Online Anonymity Will Soon Be The Only Kind We Have

TechCrunch › Jon Evans

Anonymity: it’s all the rage–Whisper, Secret–and it’s rage-inducing. A Brazilian court has ruled that Secret must be removed from app stores there, and existing installs must be remotely wiped. The UK’s House of Lords has essentially recommended the extinction of online anonymity.

As usual, judges and politicians don’t understand technology. Anonymity can used for awful things, yes; but it’s incredibly important.

Why? Because cameras keep getting cheaper, and better, and more ubiquitous, as does facial recognition software. As The Economist recently put it: “the idea that anyone will be able hide for long in Nepal, or anywhere else, looks quaint.” Have you ever in your life been photographed doing something embarrassing? Get your explanations ready now: you can expect every picture (or video) you’ve ever appeared in to eventually be connected with you. Traffic cameras, dashboard cameras, police body cameras, drone cameras — every time you pop up in any of those, your identity, location, and activity will be identified, indexed, and stored.

Planning to wear a hoodie? Sorry: “it is predicted that gait recognition technology will be released in a functional state within the next five years, and will be used in conjunction with other biometrics as a method of identification and authentication.” Do you expect your government to prevent all this data from being collated and cross-indexed, in the name of privacy? Oh you poor naïve thing.

It’s true, particularly enlightened governments may delay all this cross-indexing; but nobody will stop it. Eventually, ubiquitous public surveillance–a de facto panopticon–will become too easy, and too cheap, to resist. Eventually, there will be so many cheap cameras, and so many cheap servers processing their data, that you’ll hardly be able to set foot outside of your home without everything you do in any public space–what you do, where you go, and with whom–silently logged on your permanent record. Valuable data which the powers that be (you know, the insurance companies) will use as they see fit.

Online anonymity is important because it’s the only kind we can save. The obligatory Oscar Wilde quote: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Yes, anonymity is frequently–in some contexts, even usually–misused. But eliminating it will not eliminate online vileness.