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section heading icon     anonymity

This page looks at anonymity in cyberspace and offline.

It covers -

Questions of identity and identity theft are explored in a more detailed guide here. The complementary Privacy guide elsewhere on this site offers a broader examination of offline anonymity and the use of surveillance technologies such as APNR and CCTV.

subsection heading icon     introduction

[under development]

subsection heading icon     before the net

Alan Hunt's excellent Governance of the consuming passions: a history of sumptuary law (New York: St Martins 1996) notes that the luxury of anonymity, which the veil afforded, allowed a lower class person the opportunity for upper class imitation.

Anonymity (London: Faber 2008) by John Mullan considers literary anonymity, a mechanism used by notables such as Swift, Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot and Walter Scott

subsection heading icon     questions

Assessments of the impact of anonymity and legal frameworks are contentious. 

Michael Froomkin's 1996 introduction to anonymity in Flood Control on the Information Ocean: Living With Anonymity, Digital Cash & Distributed Databases is a useful starting point. David Post's paper on Pooling Intellectual Capital: Thoughts on Anonymity, Pseudonymity, and Limited Liability in Cyberspace is also interesting.

David Johnson's paper The Unscrupulous Diner's Dilemma & Anonymity in Cyberspace argues that 

 to achieve a civilized form of cyberspace, we have to limit the use of anonymous communications. Many early citizens of cyberspace will bitterly oppose any such development, arguing that anonymous and pseudonymous electronic communications are vital to preserve electronic freedoms and allow free expression of human personality. ... we all collectively face the diners' dilemma - we must collaborate in groups to build a rich social fabric, and we know that the ability to act anonymously, sporadically, in large groups brings out the worst in human character.

There is a dissenting view in Jonathan Wallace's 1999 Cato Institute paper Nameless in Cyberspace: Anonymity on the Internet.

Risk-Free Access Into The Global Information Infrastructure Via Anonymous Re-Mailers
, a paper by information economist Paul Strassmann was strongly criticised by the EFF and other libertarian organisations on publication in 1996. 

Like Dorothy Denning he argued that 

information terrorism has ceased to be an amateur effort and has migrated into the hands of well organized, highly trained expert professionals. Attacks can be expected to become a decisive element of any combined threat to the economic and social integrity of the international community. Nations whose life-line becomes increasingly dependent on information networks should realize that there is no sanctuary from information-based assaults. Commercial organizations, especially in telecommunications, finance, transportation and power generation offer choice targets to massive disruption. Information terrorism, as a particularly virulent form of information warfare, is a unique phenomenon in the history of warfare and crime

On the other hand Lorrie Cranor, co-author with Reagle of the Beyond Concern: Understanding Net Users' Attitudes About Online Privacy study and co-developer of the Publius "anonymous censorship-resistant online publishing" scheme, argues that anonymity is a building block for legitimate attempts to defeat internet censorship.

The supplementary profile on this site about Surveillance & Identification highlights studies of anonymity. One example is regarding Gary Marx's paper Identity & Anonymity: Some Conceptual Distinctions and Issues for Research.

subsection heading icon     cards, passports and chips

Trustmarks and digital certificates identify web sites and documents. What about the identification of people?

In December 2003 the UK Home Office announced moves towards introduction of a new compulsory national identification card, with prototype cards featuring biometric data (including fingerprint, iris and facial recognition information) and other personal details. Australia subsequently moved towards a national government services access card, destined to become the de facto national proof of identity document and thus dubbed Australia Card Lite.

In discussing identity theft and surveillance we have noted questions about privacy (eg data profiling) and the efficacy of particular technologies such as biometrics.

Those questions continue to be become more pertinent as governments - and nongovernment organisations - seek to leverage technologies and data archives - by identifying and tracking a range of actors and attributes.

They are highlighted in the US National Academies' 2002 report IDs – Not That Easy: Questions About Nationwide Identity Systems and 2003 report Who Goes There?: Authentication Through the Lens of Privacy, which conclude that the goals of any national identity system must be clearly stated and that a compelling case must made before any proposal can move forward.

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version of January 2008
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