Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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Online Anonymity

"If you haven't done anything wrong, you should have nothing to hide". This is the commonplace refrain of those who stand opposed to the concept of privacy, if not total anonymity in the wired world of today. I can't tell you how many times I've heard these words spoken or read them in a forum when the topic swings to the latest excess of government as regards surveillance, or lawsuits launched by the recording and film industry associations, the RIAA and MPAA respectively.  So, how well does this argument stand up? What does the data you inevitably generate as you go about your daily life say about you and how, given you are a law abiding citizen is it anything but innocuous?

Currently, the majority of this information resides in a variety of silos, each unaware of other troves of your personal data scattered about the digital domain.

However, in a previous article on the topic of ‘Web 3.0' or the Semantic Web, I endeavoured to outline the nascent attempts to allow servers to talk to each other by employing a mechanism whereby they would understand the nature of the content they contained and the services they were each capable of delivering. This mechanism allows them to cooperate in achieving complex data mining tasks, including building an accurate profile of you.

This profile is an ever expanding electronic fingerprint which, as our immersion in the digital world becomes daily more complete, is startling in its breadth and scope. As barriers to information sharing come tumbling down, the view inside your private life becomes all encompassing. Elements of traditional data recorded include the following:

  • Purchasing history
  • Credit rating
  • Marital status
  • Medical records – rapidly moving to electronic data stores
  • Travel history
  • Driving record
  • Banking activity
  • Criminal Record
  • Voter registration
  • Address, place of work etc.

However, new sources of available data, freely offered up by users online may include:

  • Opinions
  • Political leanings
  • Tastes in entertainment (adult and otherwise)
  • Sexual orientation
  • Physical location (iPhone and other GPS enabled cellular owners often blithely advertise this to the world)
  • Hobbies
  • Religious beliefs
  • Ethnicity
  • Friends & business colleagues
  • Consumer tastes and even wish-lists

So what? Still have nothing to hide? Let's turn this argument on its head; shall we? If I were to say to you instead, "Would you agree that identity theft is a huge problem and that you should take measures to protect yourself from it?", I'm certain you'd nod your head in concurrence.

Everyone has something to hide.

Let's leave this obvious example aside however, and explore not what might happen, but what has in relation to the misuse of personal data.

You may have heard that our neighbours to the south have concocted this wonderful system, enabling them to determine who is a terrorist and who is not in advance of any crime being committed. As a result of this fabulous, inerrant algorithm which collects data from all available sources and provides you with a resultant score on the terrorist scale, they have now been able to remove over 1 million prospective air travelers from the rolls of who is eligible to do so. Success! I can hear the clinking of champagne glasses from here.

Small children, political figures, journalists, musicians and the like who have found themselves on the no-fly list, may gain comfort in the fact that, as they take the soul-searching train ride across America (assuming that mode of transport is still available to them), at least the greater good for the greater number has been maintained and prevented them from exercising their newly discovered homicidal proclivities.

In a previous generation it was communists, next came drug users, then pedophiles and terrorists became the hobgoblins of western society. Laws and attitudes change with the times; however, a trend towards ex post facto convictions has been taking place. These are convictions for ‘crimes' which took place before the act in question had indeed been declared a crime.

How many people who supported the Taliban pre 9/11 monetarily or in fact, online, were subsequently incarcerated post 9/11 despite the fact that these activities, though certainly reprehensible today, were not illegal at the time they were committed.

"Well, good." you might say. "They got what they deserved."

The problem is that these extreme examples elicit extreme reactions. Let's examine the more mundane. Activities need not be illegal to ruin your life should they be discovered online and brought to public light.  The bugbears of prevailing public opinion spawn witch hunts leading to all sorts of unintended consequences.

Post a photo of your child in the bathtub and get ready to be charged with child pornography. Don't expect the paper to report on your subsequently being found not guilty, should that verdict be reached.

Offer some controversial remarks in an online debate and watch your job prospects evaporate as prospective employers probe Google's long memory.

Organize a peace rally online in support of ending an unpopular war and be prepared to take your chances – years later – with obtaining the new security clearance required by your employer should that rally have attracted some ‘people of interest'.

The opinion has been proffered that total information awareness equals security. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be the case. Ask any survivor of the Japanese internment camps whether they thought the ‘nationality' question on the census seemed innocent enough when they were fulfilling their civic duty by completing it. The less your neighbor or government knows about the personal details of your life, the better off you are for it. This is certainly just as true in western democracies as it is in totalitarian and communist states.

So, in this age of ubiquitous monitoring and data gathering how does one undertake online activities with some measure of anonymity? There are many tools at your disposal to obfuscate your location and identity while online including the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Tor. For anonymous emailing check out Mailinator or for a completely separate and private version of the internet, why not give Freenet a try. It's time to give Big Brother and his nosy neighbor a little taste of myopia.

Originally published in HUB, The Computer Paper, October, 2008, by technology columnist, Ray Richards.

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