some restrictions are reasonable, for example the prohibition of child pornography.

However, the toughest censorship usually is used in countries with repressive regimes such as China, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Iran. The repressive governments use censorship to achieve their own latent goals, to prevent protests and to find people that disagree with their policies. Usually, web sites that can jeopardize the current regime are banned in these states.

There are a lot of countries where only a limited number of users have Internet access. We have already reported about the situation in Syria, Cuba, North Korea, Yemen and many other countries where people are not allowed to visit the majority of sites. Many users in these countries have to bypass restrictions with the help of the best VPN services available, that provide them with secure browsing and the guarantee of high-end web anonymity.

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UN Considers Internet Access to be a Human Right

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The United Nations (UN) assume that Internet access is an inalienable human right and consider  that to be disconnected from the web is a violation of human rights and international laws. A report of the UN Human Rights Council’s 17th session says that Internet gives people an opportunity to exploit a lot of human rights and that it favors the progress of humankind.

La Rue, a Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, claimed that “the Internet enables individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds instantaneously and inexpensively across national borders”. That’s why he considers an Internet cutoff to be unacceptable. 

Internet restrictions are necessary and justifiable in such areas as child pornography, but in many cases governments use blocking or filtering mechanisms to achieve their own hidden agenda. According to the report , it  should be an independent judicial authority or body who defines the scope of Internet censorship.

La Rue is deeply concerned that Internet users have only relative web anonymity, because governments can monitor and collect private information about them. This intervention violates people’s right to online privacy and smashes Internet security.

The report also incites governments to include trainings on Internet literacy in school curricula, because it can “help individuals learn how to protect themselves against harmful content, and explain the potential consequences of revealing private information on the Internet”.

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How to Protect your Online Privacy

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Online banking and shopping have become an inseparable part of many users’ lives.  For these purposes, many people enter  their personal data online, such as account numbers and logging details. But there is a threat  of this information being misused by hackers. That’s why it is crucial to protect your private data. Here are some tips on available solutions for protecting  your internet privacy.

One of the most reliable ways is to use a VPN connection, that secures data transmission by creating a tunnel between your device and the network that you are accessing. It is important to choose one of the best VPN services, because they provide their customers with high-end web anonymity and secure internet browsing, as well as good access speed.

It is also a good idea to have privacy software installed. It is able to prevent hackers’ attacks, it provides browser cleaning and detects malicious software. The best privacy software can defend your computer from loggers that can steal your logging information whilst you type it in. Moreover,  it protects your privacy by removing cookie trackers that are used to purloin private data.

Good quality software protects your personal data, not only during internet browsing but also when you are not online. It will warn you when you are visiting an unsafe site that could intercept your private information during a login and deletes your internet history. Besides, it will detect spyware files on your computer and neutralize them.

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e-G8 Forum in France

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy has organised the e-G8 forum, and has invited personalities like Mark Zuckerberg,  co-founder of  Facebook, Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman, Jeff Bezos, Chief Executive of Amazon and other famous and powerful names in the circle of Internet and media.

Participants of the forum are going to discuss issues such as Internet regulations, the influence of the Internet on society and economy, protection of Internet privacy, protection of copyright and the right to web anonymity. The results of the event will be reported to the G8 Summit, that opens in Deauville later this week.

The delegates have different opinions about governmental regulation of the Internet. Google and Amazon consider  the interference of governments to be unacceptable, because it violates users’ rights. European companies, on the other hand, think that it is necessary to control the Internet in order to eradicate cybercrime.

In a speech given last year, Nicolas Sarkozy showed his vision of the problem: "The Internet is the new frontier, a territory to be conquered. But it cannot be like the Wild West. It cannot be a lawless place, where people are allowed to pillage artistic works with no limits".

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Internet Censorship in Africa

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Governments in Africa are afraid of protest movements and have decided to strengthen internet censorship in order to prevent them. Much attention has been paid recently to the blocking of sites in Egypt and Libya, to the filtering of the Internet in Tunisia and to the incarceration of the Moroccan bloggers. However, the situation in the rest of the region is also very difficult.

The filtering of websites has been used by the Ethiopian government for a long time. Moreover, some sites, such as political opposition websites, independent news sites and sites of some human rights organizations, are blocked in the country. The government is the only owner of Ethiopia's Internet infrastructure, which is why it exerts total control over it.

Despite the fact that all the sites are available in Burundi, the situation in the country isn’t any better, because users don’t enjoy Internet freedom. The internet filtering allows the government to track down users and to control their activity. For example, the editor of an online news site was arrested in 2010. And these practices are widespread in many African countries.

As for Sudan, people are free to use a lot of websites, but this access is under control. Researcher Patrick Meier claims in his blog post that the Sudanese government uses social networking sites to track down protesters. A group of people that called for protest was arrested; also many people that joined the street protests were taken into prison.

Can VPN Services Access Users’ Passwords?

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VPN connections provide their customers with safe data transmission and web anonymity. All the information your send using  a VPN is securely encrypted. Moreover, nobody can know your IP address, because it is also hidden. But  some users worry about whether it would be possible for the VPN service to see the passwords that they enter in the websites that they visit.

VPN services encrypt data travelling from your computer to the VPN servers that you use. From then on, your data is not protected anymore. However, if a web page is ssl encrypted, no one will be able to see any passwords that you might type in. Websites like Hotmail, for example, encrypt only the login process, but not the reading of the emails, whilst online banking services encrypt the whole session.

To strengthen your private data protection you can also use SSH or other "higher layer" encrypted services. These services provide end to end encryption, organizing a secure channel between two devices of the network. They ensure the confidentiality of the data transmitted over an unsecured network.”

VPN Providers Reap the Benefit of Web Censorship

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Online social networks may help people to organize, not virtual, but real protests in their countries. “Twitter Revolution” is becoming a new popular expression. Saying it, we immediately remember Moldova's civil unrest in 2009, Iranian election protests of 2009–2010, Tunisian revolution of 2010–2011, Egyptian Revolution of 2011… No wonder that, fearing mass riots, governments of many countries are banning popular social network services. There is web censorship in countries like China, Iran, Egypt and Libya. Many sites, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, are forbidden.

People who want to visit blocked websites try to find the way to bypass these restrictions. One of the most popular ways among the citizens of these countries is to use a VPN connection to access restricted sites. VPN connection gives people an opportunity to browse the web anonymously, assigning them fake IP addresses. VPN services are extremely widespread, not only amongst local users, but also amongst foreigners. Alex Rico, a Spaniard who lives in China, claims that he uses VPN several times a day to visit Facebook, YouTube and his favorite blogs.

As a result, VPN service providers use internet censorships for their benefit and make money  of it. David Gorodyansky,  founder of a VPN service provider company, explains that  virtual private networks have become a "daily part of people’s lives", because "after sleep, food and water, the next most important thing is information". According to his words, most people access sites like Facebook and Twitter using VPN services in the countries where they are blocked. He estimates the potential market of people who need security and would benefit from a VPN at one billion; an additional 600 million live in regions where web content is censored.

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When the Government Comes Knocking …

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Lately, digital rights activist group Electronic Frontier Foundation has prepared a report that studies the protection of users’ privacy given by IT corporations. It looked at twelve companies and found out whether they inform their customers about government requests for user data and whether they defend users' privacy in courts and  in Congress. Among the companies on the report  we can find Apple, Amazon, AT&T, MySpace, Skype, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others.

Apple, MySpace and Skype are amongst the companies with the lowest degree of customers’ private data protection. They are not members of Digital Due Process, an organization fighting for protecting internet privacy. And moreover there are fuzzy claims in their user agreements that allow them to disclose private information to the government.

According to the report, Apple's customers are the least protected. Their privacy statement runs as follows: "We may also disclose information about you if we determine that for purposes of national security, law enforcement, or other issues of public importance, disclosure is necessary or appropriate." They do not enumerate specific cases when users’ private data can become available, and that gives them much freedom to act.

Twitter and Google are the best in protecting customers’ privacy. Twitter defended its users’ privacy rights in court and Google created a site that contains information about data requests from the government.

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Do Not Track Me!

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Now the internet privacy is becoming the primary issue with the politicians. Florida GOP Congressman Cliff Stearns has introduced an updated web privacy bill that would claim the internet companies to expose how they’ll use all the confidential information they get. Apple responded immediately by adding the "Do Not Track" tool to its Safari Internet browser.

John Moe, the host of Marketplace Tech Report, explains that the "Do Not Track" feature prevents advertisers from chasing you while you’re surfing the internet. It is part of right for web anonymity – not to be chased. In such a way companies cannot pick the information about the things you’re buying or just looking at. Gathering this kind of information advertisers can enforce you to buy more, frequently the things that you do not need.

When the Federal Trade Commission spoke last year and recommended all browsers to have this feature, many companies simply took this as a must-have proposal. The Wall Street Journal reports, Apple is the latest to add a "Do Not Track" tool to its browser. Microsoft was the first to adopt it to Explorer, next came Mozilla with its Firefox. Google released a supplement that could be added to Сhrome. The ironic thing about Google is that it makes money from advertising, while introducing the no-chasing system it reduces its own income. But due to the contemporary situation, it doesn't want to be seen as the browser that fails to provide privacy or  security. Suchwise that is going to overrule everything.

Will the privacy bill have the future? It seems it will. The legislation is undoubtedly going this way. Every politician in Washington is concerned about the privacy laws as it is an easy way to political wins.

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