The limits of what some anonymous email services will tolerate became clear last week, over revelations that VPN service provider HideMyAss.com, based in the United Kingdom, turned over information that led to the arrest of 23-year-old Cody Kretsinger in Phoenix. Authorities have accused Kretsinger of being the LulzSec member known as "recursion," and of participating in the breach of the Sony Pictures website earlier this year.
Recursion apparently wasn't the only LulzSec member who used HideMyAss to try and mask his IP address. According to chat logs obtained by the Guardian, LulzSec spokesman Topiary recommended the VPN service to "joepie91." Meanwhile, another LulzSec member, "Neuron," also claimed to be using it.
After those chat logs were published, HideMyAss said it learned that LulzSec members were apparently using its service. "No action was taken, after all there was no evidence to suggest wrongdoing and nothing to identify which accounts with us they were using," said HideMyAss in a blog post. But the writing was on the wall, and the company said it wasn't surprised to receive a court order requesting information relating to multiple LulzSec exploits, including exploits of Sony, the U.K.'s Serious Organized Crime Agency, as well as NATO.
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Privacy advocates, however, are questioning why HideMyAss--as a service that promises to mask identities "behind one of our anonymous IP addresses"--was retaining information that could be later used by anyone to unmask users. In response, the company clarified that it only logged when specific users connected and disconnected from its servers, and stored none of the traffic they sent. But it said that law enforcement agencies would likely obtain the information, one way or another.
"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," it said. "This includes certain hardcore privacy services which claim you will never be identified, these types of services that do not cooperate are more likely to have their entire VPN network monitored and tapped by law enforcement, thus affecting all legitimate customers."
Furthermore, HideMyAss' business model--almost all of its revenues come from the VPN service--depends on being able to identify abuse, not least to prevent its connectivity from being blocked by upstream providers, who have their own terms of service. "Common abuse can be anything from spam to fraud, and more serious cases involve terrorism and child porn," it said.
HideMyAss' self-defense, however, earned it a rebuke from some other VPN providers. "We would like to re-assure our users and our customers that nothing like that may happen with AirVPN, for a series of legislative (we are based in the EU, not in the USA, and we don't recognize USA jurisdiction, obviously) and above all technical reasons," according to a blog post from HideMyAss rival AirVPN. In particular, it said its infrastructure was designed to prevent it from ever learning a user's identity, through various security and anonymity techniques. Furthermore, it said that not all VPN providers keep session logs.
But the ongoing series of arrests related to LulzSec and Anonymous is a reminder that with enough time and resources, law enforcement agencies can unmask many Internet operators, even if they're attempting to hide their IP address. The recent exploit of DigiNotar and issuing of legitimate but fake certificates appeared to be executed by someone with ties to Iranian intelligence agencies. Notably, one of the fraudulent certificates would have enabled authorities to eavesdrop on anyone who connected to the anonymizing Tor network from inside Iran.
Then again, numerous arrests related to Anonymous have shown that many participants in denial-of-service attacks didn't take any steps to mask their IP address.
Interestingly, AirVPN said that anyone who wants to not just browse the Web securely, but remain truly anonymous when using an anonymous VPN service, needs to take additional steps. In such cases, it advises customers to only pay for their subscriptions via its BitCoins reseller, and to only access the reseller's website via Tor. Likewise, for extremely critical activities--"whistleblowers, reports on organized crimes"-- it recommended using VPN over Tor. "Please note that it is not Tor over VPN, it's VPN over Tor," it said.