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Email security can be enhanced by setting up an anonymous email account, but that is still not completely totally secure.

I want to correspond with an inmate in prison, like on Death Row as a pen pal, but I want to remain anonymous for security reasons. Will my IP tell where I live? If I go to my local library, open a new email account on their public computer and use this, when I send and receive email, will I remain anonymous then?

In this excerpt from Answercast #71, I look at creating anonymous emails and how safe that might be.

Send email securely

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Well, I actually have an article on "Sending anonymous email." It's pretty short, but it boils down to pretty much what you are suggesting you do at the public library.

That is:

  • Go somewhere that isn't your home;

  • Create a completely new, free email account using Hotmail or Gmail or Yahoo or any of the other free email account services;

  • Make sure that all of the information you enter is fake;

  • And then use that to send whatever email you're trying to send.

IP address identification

Now, I will say, the IP address doesn't identify you specifically in most cases. It is very difficult for someone (and I would assume extremely difficult for someone behind bars) to identify who specifically is at a specific IP address.

That being said, if there is ever legal reason to figure that out, then yes, the authorities of course can go to the ISP and find out who was at that IP address at that particular time - and at least, get it to the home or the place where that IP address terminates. Whether or not that is enough to identify you is totally unclear.

Even libraries (depending on your level of paranoia)... what an IP would allow them to do is say that, "Yes, somebody at this library, at this time, sent a piece of email."

Even though all of your email information is faked, the IP address of the library is still in the email message. Like I said, depending on your level of paranoia and level of safety you need to take for this, security cameras at the library could synchronize with the times on the emails and potentially show them who you are.

Be careful

So, be careful when sending anonymous email.

I almost always recommend against it. There are definitely important times when it's useful to do so. Exactly how far you have to go and how anonymous you need to remain really depends on the specific situation of not only who you are talking with - but what you're talking about and your own personal situation.

So, I would certainly start by going to someplace other than your home, create this fake account, and use that.

Article C6043 - November 19, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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2 Comments
Tom R.
November 20, 2012 2:29 PM

What prison allows death-row inmates access to computers?

A Richter
November 20, 2012 2:38 PM

A browser proxy could be used, like JonDo or Tor on home computer. But they have their issues, too (e.g., proper configuration, traffic slowdown). Unlike others, Gmail can be set to run under https at all times, and keeps a brief history of logins, which might also be helpful. One needs to bear in mind, though, that nothing is impenetrable - pace Petraeus. Privacy as well as anonymity are only nominal concepts in this world.

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