How do I send an email so that the recipient cannot identify who I am?
Sending anonymous email is both easy, and incredibly difficult. It
depends on just how anonymous you want to be, and who you’re hiding your
And, of course, how paranoid you want to be.
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I do want to start by saying that I’m not going to get into the morality or
social implications of anonymous email. Like any technology it can have an
incredibly important role in society and it can be horribly misused. As can the
techniques used to break it.
I’ll start with what I’ll call “anonymous light”. As we’ll see shortly, this
will keep your identity safe from casual or non-technical observers, who are
not likely to pursue it very far.
The short answer is to use a free email account like Hotmail or Yahoo mail,
and make up all of the information required when you create it. Use a false
name and create a completely false identity. Then send your message from that
Most people will be unable to determine from the email messages sent from
that account anything more than that false identity you’ve created.
I call that “anonymous light” because of that term “most people”. In fact,
the email probably could be traced back to you or your machine, but typically
only if people are willing to involve law enforcement if they believe you’ve
done something illegal. The information kept by your ISP and the free email
service, when combined, could provide a trail to your door, but they won’t give
that information without a legal requirement.
It’s important to note that I’m assuming a “reputable” ISP
and free email service. Most are, but obviously if they are willing to give that information
to just anyone, all bets are off. Similariy laws and practices vary from country
to country, so just how easy it is for law enforcement, a private investigator,
or some other entity to get this information may vary greatly depending on where you are,
and where your recipient is.
Now, if your recipient is very internet savvy, he could compare the IP address
from which an email was sent to an IP address known to be you. Because not all
free email services include the originating IP, and in common cases your IP may
change often, this actually only works infrequently. If it does, however, it’s
at least an additional clue that a recipient could gather that could lead them
to you, or perhaps bolster their case if they do take it to law
anonymity’ on the internet.”
Now, unless you are doing something illegal like some form of
online harassment, that “anonymous light” approach may well be enough.
But what if it’s not? What if, for example, you’re a corporate whistle
blower and are concerned that the company might manufacture a case that would
cause law enforcement to track you down?
As we’ve seen, if you log in to your anonymous free email account from your
home computer and send an email, the free email service may have a record of
that. Using your IP and the time you logged in, your ISP could then identify
you. Important: you cannot get this information. But
if the information has been kept law enforcement can.
So step one might be to use someone else’s computer.
And here’s where we start verging on the “just how paranoid are you”
question. Is there any way that you could be traced to having used that
computer at a particular time? Public library computers are nice and all, but
… are there security cameras? Do you have to somehow register to gain
Perhaps an anonymization service, such as Anonymizer would be a good
approach. You might access your free email account through the anonymous proxy,
so that the email would not be directly traceable to you or your machine.
But anonymization services are just that – services run on computer servers.
Do they keep logs? Would those logs be available for inspection if law
enforcement came with the appropriate authority? Maybe. Even if not, (and
here’s the paranoia thing again), with enough resources, it could be possible
to monitor the traffic to and from the anonymization service and “reverse
engineer” who’s sending what. A complex anonymization service could certainly
make this extremely difficult.
Then there’s the content of your message … do you have a distinct writing
style that could be traced back to you? For example, do you have a consistent
set of words that you regularly misspell? (I know I do.) Do you make statements
that only you would know? As we saw some time ago, individuals were able to be
identified only by the Google searches they did over a period of time. Email
can be much more specific and identifiable.
Ultimately, there really is no such thing as “perfect anonymity” on the
internet. You can make it very, very hard and expensive to be identified, but
it’s rarely truly impossible. The best you can hope for is “impractical”. And
just what impractical means depends on what you’re saying, who’d want to know
who you are, and how many resources they can throw at the problem.