Online Anonymity Will Soon Be The Only Kind We Have

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Jon Evans

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Jon Evans is the CTO of the engineering consultancy HappyFunCorp; the award-winning author of six novels, one graphic novel, and a book of travel writing; and TechCrunch’s weekend columnist since 2010.

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Anonymity: it’s all the rage–Whisper, Secret–and it’s rage-inducing. A Brazilian court has ruled that Secret must be removed from app stores there, and existing installs must be remotely wiped. The UK’s House of Lords has essentially recommended the extinction of online anonymity.

As usual, judges and politicians don’t understand technology. Anonymity can used for awful things, yes; but it’s incredibly important.

Why? Because cameras keep getting cheaper, and better, and more ubiquitous, as does facial recognition software. As The Economist recently put it: “the idea that anyone will be able hide for long in Nepal, or anywhere else, looks quaint.” Have you ever in your life been photographed doing something embarrassing? Get your explanations ready now: you can expect every picture (or video) you’ve ever appeared in to eventually be connected with you. Traffic cameras, dashboard cameras, police body cameras, drone cameras — every time you pop up in any of those, your identity, location, and activity will be identified, indexed, and stored.

Planning to wear a hoodie? Sorry: “it is predicted that gait recognition technology will be released in a functional state within the next five years, and will be used in conjunction with other biometrics as a method of identification and authentication.” Do you expect your government to prevent all this data from being collated and cross-indexed, in the name of privacy? Oh you poor naïve thing.

It’s true, particularly enlightened governments may delay all this cross-indexing; but nobody will stop it. Eventually, ubiquitous public surveillance–a de facto panopticon–will become too easy, and too cheap, to resist. Eventually, there will be so many cheap cameras, and so many cheap servers processing their data, that you’ll hardly be able to set foot outside of your home without everything you do in any public space–what you do, where you go, and with whom–silently logged on your permanent record. Valuable data which the powers that be (you know, the insurance companies) will use as they see fit.

Online anonymity is important because it’s the only kind we can save. The obligatory Oscar Wilde quote: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Yes, anonymity is frequently–in some contexts, even usually–misused. But eliminating it will not eliminate online vileness.

There’s also an extremely important place for pseudonymity, for people who want to maintain a consistent identity without revealing their so-called wallet name. “We need space to experiment and risk-tolerant environments where people can learn,” argues Lydia Laurenson in The Atlantic. But let’s not confuse the issue; pseudonymity is important, but it is no substitute for true anonymity.

For the moment, consider Whisper and Secret, and this critical analysis of them both by Austin Hill, who knows a thing or two about online security and anonymity. Short version: they both have a lot of work to do.

As Noam Chomsky once said, “If we don’t believe in free expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” Anonymity isn’t extraneous to free speech; it’s a crucial component. That doesn’t mean every app or forum has to support anonymity. But there have to be ones that do. Banning all anonymity apps, and requiring all online users to register their identities, are the two worst ideas I have heard in some time.


Image credit: Ben Fredericson, Flickr

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