The following post is an essay written by yours truly at the end of the Internet Governance Capacity Building Program (IGCBP).
Anonymity is derived from the Greek word, anonymia, meaning “without a name” or “namelessness.” It is used for various purposes: charity, activism, art, press, and also criminal activities. The conversation and conflict of interest between the security apparatus and concerned citizens each time a new means of communication is developed, continually increasing as technology advances over time. The more sophisticated technology gets, the more advanced anonymity becomes, and the more challenging it is for Internet service providers to be in line with privacy laws in some countries. This challenge also provides more opportunity for the security apparatus to be more controlling and thus the situation for them becomes more critical and challenging.
Anonymity offers a safe haven to activists for the freedom of expression and oppression against minorities. Activists can use tools like Virtual Private Networks (Wikipedia, 2014) aka VPNs, TOR, secure email (Wikipedia, 2014), KeyScramblers (TechRepublic, 2010) and other secure means (Google Play Store, 2013) of communications, in attempts to cover their tracks to hide from authoritarian governments, like in the cases of Egypt (DemoracyNow, 2011), Syria (NewScientist, 2012) and Tunisia (The Atlantic, 2011).
Anonymity preserves user privacy, as defined and structured in EU data privacy laws. For example, Facebook—which has terms of services that requires users to use their real name to create an account—has been challenged by a German court ruling demanding Facebook to alter their TOS to be in line with German privacy laws that allow anonymity, with Ireland following suit. Facebook is criticising this approach, calling it a waste of taxpayers’ money (WSJ, 2013). Data privacy via anonymity is available in services like YouTube via face blurring (YouTube Blog, 2012), as well as Google Street View (Google Street View Privacy and Security policy, no date).
Minority groups, like religious minorities as well as the LGBT (EFF, 2014) community, often find themselves under oppression, either social and / or from the state. The last resort of these communities is the anonymous online world, where they find the ability to freely organise and discuss their issues away from eyes and ears of their oppressors.
Anonymity greatly limits security risks (EFF, 2010), as any technology with backdoors will always enable a third party. This third party can be the security apparatus, and also gives the chance to intruders to abuse this kind of data. This data can range from biometrics of citizens to highly sensitive officials to military secrets.
Business wise, users’ data should be protected by anonymity, especially credit cards information and users’ purchasing habits (EFF, 2010). Or else the business, as well as the consumer, will suffer economic losses when the user information falls into the wrong hands. This kind of security breach can put the whole economy in jeopardy. The FBI directly investigates these kind of breaches even outside their own soil, as they did in Egypt. (Egypt Independent, 2009)
Anonymity is a big supporting factor for innovation. As EFF puts it: Facebook and Skype would be dead if the government built a system that surveilled everything online. (EFF, 2010)
Anonymity can increases the quality of discussions in online platforms, as found in research by Disqus (Disqus, no date) which concluded that 61% of 500 million comments were posted under pseudonyms and they were “liked” more than “real name” commentators.
Anonymity also supports voting integrity (EFF, 2013), because if voters’ identity were known this could eventually lead to compromising the integrity of any poll or elections, and would greatly influence voters. In scientific studies, reporting results when describing individual cases should be done anonymously. (Jacob Palme and Mikael Berglund. 2003)
On the other side of the debate, anonymity greatly reduces the ability of advertisers to reach their targeted markets, such as in games and social networks, as they won’t find enough relevant data to direct their campaigns. Anonymity also allows bullying and defamation with impunity in discussion groups (Guy Clapperton, 2013). It can also erode credibility in arguments (Dan Gilmour, 2009). In the worst cases, anonymity is a disguise for criminals to carry out malicious acts.
I find myself supporting anonymity on the Internet, for the following reasons. Anonymity values freedom over fear, and I think a truly democratic and healthy society should always value freedom over fear. Fear characterises societies living under authoritarian regimes and oppressive societies, a kind of oppression that will also hinder academic and business innovation, and will eventually lead to violations of human rights.
Most researchers, speakers and academics who voice themselves against anonymity place their judgement based on a specific case they witnessed, such as bullying, without proving through enough data, as the resulting crime might have many other factors that are hard to research, like psychological factors in character and psychological environment.
Regarding the point of criminals using anonymity for covering their tracks and preventing the security apparatus from investigating crimes, a study mentioned that in the US in 2009, the US government reported only once the need to break the encryption out of 2376 wiretaps resulted from court orders, (Wired, 2009). Even in that case, investigators were able to continue the investigation without breaking into the encryption. This study defies any point made by governments or researchers that criminals make good use of encryption to protect their criminal activity, and defies governments’ calls for backdoors to eliminate anonymity.
In the end, NGOs and activists should push back on governments’ and security apparatus’ efforts to put backdoors to eliminate anonymity as this only serves granting more authoritarian powers to both democratic and authoritarian governments, crippling human rights, freedom of Internet, academic freedoms, governments’ transparency and accountability—as well as technological and business innovation online and in the real world. This can be done in some sort of coalitions as well as lobbies that are formed after the formation of these coalitions, to push the parliaments of the world to prioritise not only state security, but also human rights preservation
-VPN [Wikipedia] (2014) Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_private_network [Accessed 09 February 2014]
-TOR project (no date) Available at https://www.torproject.org/ [Accessed 09 February 2014]
-Pretty Good Privacy (2014) Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretty_Good_Privacy [Accessed 09 February 2014]
-KeyScrambler: [TechRepublic] How keystroke encryption works to thwart keylogging threat (2010) available at http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/it-security/keyscrambler-how-keystroke-encryption-works-to-thwart-keylogging-threats/ [Accessed 09 February 2014]
-TextSecure [Google Play Store] (2013) available at https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.thoughtcrime.securesms&hl=en [Accessed 09 February 2014]
-RedPhone [Google Play Store] (2013) available at https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.thoughtcrime.redphone&hl=en
[Accessed 09 February 2014]
-Democracy Now (2011) Digital Darkness: U.S., U.K. Companies Help Egyptian Regime Shut Down Telecommunications and Identify Dissident Voices available at http://www.democracynow.org/seo/2011/2/1/digital_darkness_us_uk_companies_help [Accessed 10 February 2014]
-NewScientist (2012) Assad masses Syrian cyber army in online crackdown available at http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21506-assad-masses-syrian-cyber-army-in-online-crackdown.html#.UwI1TfmSzHk [Accessed 10 February 2014]
-The Atlantic (2011) The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to Tunisian Hacks available at http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/01/the-inside-story-of-how-facebook-responded-to-tunisian-hacks/70044/ [Accessed 10 February 2014]
-WSJ (2013) The Debate Over Online Anonymity available at http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323468604578245841828280344 [Accessed 10 February 2014]
-Official Youtube Blog (2012) Face blurring: when footage requires anonymity available at http://youtube-global.blogspot.ae/2012/07/face-blurring-when-footage-requires.html [Accessed 10 February 2014]
-Google (no date) Street View Privacy and Security policy available at http://www.google.com/intl/en/maps/about/behind-the-scenes/streetview/privacy/#streetview [Accessed 10 February 2014]
-EFF (2014) Digital Freedom Is an LGBT Issue available at https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2014/02/digital-freedom-lgbt-issue [Accessed 10 February 2014]
-EFF (2010) Eight Epic Failures of Regulating Cryptography available at https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2010/10/eight-epic-failures-regulating-cryptography [Accessed 10 February 2014]
-Mohamed ElGohary (2009) Phrying the online Phishers Egypt Independent 25 November available at http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/phrying-online-phishers [Accessed 10 February 2014]
-Disqus (no date) pseudonyms research available at http://disqus.com/research/pseudonyms/ [Accessed 10 February 2014]
-EFF (2013) Supreme Court of India -- Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails Must Be Used available at https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2013/10/supreme-court-india-voter-verifiable-paper-audit-trails-must-be-used [Accessed 10 February 2014]
-Jacob Palme and Mikael Berglund (2003) Swedish Institutionen för data: Anonymity on the Internet available at http://people.dsv.su.se/~jpalme/society/anonymity.html [Accessed 11 February 2014]
-Guy Clapperton (2013) E&T Magazine: Debate: Should we have the right to anonymity online? available at http://eandt.theiet.org/magazine/2013/09/debate.cfm [Accessed 11 February 2014]
-Dan Gilmour (2009) The Guardian -- Comment Is Free: No name, less credibility available at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/aug/28/skanks-google-blogging-internet-gillmor [Accessed 11 February 2014]
Check out the paper here.