What Everybody Ought to Know About HideMyAss

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Guy Fawkes Mask

In most instances using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is sufficient to hide your real identity while online; however as Cody Kretsinger, who was using just this type of service, the UK based company Hide My Ass, had to find out, this might not always be the case. For the record, I do not condone illegal uses of VPN services or the Internet in general. So lets look at what happened:

In September 2011 the FBI arrested Cody Kretsinger, a 23-year old Phoenix resident and charged him with conspiracy and unauthorized impairment of a protected computer, the Sony Pictures website. According to Reuters, Kretsinger pleaded guilty to both charges and could face up to 15 years in prison.

I joined LulzSec, your honor, at which point we gained access to the Sony Pictures website.

, Kretsinger, known online as “recursion”, told the judge after entering his guilty plea, as reported by Wire. LulzSec was considered a spinoff of Anonymus, a world-wide operating group of hacker-activists.

Earlier, in March 2011, the FBI had arrested a core member of LulzSec, Hector Xavier Monsegur, also known as “sabu”, who apparently turned into an informant for the FBI. In June hackers associated with LulzSec, allegedly including Kretsinger, hacked into SonyPictures.com and compromised personal information of more than 1 Million users. Sony Pictures had to notify 37,500 users that their personal info might be at risk.

Data provided by http://attrition.org/security/rants/sony_aka_sownage.html

London based Virtual Private Network provider Hide My Ass (HMA) appears to have played a vital role in Kretsinger’s arrest.  A leaked IRC chat log revealed that hackers, including Kretsinger aka “recursion”, boasted about their illegal activities online and used HMA to conceal their identities. Hackers assume fake online identities and go to great length to hide their location and other identifiable details for obvious reasons.

It appears that the FBI traced a hack into Sony back to an IP address owned by HMA and promptly got a UK court oder, demanding logs from HMA an incident HMA dubbed the “LulzSec Fiasco” in a post on their blog on September 23rd, 2011. When leaked IRC chat logs revealed that some LulzSec members used HMA to conceal their identities, HMA didn’t take any action they stated on their blog; however, later they made it clear that

Our VPN service and VPN services in general are not designed to be used to commit illegal activity. 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.

They then went on to say that

We would also like to clear up some misconceptions about what we do and what we stand for. In 2005 we setup HMA primarily as a way to bypass censorship of the world-wide-web whether this be on a government or a corporate/localized scale. We truly believe the world-wide-web should be world-wide and not censored in anyway.

In later edits of this blog post they indicate that they do not log a user’s activity, just the log-on and log-off events, that they do this to identify abusive users, that they complied with UK law and finally, that there isn’t a UK law prohibiting them to aid Egyptian to access social networks, such as Twitter, which was blocked by that country’s government.

While I appreciate HMA addressing these issues openly rather than swiping them under the rug, the incident points to a serious flaw in the system. When you are selling a service that claims to protect a users privacy, hence identity, you can’t turn around later and reveal just that to authorities without appearing at least a little insincere.

Virtual Private Networks are used for many purposes, accessing blocked websites, accessing region restricted content, bypassing network filters, accessing Twitter, Facebook and Skype in countries that block such connections, or simpler applications like protecting your privacy when accessing a public Wifi spot and stopping your Internet Service Provider (or ISP) from snooping into your business.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that VPNs can also be used for outright illegal activities, copyright violations and hacking for example. All VPN providers know this and, while their terms and conditions always state that their services are not to be used for illegal activities, they derive a portion of their revenue from users who signed up for just that purpose, something all VPN providers are aware of.

As a VPN service provider your main selling points are privacy, anonymity, presence (as in how many countries you have IP addresses in) and speed. At the same time you are also running a business (if we neglect any hobbyists and non-profits for a moment) that was setup to make money, and as any legal entity you must comply with the laws and regulations of the country you are operating in. Many (if not most or even all) lease bandwidth and IP addresses from other providers, and abusive behaviors of their customers can easily jeopardize their business. Usually the term abusive behavior when used by a VPN service refers to bandwidth hogs, subscribers with (much) higher than average bandwidth usage, potentially slowing down the service for others. With speed being one of the main selling points it is easy to see why.

In response to the HMA LulzSec case, many VPN providers now quite prominently claim on their sites, that they don’t keep logs; yet many terms and conditions also alert users that they will investigate suspicious behavior, apparently referring to, what they consider to be, illegal activity. My question then is this: If a provider does not log your IP address and does not log your activity, how would they be able to investigate anything?

While the LulzSec case may seem extreme and it is easy to think: why worry, I am not engaged in illegal activities online? The RIAA and MPAA (for those who don’t know, those are the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America) have come to an agreement with certain Internet Service Providers to cooperate to curb illegal file sharing under the clever and innocent sounding name Copyright Alert System or abbreviated CAS. They decide what they consider illegal and enlist your ISP to notify you, and if necessary, force you to watch educational videos or throttle your bandwidth. Maybe a no-log VPN is a good idea after all?

Update

Reuters reports that a Los Angeles judge sentenced 25 year old Cody Kretsinger to a one year prison term, one year home detention and 1000 hours of community service. He also has to pay $605,663 in restitution for the attack on Sony Pictures.

Kretsinger had pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy and unauthorized impairment of a protected computer (i.e. computer hacking) in a plea-bargaining agreement in April 2012 and was facing up to 15 years in prison.

Image Credit: gaelx

Comments

  1. When presented with a court order or National Security Letter (or non-US equivalent), services like this turn on IP logging and track you. Expecting them to defy their government when presented with such items is naive and irrational.

    • Charles, you are correct. Most VPN providers are small businesses and don’t have the resources to fight subpoenas or court orders, besides I am not sure that all of them actually have the will to do so. Not logging any information to begin with would be a good start. The real problem is the claim of anonymity, which is tough to guarantee. I strongly urge users to read the terms and condition and privacy statements of any provider they plan to sign up with.

    • Charles,

      I understand that a VPN will turn on what they have in their hands upon request of their national authorities. The problem is when they claim to not keep logs but do. I would rather trust a VPN that clearlly specify that they keep logs and will provide information upon subpoena rather than lying to me. A question of trust I guess. At least, then you know what to expect and you know whether the services the VPN offers you suits your needs or not. If they lied on this matter, how do we know that tomorrow they will not deliver information to China political dissident or just selling all information regarding their users to marketing companies ?

  2. shanghaiGuy says:

    I had an purevpn account and I contacted them asking about their logging policy. Guess what? they never replied to my email. After I sent them a few more emails, they finally got back to me with one line telling me to look for that information on their website myself. Why can’t they just tell me and answer my question directly??? So I went ahead and cancelled my subscription. Now i am in the market for a vpn again, but it is hard to find one that keeps no logs. Now I decided to setup my own VPN using Microsoft Azure. :)

    • Unfortunately I had the same experience with PureVPN, their customer service is slow to respond and then only sends these cryptic messages, apparently hoping that the user will figure it out. I setup my own VPN using Amazon before, but I found that to be rather tedious and not suitable for the average user. When you do get it setup it works well; however, I am not sure how secure it would really be. The only way to setup an account with Microsoft is to use a credit card, so they have at least that information. Besides all cloud services have backups…

  3. No logs can help but still dont provide total anonimity. The VPN providers ISP still logs all connections. If you want to feel safe use I2P or tor, and even then you still can’t be sure your 100% anonymous because you may have a compromised node, but it is still better than a VPN who will give up your info to LE in a second. Don’t believe me? Search “Telecommunications data retention”

    • Maybe a good way of looking at it, is the degree of difficulty to identify a user. If you make it more difficult (hence costly in terms of money and/or time) it is less likely anyone will try. Using a VPN makes identifying you more difficult and using a no-log VPN makes it even more difficult still.

      The other side of the equation to consider is why would anyone want to identify you in the first place? I doubt that the nuts from the RIAA or MPAA will spend a lot of money to go after you if you just shared a few titles, but they may try if you are sharing thousands of movies or songs.

      Summarizing, consider using technology appropriate for what you are doing and trying to prevent; VPN, I2P and Tor aren’t perfect, but a good first step.

  4. these vpn’s can little more than a trap to harvest all the very info you most want keep
    private. and why is breaking the law ok in repressive china or egypt and not a nealy as
    repressive usa and uk and it’s NSA’s. hma and are nothing more than patseys and
    money suckers. useless. advoid.

  5. I use a VPN thats bought and paid for by a Burn card, my real ID is never associated with this account, i also go to places and connect to my VPN using free wifi, mostly places that dont now better, everything i do is encrypted, and the other end is encrypted also, password protected and more bits than i would really need, then i can use proxies that fluctuate every 5 minutes in the baltics, my Business is my Business, its no one elses, and never will be!!!!

  6. Q. Nauman M. says:

    @shanghaiGuy, I am wondering that if we have mentioned something on our website then why we will try to hide it? The link was given to let you read in detail ad we believe complete information could not be typed every time by the support executive and ma miss something so providing the link is best and it is for your favor. Read our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use in order to get complete information.
    @andre, Could you please confirm did you get slow response over live chat, support ticket or email?
    Regards
    Manager Customer Service & Support
    PureVPN

  7. bein sports en streaming says:

    thx you
    pure vpn

  8. Hi There,
    Here is one thing which astonished me quite a bit lately. I just got my first mac, and installed Skype, among other programs on it. When I was opening the Skype for the 1st time, Mac Os asked whether I want my contacts to be known to Skype. I said yes. And voila, all my cell contacts appeared on the mac screen.
    Now, I did not give to Apple any info about with exception of my cel # and credit card, but in both I use only initials of my name (not the whole name). So really, the phone # was likely sufficient for Apple to get my cell contact list – all without asking me for permission. Hmm… Now I am probably going to try to get my ex’s contacts as well… And perhaps, say, that of the judge who is presiding over our divorce proceedings, and perhaps the girl who lives next door as well. It can not be too difficult…

  9. “When you are selling a service that claims to protect a users privacy, hence identity, you cant turn around later and reveal just that to authorities without appearing at least a little insincere”

    They are two very different things here.
    1. Hiding your details, IP, etc browsing websites safely and those sites genuinly do not know your details or your IP.
    2. You commit a crime and the proxy gives “authorities” your details.

    I’m glad they had them stored, and provided them. What if they plotted to murder someone, or worse…

    (btw, blocking mouse buttons on your site is very annoying. I can’t copy paste, activate my sepll cheker, I cant seem to use keyboard arrows in this comment box either, or do other things)

  10. To be honest Hide my ass is still a decent VPN provider; heaps of locations, and so many features. Just don’t use their service for anything illegal (torrents, spamming, ddos..), perfectly fine if you just want to protect your traffic over public wifi or bypass geo-blocks.

  11. anita jenkins says:

    i have a ipad and i cant watch any thing from it is there any way around it please been told its a very good site cheers

  12. Hide my ass offers vpn connections to slow, unusable. They never refund me!

  13. And? Is yr vpn operational? May I have the link?
    Thanks!

  14. What VPN(s) do you use? Are you using software other than that provided/required by the VPN? When you say encrypted on both ends, what do you mean exactly? How? You mean the encryption on the other side being provided a VPN or some other third Party? Thanks.

  15. Yeah Right says:

    I don’t want to do anything that your typical person living in the free world would consider criminal, but we live in a day and age where activities can change in their legality very quickly and arbitrarily, depending on who you tick off. My adage about life has become, you have all the freedom in the world until it becomes an inconvenience to someone in power, then look out. I want to retain privacy because I want to retain my rights as a free and civilized human being, what we have now is quickly turning into what George Orwell warned us about, without exaggeration.

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  1. [...] quite well. However it is important to note that a VPN or proxy can also turn into a passive spy by recording your real IP address and timestamp; this data can then be used to circumvent your anonymity by connecting your real IP address to an [...]

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