Digital Myth: Privacy Through Anonymity

Digital Myths: #12 – Privacy is dead – get over it!

This famous sentiment was expressed by Sun Microsystems executive Scott McNealy back in 1999. You choose which is worse: surveillance by government security agencies or the big data businesses – as demonstrated by Edward Snowden, the two go hand in hand. Everywhere we go online, we’re monitored and we leave digital traces. That data is a valuable asset that can be monetized, at least if you happen to have a monetization model. EU institutions try to bring control of personal information to the citizens, requiring no small effort, particularly as those citizens appear to care less about privacy and more about access to free stuff anyway, not to mention the pushback from those who rely on an endless supply of data to make their money. The paradox here is that what is acceptable for the individual multiplies to create a bigger issue on the collective scale. We may disagree with the consequences of the freenomics fuelled by our personal data, but we keep using the free stuff because the consequence for ourselves is small or invisible and perhaps because a private boycott would be of little use. Often framed as a consumer interest, but as the alias blue_beetle famously put it: ‘if you’re not paying for a service, you’re not the consumer: you’re the product being sold’. Consumer power is out of play; collective or government action remains. This is why the recent efforts by EU institutions to regulate this field should be embraced and copied elsewhere.

Anonymity is a poor substitute for privacy and is itself an illusion online. It’s a myth!

At the same time as the Internet looks like the perfect surveillance machine, we talk about how the anonymous nature of the Web creates all kinds of challenges: phishing, illegal drugs and guns, piracy, threats and hate speech, DDOS attacks and so on. There is an anarchist dimension to the digital metaphysics: the hope that democratized media would topple the traditional hierarchies of content distribution, or that leaked documents would bring down governments. To some extent this has been the case, but perhaps not as much as some would have hoped. The NSA continues to operate. ‘Anonymous’ may succeed in bringing down websites for a few hours and hurt some individuals by releasing private information, but it can be debated whether this is a tectonic shift or more like a cosmetic change. My point is that there is a mythos of digital which says that the establishment is corrupt and fresh institutions are needed. Look at how Bitcoin is presented as an antidote to a biased financial system and a way to rid the world of speculation bubbles (ironically, that crypto-currency itself is a giant bubble: at least in one case a manufacturer of Bitcoin mining devices delayed delivery in order to mine for itself on the client’s dime). Or how Uber is sometimes broadcast as a fairer alternative to taxi services that are allegedly in cahoots with municipal government. The list goes on, but the story is the same: the establishment is corrupt, digital is just. It’s a great sound bite – the people versus the institutions. But what if it only brings a new establishment, this time in the shape of global big data companies that in practice make their own law? Perhaps the institutions can be on the side of the people? The elected government the executors of democracy? The justice system looking after individual rights and the free press keeping the power in check? In that perspective, the corruption sound bite sounds really vulgar to me. Yes, there is corruption, and yes, the system needs to be developed further, but throwing it all out to be replaced by systems run by anonymous hackers or big data companies? Not a very tempting offer. And yet I hear this story time and again, so I guess it flies.

A lot of the techno-anarchism is connected to radical transparency, an aspect of Myth #1, ‘Information wants to be free’. This was part of the motivation for WikiLeaks, Julian Assange’s vision of a world without secrets. The same goes for Bitcoin’s security through transparency (ironically often used to buy illegal stuff on Darknets). And think about Google’s original mission to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible’: not much room for privacy there! I believe there is a fundamental conflict built into the idea of radical transparency and privacy. In order to be private, by definition some information cannot be widely available. The two cannot coexist. Instead we must have means to decide which information goes where. We can let the hacker activists or internet platforms do that for us, or we can have institutions. The right to be forgotten is a good start. Nothing ever really disappears from the Internet, but we can make it more difficult to find.

But some don’t believe that privacy is dead after all, it seems. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg bought the neighbour’s houses to avoid prying eyes. On his service, we can choose what part of ourselves we show to the world, but we can only be one person. In real life, we have many different identities: I’m a father, a son, a brother, a husband, a writer, an office worker, a football fan, a friend. I am different people to my mother than to my football friends. It would be awkward (or fun!) if she came to a match. Part of privacy is to able to show different parts of your person in different circumstances. Without privacy, that is lost, unless you happen to be the one making the money from that sacrifice, because then you can buy your neighbour’s house. Privacy is for the privileged.

Anonymity is a poor substitute for privacy and is itself an illusion online. It’s a myth!

Digital Myths is a series of posts published from the book 21 Digital Myths, Reality Distortion Antidote where Netopia editor Per Strömbäck takes a closer look at some of the concepts that have shaped the way we think, talk and make decisions about digital technology and the internet.