Sunday, November 18, 2007

Anonymity, Pseudo-Anonymity and Privacy

The Guardian Unlimited article, which i linked to in my previous blog entry, presents the Electronic Frontier Foundation's defense of anonymous speech:
Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group that defends online free speech, privacy and intellectual property rights, said Kerr's argument ignores both privacy laws and American history.

"Anonymity has been important since the Federalist Papers were written under pseudonyms," Opsahl said. "The government has tremendous power: the police power, the ability to arrest, to detain, to take away rights. Tying together that someone has spoken out on an issue with their identity is a far more dangerous thing if it is the government that is trying to tie it together."
In other words, anonymity is necessary since government is not always benevolent, and free speech by the individual is valued by society.

On the other hand, blogger Bee contends that...
"an overdose of anonymity is fatal to every kind of constructive communication"
In her blog entry, she links to Kevin Kelly's contribution to the book What Is Your Dangerous Idea?, i.e. "More anonymity is good"
which highlights the dangers of too much anonymity:
" every system that I have seen where anonymity becomes common, the system fails...Communities infected with anonymity will either collapse, or shift the anonymous to pseudo-anonymous, as in eBay, where you have a traceable identity behind an invented nickname. Or voting, where you can authenticate an identity without tagging it to a vote...

Anonymity is like a rare earth metal. These elements are a necessary ingredient in keeping a cell alive, but the amount needed is a mere hard-to-measure trace. In larger does these heavy metals are some of the most toxic substances known to a life. They kill. Anonymity is the same. As a trace element in vanishingly small doses, it's good for the system by enabling the occasional whistleblower, or persecuted fringe. But if anonymity is present in any significant quantity, it will poison the system.
Kelly concludes that...
"Privacy can only be won by trust, and trust requires persistent identity, if only pseudo-anonymously. In the end, the more trust, the better."
The above discussion clarifies for me the value of anonymity, its relation to privacy, and its limits. More importantly, it introduces the concept of pseudo-anonymity, i.e. anonymity that is traceable to a particular identity.

Pseudo-anonymity can be a means to bridge the requirements of national security without sacrificing privacy. In practical terms:
  1. The Telecommunication Companies and Financial Institutions need to implement technologies that will mask the identity of its users. These masking technologies will prevent the identity of the persons from being known (even by the Government) without the application of the corresponding unmasking technology.
  2. The Government Intelligence Agencies can then continue to monitor the masked communications and/or transactions without any court order.
  3. Once anything suspicious comes up, the Government Intelligence Agency can then apply for a court order requesting the unmasking of the relevant communications or transactions, i.e. linking these communications or transactions with a particular individual.
The above scheme balances the needs of privacy and national security.


mschumey07 said...

Amen, Chuck.

Unknown said...

Very astute Chuck!

Can be done, easy, simple and practical.

cvj said...

Hi Schumey, Anna, thanks!

Unknown said...

Hi Chuck,

Off topic but thought this would be fun, a political compass… a test to determine one’s political philosophical leaning. (would be happy to know how you score.)

cvj said...

Hi Anna, i took the test five months ago and my score at that time was -3.25 (Economic) and -3.13 (Social). I retook the test tonight and this time i scored -4.25 (Economic) and -3.03 (Social). Looks like during the intervening period, i've become more Socialist and a little bit less democratic. :-)

viking said...

A very useful post, CVJ. Thanks.

MBW said...

Chuck!!!! Really????


MBW said...

Chuck, wonder what I'd be if I took the test again, hahahah!

cvj said...

Thanks Viking!

Anna, yes. I concur with your radicalization (or at least polarization) thesis.

viking said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jego said...

I retook the test tonight and this time i scored -4.25 (Economic) and -3.03 (Social).

I retook the test again, and unfortunately I forgot to save the scores but I moved closer to the center ever since I took it the last time. I scored in the negative 1's on both economic and social axes.