some help, please . . .

I need to talk (email) someone who knows more about the workings of the internet than I do. Specifically, I have some ideas as to how one could create an absolutely untraceable computer, one that would allow you to browse anywhere with no fear of being identified. But I don’t think I can write this out without it looking really, really naive. Like, “the internet is a series of tubes” naive. So if there’s anyone out there who’s savvy enough to help, can you chime in, please?




  1. Invisible Lizard says:

    It’s not so much an untraceable computer, it’s an untraceable IP address you’re looking for. Your movements on the internet can be traced back to your IP address, and and your ISP has records of who has been assigned that IP address. Let me give you an example of how this works, and I assume this is for your novel and not for some nefarious web surfing you plan to do. :) If your character, let’s say, wants to go browse some pirate web site and download a movie (or whatever), and later the movie studio sues that web site to get the list of IP addresses of all the people who downloaded that movie (which is possible) the studio can then take that list of ip addresses to (your character’s) ISP (with presumably another court order, since most ISP’s don’t release this information willy-nilly) and find out which subscribers were using that IP address at the time of the download.

    You get around this by using a VPN (virtual private network). Basically you route your own computer (using the IP address your ISP assigns you) through another ISP (which is the VPN provider) who gives you a (supposedly) anonymous IP address to use which cannot be traced back to you in any way. There are a number of companies who provide this service (for a monthly fee, of course). Here are a couple of links that can point you in the right direction for more information:

  2. There are also techniques for ‘spoofing’ an IP address so that you appear to be a different computer:

  3. Walnut says:

    I’ve emailed you both. Thanks.

    Another thing I’ve wondered about: shouldn’t it be possible to use a touch screen as a microphone? Think about it: it’s pressure sensitive. Sound = pressure waves. There’s undoubtedly a threshold effect (you have to touch the screen THIS hard), but I’m wondering if it would be possible to gimmick another person’s touch screen to pick up on lower magnitude pressure changes.

  4. Invisible Lizard says:

    I just read a book where a spy used a laser pointed at a window across a street to pick up on just the sort of vibrations you’re talking about. The laser measured micro-changes in the window and fed that data into a computer which translated that into sound. I believe the author even remarked that it was “surprisingly accurate.” And he does a lot of research for these kinds of stories, so I have no doubt this sort of thing is real. (Plus I’m pretty sure I saw that on an episode of 24, so you *know* it must be true. Ha ha.) Anyway, I digress and that’s not your question. I just bring that up to say that the device would have to be pretty sensitive to measure sound waves.

    The real problem is that most touch-screen devices (these days, at least… no telling how they’ll look a decade into the future) are moving towards capacitive response, meaning it needs the electrical conductivity of your finger to trigger any effect, which is why I can’t use my iPhone with gloves on. The older style display, resistive response, does use pressure and is still widely used because it is cheaper to manufacture. But by and large the move towards capacitive displays are because they are much more sensitive and you don’t have to press down to get a response. Capacitive displays obviously would not pick up sound waves at all.

    Now, in the future, could there be a technological advancement that rushes resistive displays to the forefront, making them both cheaper to manufacture and much more sensitive that capacitive displays? Sure, I can see that. And they would be incredibly popular because you could use these displays with gloves on and with any old stylus (the eraser on a pencil or a pen cap, for instance, which won’t work on my iPhone either). So that’s a possibility. I bet, though, that any resistive display sensitive enough to pick up on sound waves would also be sensitive enough to pick up on air disturbances made by simply moving your fingers towards the screen, so it might be possible that a display like this could be used by dancing your fingers over a virtual keyboard onscreen instead of actually having to touch it. Wouldn’t that be cool?

    But why go that far? Most computers, laptops, PDA’s, phones, even monitors these days come with a built-in microphone (and camera for that matter). That’s certainly the trend of the future: alternate input methods. Apple’s got Siri. Microsoft’s got Kinect. Steve Jobs, before he died, foretold of an AppleTV where you could just speak to the device and tell it what you want. Heck, even my alarm clock will go into snooze if I just wave my hand in front of it. So as ubiquitous as touch screens are today, I bet in 10 years devices with multiple forms of input (touch, sight, sound) will be just as universal. Why not just hack into the device and activate the microphone and grab sound that way?

  5. Walnut says:

    Yup, good point. The only reason to avoid that would be if the target were savvy enough to watch out for that kind of thing, but perhaps miss a more subtle form of surveillance.

  6. The laser mike is real.

    Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon details (among other things) how you can read computer screens electromagnetically. That’s a metric shit-ton of book to plow through for a few technical details, though.

  7. Walnut says:

    I read Cryptonomicon. It was the last Stephenson I read — I was much more a fan of his Snowcrash period. I liked some things about it, like the geeky character who plotted his sex drive as a mathematical function and noted that masturbation affected the slope less than real sex, and the other geeky character who ate Captain Crunch with a giant spoon. Other stuff I had less patience for . . . like the way he would build narrative drive masterfully and then squander it like it didn’t matter at all. Made me want to scream.

    Anyway, sounds interesting (and relevant to what I’m doing), so I may just google “read computer screens electromagnetically”. As for Cryptonomicon, I gave it to my dad, and God only knows what he did with it. I know he didn’t like it, but no surprise there. He was in his 70s at the time and not the kind of guy to take to that genre.

  8. Pat J says:

    Late to the party, and you may already have the info you’re looking for, but check out Privoxy and the TOR network:
    You can follow the link from there to the Tor or Vidalia articles. (I don’t want to look like a spambot by filling this comment with links.)

    (There’s a strong chance that Privoxy+Tor/Vidalia is covered by what one of the others said — it could be a form of VPN, for instance. I’m not that expert in networking.)

    One thing I will say, having used Privoxy/Tor in my browser: it slows things way the hell down.