The End of Online Anonymity? (or The Currency of the Future).

There’s been very few times in my online life when I’ve felt the need to go completely anonymous in order to voice my opinion or partake in an activity. Mostly that’s because I’ve got quite a bit invested in my online identity and with that comes a certain amount of pride which I hope to carry with me during my online activities. I think the only times I can remember trying to be anonymous about something was when I wanted to pull a prank on someone or if I was voicing a controversial/against the groupthink opinion. Still I recognise the need for a medium such as the Internet to facilitate completely anonymous communication especially when it facilitates such great things as Wikileaks.

I remember back in the early days of the Internet I spent the vast majority of my time there under a pseudonym purely because that was the way it was done back then. Indeed sharing personal information across the wire seemed like a bit of a faux pas as you couldn’t trust the people on the other end not to use it for nefarious purposes. Over time however I saw services begin to crop up that chipped away at this idea, encouraging their users to divulge some sort of personal information in order to get something in return. Blogs were a great example of this with many of the blogging starlets being those who shared interesting stories about their lives like Tucker Max or Outpost Nine. Still for the majority there was still a layer of anonymity between the writer and the reader with many choosing not to reveal details that could identify them personally, keeping their online and offline presence happily separate.

A few years later we saw the beginnings of the current social Internet revolution. These services are based around the idea of mimmicing those interactions we would have in everyday life and usually attempting to augment them as well. In order to facilitate such an idea any of the anonymity granted by the Internet has to be stripped away so that the offline relationships can be replicated online. Such information also forms the basis of the revenue streams for those who provide these online services to everyone, usually at no cost to the end user. In essence you’re trading your online anonymity (and by extension privacy) for the use of a service, effectively turning it into a currency.

Interestingly enough is that your privacy doesn’t have a fixed cost, it’s quite relative to who you are. Heavy users of social networking tools are in essence costing the company providing the service more money than those who don’t use the service as much. From a pure metric standpoint you could boil this down to bandwidth, storage space and potential incidents raised that need to be fixed by a member of your team. However those heavy users are more likely to have more personal data on your website making them far more valuable than someone else. If you take an example of say a celebrity on Twitter (as much as it pains me to say it, like Bieber and Lady Gaga) they are probably the biggest cost to you on a per user basis, but they’re also the most valuable. In essence one unit of their privacy currency is worth oodles more than someone like me.

Still the use of these services does not preclude you from going anonymous when you need to. If I really wanted to hide my tracks I could go to an Internet cafe in another city, encrypt my connection and pipe it through TOR and start blasting out information through all sorts of means without it ever being traced back to me. All the information about me online then would be less than useless, save for the fact that anyone attempting to trace me would figure out that I knew a thing or two about IT. Realistically even in this time of sharing almost too much information with the world there are still very few barriers to hiding yourself completely should the need arise.

I will admit though that the traditional means of being anonymous, which were usually an innate part of the service, have faded away. The Web 2.0 revolution’s focus on user generated content has meant that there’s is literally untold masses of information available, something which hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Internet giants:

“There was five exabytes [five billion gigabytes] of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003,” he said. “But that much information is now created every two days, and the pace is increasing… People aren’t ready for the technology revolution that’s going to happen to them.

“If I look at enough of your messaging and your location, and use artificial intelligence, we can predict where you are going to go,” Schmidt said, adding unnervingly.

“Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are. You think you don’t have 14 photos of yourself on the internet? You’ve got Facebook photos!”

For those who enjoyed the anonymous online life this means that, like it or not, there’s probably information on you out there in the Internet. Whilst we’re still a long way from being able to make sense of this data avalanche the ever rapid advancement in computing technology means that one day we will. This means that peeling back the veil of anonymity will be easier for those seeking to do so but on the flip side that just encourages those who value their online anonymity to find better ways to combat that. In essence we have an arms race that I can’t fathom how it will play out, but history has shown that a dedicated minority can put up one hell of a fight if they’re cornered.

I guess I take a engineering perspective to online anonymity: it’s a tool to be used for certain problems. When the time comes that you need to do something online that doesn’t come back to bite you there are options for you to follow. I’m quite happy to trade some personal information for the use of a service that I deem valuable, especially when most of it is a matter of public record anyway. In the end whilst we might see the end of our traditional views of online privacy and anonymity the tales of its death are greatly exaggerated and it will remain a fundamental feature of the medium for as long as it functions.

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