Balancing anonymity, privacy and security

When it comes to anonymity in cyberspace is there way to balance privacy and security?

The option to remain anonymous on the Internet is critical to the concept of free speech. However, anonymous activity may also represent a security risk given that the tools needed to ensure anonymity might also be used for malicious or criminal intent. Indeed, while free speech advocates are doing their utmost to ensure that everyone can remain unimpeded in their rights, regulators see the security problems associated with such anonymity as too great to endure and laws are being developed in democracies across the globe to outlaw anonymity.

Of course, there is one very simple way to remain anonymous on the Internet – don’t use it! But, that’s not a serious choice for the vast majority of people in the developed world and a growing number in the developing world who all increasingly rely on access to free information, forums, unhindered email and other resources. That’s why it is increasingly important for companies and people to invest in network security solutions to protect themselves against malicious cyber attacks.

As is repeatedly proven on the Internet, especially since the advent of Twitter and the like, anonymity is a cornerstone of democracy everywhere. People can now share ideas from Tehran to Tulsa. This engagement, often fuelled by social media is leading to the creation of “an entirely new, diverse, and chaotic democracy, free from geographic and physical constraints”.

At the last count, there were almost 2 billion of us accessing the Internet. The cynical might suggest that 99% of those are Twitter n00bs who tweeted once and then gave up, but seriously, that number is growing rapidly, thankfully, leading is inexorably towards almost universal connectivity.

Of course, criminals will exploit any loopholes in society, but anonymity is critical to democracy, it allows political, industrial, and medical whistleblowers to reveal secrets that really should be shared for the benefit of us all. It allows individuals to express diverse opinions without fear of reprisals, whether they are in an apparently free and democratic state or one with more stringent controls over the individual and society.

“Truly anonymous communication is untraceable,” says Mohamed Chawki, of ISPEC, at the University of Aix-Marseille III, in France. He points out that only coincidence or deliberate self-exposure will reveal the identity of a truly anonymous identity. The truly anonymous leave no trace and are essentially unaccountable.

Then there is pseudo-anonymity of the kind that we hear about in the news when a whistleblower or secret blogger is exposed, such as Night Jack or Belle de Jour. These people left a virtual paper trail and so were essentially never truly anonymous and the latter self-revealed once that paper trail was discovered by a journalist, allegedly.

Pseudo-anonymity has significant social benefits, says Chawki, “it enables citizens of a democracy to voice their opinions without fear of retaliation against their personal reputations, but it forces them to take ultimate responsibility for their actions, should the need somehow arise.” That need would essentially yield to legal pressure or investigative journalism.

Anonymity is important for online discussions involving sexual abuse, minority issues, harassment, sex lives, and many other things. Moreover, anonymity is useful for people who want to ask technical questions that they do not want to admit they do not know the answer to, report illegal activities without fear of retribution, and many other things. Without anonymity, these actions can result in public ridicule or censure, physical injury, loss of employment or status, and in some cases, even legal action. Protection from harm resulting from this type of social intolerance is a definite example of an important and legitimate use of anonymity on the internet.

Pseudo-anonymity would be open to government abuse but it also precludes the possibility of truly anonymous criminal activity. However, there is no consistent policy on anonymity that can resolve the tensions between citizens’ rights and law enforcement.

Anonymizing software and websites exist and may offer a solution. However, when politicians with little technical savvy stand up and wax lyrical about stamping out cybercrime and in the next breath apologise for the loss of yet another government laptop or data disk, one has to wonder whether we will ever achieve a state of bliss when it comes to balancing privacy and security.

Research Blogging IconMohamed Chawki (2010). Anonymity in cyberspace: finding the balance between privacy and security Int. J. Technology Transfer and Commercialisation, 9 (3), 183-199

Author: David Bradley

Freelance science journalist, author of Deceived Wisdom. Photographer and musician.