Famed Hacker Kevin Mitnick On How You Can Go ‘Invisible’ Online And Hide Your Digital Tracks
Kevin Mitnick, for those of you who do not recognize the name is, according to his Wikipedia bio, “an American computer [cyber] consultant, author, and hacker — best known for his high-profile 1995 arrest; and, his subsequent incarceration for five years in prison — for various computer, and computer-related crimes. He now runs a computer-security firm, Mitnick Security Consulting LLC., which helps companies test their network enterprise/firewalls for vulnerabilities, weaknesses, strengths, and potential loopholes. He is also Chief Hacking Officer of the [computer] security awareness training company — KnowBe4, as well as an active advisory board member at Zimperium, a firm that develops a mobile intrusion prevention system.”
Mr. Mitnick has a new book, just published this month (Feb. 2017) by Hachette Book Group, “The Art Of Invisibility: The World’s Most Famous Hacker Teaches You How To Be Safe In The Age Of Big Brother, And Big Data,” on which this article is based. He has written three other books, including his 2011 page-turner, “Ghost In The Wires: My Adventures As The World’s Most Wanted Hackers.”
Mr. Mitnick had a February 24, 2017 online article on WIRED.com’s site from his new book: “The Art Of Invisibility,” discussing how to ‘go invisible online.’ First, Mr. Mitnick reminds us of the unpleasant reality that the Internet and the Worldwide Web isn’t safe; and, we are under constant assault by cyber thieves and others who are attempting to steal our personal information, and/or, infect our networks and devices with the gift that keeps on giving. “Even if you delete an email the moment you read it on your computer, or mobile phone, that doesn’t necessarily erase the content. There’s still a copy of it somewhere. Web mail is cloud-based,” Mr. Mitnick reminds us, “so in order to be abler to access it from anywhere, at any time, there have to be redundant copies. If you use Gmail for example,” he writes, “a copy of every email sent and received through your Gmail account is retained on various servers worldwide at Google. This is also true if you use email systems provided by Yahoo, Apple, AT&T, Comcast, Microsoft, or even your workplace. Any emails you send, can also be inspected, at any time, by the hosting company. Allegedly this is to filter out malware; but the reality is that third parties can, and do access our emails for other, sinister, more self-serving reasons,”: Mr. Mitnick wrote.
“While most of us may tolerate having our emails scanned for malware, and perhaps some of us tolerate scanning for advertising purposes, the idea of third parties reading our correspondence, and acting on specific contents found within specific emails is downright disturbing,” Mr. Mitnick wrote.
“The least we can do,” he urges, “is make it harder for them too do so.”
Start With Encryption
“Most web-based email services use encryption when the email is in transit,” Mr. Mitnick wrote. “However,” he warns, “when some services transmit mail between Mail Transfer Agents (MTAs), they may not be using encryption, thus, your message is in the open. To become [digitally] invisible, you will need to use encryption,” Mr. Mitnick writes,
“Most email encryption uses what’s called asymmetrical encryption,” Mr., Mitnick notes. Using this tool/technique,allows you to “generate two keys: a private key that stays on my [your] device, which I never share,” Mr. Mitnick wrote, “and a public key that I post freely on the Internet. The two keys are different, yet mathematically related,” he wrote. For more detail on this section of Mr. Mitnick’s article, please go to WIRED.com to read his entire article.
Picking An Encryption Service
“Both the strength of the mathematical operation, and the length of the encryption key — determine how easy it is for someone without a key to crack your code,” Mr. Mitnick wrote. “Encryption algorithms in use today are public”; and, that’s a good thing, he adds. “You want that. Public algorithms have been vetted for weakness — meaning people have been purposely trying to break them. Whenever one of the public algorithms becomes weak, or is cracked, it is retired, and newer, stronger algorithms are used instead.”
“The keys are (more, or less) under your control ; and so, as you might guess, their management is very important. If you generate an encryption key, you — and no one else — will have the key stored on your device,” Mr. Mitnick wrote. “If you let a company perform the encryption, say in the cloud, then that company might also keep the key after he, or she shares it you; and, may also be compelled by court order to share the key with law enforcement, or a government agency, with or without a warrant.”
“When you encrypt a message — an email, text, or phone call — use end-to-end encryption,” Mr, Mitnick recommends. “That means your message stays unreadable until it reaches its intended recipient. With end-to-end encryption , only you and your recipient have the keys to decode the message. Do a Google search for “end-to-end encryption voice call.” If the app, or service does not use end-to-end encryption, then choose another,” vendor Mr. Mitnick urges. There are also “PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) plug-ins for the Chrome and Firefox Internet browsers that make encryption easier,” less cumbersome, and hopefully not frustratingly slow. One such service provider/vendor is, “Mailvelope, which (Mr. Mitnick writes) neatly handles the public and private keys. Then, whenever you write a web-based email, select a recipient, and if the recipient has a public key available, you will then have the option to send that person an encrypted message.”
Beyond Encryption: Meta Data
“Even if you encrypt your email messages with PGP, a small — but information-rich part of your message is still readable by just about anyone,” Mr, Mitnick warns. “In defending itself from the [some of] Snowden revelations, the U.S. Government (USG) stated repeatedly that it doesn’t capture the actual contents of our emails, which in this case would be unreadable with PGP encryption. Instead, the USG said it collects only the email’s metadata.”
“What is email metadata?,” Mr. Mitnick asks. “It is the information in the To and From fields, as well as the IP addresses of the various servers that handle the email from origin to recipient. It also includes the Subject Line, which sometimes can be very revealing, as to the encrypted contents of the message.” Though, a clever adversary will almost certainly use deception techniques that make it much more difficult to pinpoint, or find in the first place. “Metadata, a legacy from the early days of the Internet, is still included on every email that is sent and received; but, modern email readers hide this information from display,” he noted.
“That might sound okay,” Mr. Mitnick warns, “since the third parties are not actually reading the content ; and, you probably don’t care about the mechanics of how those emails traveled — the various server addresses and time stamps — but, you’d be surprised by how much can be learned from the email path, and the frequency of the emails alone.” Especially when you use this information in a holistic, ‘patterns-of-life’ kind of link analysis.
The bottom line: Mr. Mitnick warns, “to become truly invisible in the digital world, you will need to do more than just encrypt your messages.”
To Stay Truly Hidden Online, You Will Need To (according to Mr, Mitnick):
(1) Remove your true IP address. This is the point of connection to the Internet, your [digital] fingerprint. It can show where you are (down to your physical address); and, what provider you use. That is one reason that cyber thieves, off-the-griders, and others use Internet cafes, or other means to disguise the origin of their email;
(2) Obscure Your Hardware & Software. When you connect to a website online a snapshot of that hardware and software you’re using — may be collected by the site;
(3) Defend you anonymity. Attribution online is hard. Proving that you were at the keyboard when an event occurred is difficult. However, if you walk in front of a camera before going online at Starbucks, or if you just bought a latte at Starbucks with your credit card, these actions can be linked to your online presence a few moments later,” again, part of a pattern-of-life, link analysis. “To start,” Mr. Mitnick writes, “your IP address reveals where you are in the world, what provider you use; and the identity of the person paying fir the Internet service (which may, or may not be you),’ and certainly won’t be you or someone you can be easily connected with if you or they are trying to hide. “All of these pieces of information are included within the email metadata, and can be used later to uniquely identify….you.”
“IP addresses can of course [and are] forged,” Mr. Mitnick writes. “Someone might [and a clever adversary will] use a proxy address — not his or her real IP address, but someone else’s — that an email appears to originate from another location. A proxy, like a foreign-language translator — you speak to the translator, and the translator speaks to the foreign language speaker — only the message stays the same. The point here,” Mr. Mitnick writes, “is that someone might use a proxy from China, or even Germany to evade detection on an email that really came from North Korea.”
“Instead of hosting your own proxy, you can use a service known as, Anonymous Remailer, which will mask your email’s address for you,” Mr. Mitnick writes. “Anonymous Remailer simply changes the email address of the sender — before sending the message on its way to the intended recipient. The recipient can respond by the same method, which is the simplest version,” he added.
“One way to mask your IP address is to use the onion router — Tor,” [or what is also known as the Dark Web] Mr. Mitnick wrote,– which is what Edward Snowden used when he was emailing the British tabloid, The Guardian, in the days and time before he became a U.S. fugitive from justice and ultimately fleeing/finding sanctuary in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. “Tor is [was] designed to be used by people living in harsh regimes — as a way to avoid censorship of popular media and services; and, to prevent anyone from tracking what search terms they use. Tor remains free, and can be used by anyone, anywhere, even by you,” Mr. Mitick wrote. I do not believe that is entirely correct; or, maybe I am reading that claim incorrectly. Perhaps if he had written “can be used by anyone, anywhere, where TOR isn’t blocked by the host nation. Granted, there may be ways, even under repressive regimes like North Korea, where a clever cyber savvy individual might be able to circumvent this kind of censorship; but, my guess is — that is a very risky proposition that could cost them their life, if they were to be caught using Tor.
“To use Tor, you will need the modified FireFox browser from the Tor site (torproject.org),” Mr. Mitnick wrote. “Always look for legitimate Tor browsers for your operating system from the Tor project website. Do not use a third-party site,” Mr. Mitnick warns. “For Android operating systems, Orbot is a legitimate, free Tor app from Google Play that both encrypts your traffic, and obscures your IP address. On iOS systems (iPad, iPhone), install the Onion Browser, a legitimate app from the iTunes app store.”
Mr. Mitnick warns that the Tor isn’t a panacea; and, writes “there are several weaknesses with Tor: You have no control over the exit nodes, which may be under the control of government and/or, law enforcement; you can still be profiled and possibly identified; and, Tor is very slow. That being said,” Mr. Mitnick writes, “if you still decide to use Tor, you should not run it in the same physical device that you use for browsing the web. In other words, have a laptop for browsing the web, and a separate device for Tor. The idea here,” Mr, Mitnick explains, “is that if somebody is able to compromise your laptop — they still won’t be able to peel off your Tor transport layer — as it is running on a separate physical box.”
Just FYI, I have utilized the above technique and I know that it works.
(4) Create a new (invisible) account. “Legacy email accounts might be connected in various ways to other parts of your life — friends, hobbies, work,” Mr. Mitnick warns. “To communicate in secrecy, you will need to create new email accounts using Tor so that the IP address setting up the account is not associated with your real identity in any way.”
“Creating anonymous email address is challenging — but possible,” he wrote.
“Since you will leave a trail if you pay for private email services, you’re actually better off using a free web service,” Mr. Mitnick recommends. “A minor hassle: Gmail, Microsoft, Yahoo, and other services require you to supply a phone number to verify your identity. Obviously, you can’t use your real cellphone number — since it may be [likely is] connected to your real name, and real address. You might be able to set up a Skype phone number, if it supports voice authentication; however, you will still need an existing email account and a prepaid gift card to set it up,” he wrote.
But, “purchasing a burner phone anonymously will be tricky,” and will require some thought and a plan to ensure you are not leaving behind ‘bread-crumbs,’ that can later be used to connect-the-dots as they say, and positively identify you as the buyer/purchaser of the prepaid gift card. Use cash, and try and buy it where there are no cameras on the street, nor in the store where the purchase is made. But, the chances of there being no cameras either out on the street, or inside the vendor is slim and none. And, there is also the method of travel you “use to get to the vendor in the first place. As Mr Mitnick points out, “Uber and Taxi records can be subpoenaed;” and, using your own personal vehicle obviously places you at/near the scene, and at the time the prepaid card was purchased. Most “law enforcement agencies, especially in major metropolitan cities, “use automatic license plate recognition technology (ALPR) — in large public parking lots to look for missing and stolen vehicles. as well as people on whom there are outstanding warrants. The ALPR records can be subpoenaed,” Mr. Mitnick warns, . , use — ingress and egress route — and/or wear some kind of disguise that hides your face, ear lobes, Iris/facial recognition, or any identifying features that could be used to connect you to the purchase. Using a third-party is an option, but that method is also not foolproof.
Assuming you have devised a plan to get you to/from the location where the pre-paid burner phone can be purchased, and do so anonymously/clandestinely, there is still the issue of the purchase itself. Using someone else that is a complete stranger to you, would obviously be ideal; but, there is always the risk that the individual takes your money and buys something else, and/or, finds another exit from the store that simply allows him/her to abscond with your money. Mr. Mitnick suggests using a homeless person to make the purchase is a good option — if you can pull it off — and, ideally agree to meet a few blocks away to actually make the transfer — thus putting you outside the immediate vicinity of the vendor. Agreeing to pay an additional amount of money to complete the transfer, can act as an incentive for the homeless person or purchaser to follow through with these requirements.
If you are able to pull off the above successfully, the next issue is how to get the burner phone activated — again, without leaving a trail or ‘bread crumbs’ that could be used to eventually place you at, or near the scene of the actual purchase. “Activation of the prepaid phone, requires either calling the mobile operator’s customer service department, or activating it on the provider’s website,” Mr. Mitnick wrote. “To avoid being recorded for “quality assurance,” it’s safer to activate the phone over the web. Using Tor over an open, wireless network after you’ve changed your MAC address should be the minimum safeguards,” he added. “You should make up (fabricate) all the subscriber information you enter on the website. For your address, just Google the address of the major hotel, and use that. Make up (fabricate) a birth date and PIN that you’ll [be able to] remember — in case you need to re-contact the service provider’s customer service department.”
“After using Tor to randomize your IP address and, after creating a Gmail account that has nothing to do with your real phone number, Google sends your burner phone a verification code, or a voice call,” Mr. Mitnick wrote. “Now, you have a Gmail account that is virtually untraceable. We can produce reasonably secure emails whose IP address — thanks to Tor — is anonymous (although you don’t have control over the exit nodes) and whose contents, thanks to PGP, can’t be read, except by the intended recipient.”
“To keep this account anonymous,” Mr. Mitnick warns, “you can only access it from within Tor — so that your IP address will never be associated with it. Further, you should never perform any Internet searches while logged into that anonymous Gmail account; [because] you might inadvertently search for something that is related to your true identity. Even searching for weather information could reveal your location,” he added. Then again, perhaps you should search for weather in an area that you aren’t; and, do not intend to go to.
In conclusion, Mr. Mitnick writes, “becoming invisible [online], and keeping yourself invisible, require tremendous discipline, and perpetual diligence. BUT, IT IS WORTH IT,” he contends. “The most important takeaways are: First, be aware of all the ways that someone can identify you — even if you undertake some, but not all of the precautions I’ve [Mr. Mitnick] described. And, if you do undertake all of these precautions, know that you need to perform due diligence — every time you use your anonymous [online] account. NO EXCEPTIONS!”
Mr. Mitnick’s last recommendation that to stay anonymous online requires “perpetual diligence,” should be ingrained into your consciousness — if you want to be invisible online.. It is human nature, that we can and do often get complacent — especially if we have been succeeding at something for a prolonged period of time. We tend to let our guard down. You can successfully hide your digital presence for a long time — only to have your identity and location discovered, or vulnerable to discovery, based on one, seemingly innocuous mistake/oversight. Years of effort can be ‘washed’ away the click of a mouse.
And, even if you successfully implement, and adhere to all of these precautions/steps, that still doesn’t mean that you could never be identified via the Internet — though it will make it much tougher, take longer, require money, and access to sophisticated algorithms and link analysis to track you down digitally. Thus, if you adhere to Mr. Mitnick’s techniques/tools, it puts you in an entirely different category as far as unmasking your IP address and location. New software and algorithms, big-data mining, link analysis, and patterns-of-life information will in all probability lead an investigator or determined adversary to you; but, that could take years, cost them lot of time, resources, and money; and, perhaps some blind luck — such as making one, seemingly innocuous mistake. Digital breadcrumbs are the researcher and investigator’s precious assets. And, in time, one would expect the ability of service providers,law enforcement and intelligence agencies, repressive regimes, and others to digitally tag you — anytime you go onto the Worldwide Web. But, we aren’t there yet. And, as with mouse traps — cyber thieves, malcontents, and off-the-griders will no doubt figure out a way to overcome this kind of surveillance. Unfortunately, all these steps outlined by Mr. Mitnick can, and are no doubt being employed by the darker angels of our nature, which is one of the reasons why — in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden leaks — that many of our most lucrative means of surveiling these militant Islamic terrorist groups are no longer useful. Indeed, the Internet/Worldwide Web remains very much…….a wilderness of digital mirrors. V/R, RCP