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Internet Anonymity

TV illusionist Derren Brown is the latest ‘celebrity’ to complain about people who write on social network sites, and indeed, about what they write. He told the Radio Times that Twitter and the like are ‘hives of malignity’.

He follows hard on the heels of comedy actor Rob Brydon who condemned comments about him on Twitter as ‘abusive and horrible’. He in turn followed a succession of famous people who have been caught in every kind of indiscretion by phones, texts, cctv, pictures, the internet, social comment and journalistic probing.

The question is do people have a right to privacy on the web? From the web?

Questions typed into search engines are known and kept. They can be used in court evidence. Purchases made, visits carried out, footsteps can be traced. There is a paper trail in most events, but now there is an electronic trail that can survive forever.

People using the net in the main just carry on without a thought about their privacy. Some question if anybody should bother about it, if users accept it’s broadly an open, free channel of communication with many blessings. For example, now everybody on earth who can get online, has access to the largest library the world has ever known.

But there are worries about fraud, pornography particularly affecting children, about physical inertia and isolation that use of online communications naturally engender. Governments and the EU are considering if laws are needed to police the internet, to regulate copyright better and to order privacy.

What is Anonymity?

Basically, if the author/writer/creator of any message is unknown, that is anonymity. In some senses the net assists it, and it is most worrying when, say, an older man pretends to be a teenager and gets talking to vulnerable youngsters to groom them.

Anonymity is also called pseudonymity, where a false name hides the real one. Things, rumours, images and ideas can start anywhere in the world and be transmitted in seconds. Even if they are removed quickly at source, it’s too late, a screen-grab somewhere will hold them.

Pseudonyms are not new. In literature, movies and the arts, it has been commonplace. When women writers were unacceptable, they’d use male names. Pop singers were often given names that managers thought were more racy, sexy and appealing. The legal profession respected client anonymity to protect confidentiality. The old Catholic confessional was usually anonymous.

Anonymous tip-offs to newspapers or the police, have been a standard part of both fiction and real life. In states with repressive regimes, anonymous information has been useful. Today, nameless ‘whistleblowers’ in public services or companies are not admired by managers and frequently hunted down and hounded out.

Of course, equally, it can hide crime, threats and abuse. And it can be a cover for some to be distinctly unpleasant about others, like ‘celebrities’. But do they deserve it, in a sense, by being famous and in the public eye? Are they fair game? Or are they as entitled as any other citizen to a degree of personal privacy, free from snooping by others, media or state?

Web Anonymity

Faced with a determined seeker, anybody trying to cover their tracks on the internet is scarcely guaranteed success. IP numbers, host names, ISP records, trace headers on emails, transaction logs, hidden tracking systems in web searches all work against total obscurity for the user.

There are some anonymity servers for hire either singly or in sequences, which receive messages and resend them under a different (false) identity or none at all. Encryption increases security, though nothing has yet proved unhackable, as far as anybody knows (officially).

Some officials feel uncomfortable that such bypasses of rules are possible for a few people, when most users will be caught in the net of regulation to come. Law enforcement agencies, courts, legislative assemblies, civil service, liberty groups have views, with some sheltering behind that old argument: those with nothing to hide, need fear nothing.

So, in the end we may get a privacy law covering the internet, a right to remain anonymous, provided the authorities can find out who we are when absolutely necessary. Much the same as data protection laws now?


Illustration: David Vignoni