Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Online anonymity is dead! Long live online anonymity!

Published in ORF's Cyber Monitor, Vol 1, Issue 4: http://orfonline.org/cms/sites/orfonline/html/cyber/cybsec.html

At ORF-FICCI's "Cyfy2013" - The India Conference on Cybersecurity and Cyber Governance -questions over online anonymity came to the forefront when Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Manish Tewari, made a statement that "online anonymity should come with accountability ," and called for a common set of global rules of engagement to further Internet policy. In India, the government is grappling with increasing vitriol over social media and the spreading of dangerous rumors by unidentified persons over the internet. This begs the question - what can (and should) be done about this global phenomenon?

The curious case for online anonymity (and the privacy that follows) is that it is almost technically impossible to achieve despite the highly encrypted Tor network and the cypherpunks who work tirelessly to ensure such an anonymous system exists online. The recent arrest of Dread Pirate Robert, aka Ross William Ulbricht, the owner of underground drug trafficking site Silk Route has suggested that even if National Security Agency of the United States is seemingly unable to break through the Tor encryption, it is only a matter of time before the cracks show. In an amazing account of how the arrest was made ,it appears that the NSA tirelessly leafed through forums and social media accounts, looking for the first mention of Silk Route to start identifying suspects, when it was clear that they were unable to successfully trace any illicit transactions back to Ulbricht.

Despite Silk Route's libertarian philosophy of a truly free market unencumbered by any laws decided by governments and other authorities, the focus of the site that saw transactions worth $1.2 billion in little over two years was drugs and weapons trade. This would certainly fall under what scholars like Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski have identified as 'dark nets' - networks on the internet we know little about and need to keep track of - those of cyber criminals, terrorists, and private social networks among certain diaspora that can, for example, be used for hawala scams. These networks do end up making a strong case of the end of online anonymity as we understand it today.

However, it must be kept in mind that networks like Silk Route and other illegal channels have layers and workings very different to the online anonymity that the everyday internet user can identify with: the more talked about problem of anonymous harassment, scams, gender abuse and cyber bullying.In a sense, much of this is visible online anonymity that isn't hidden by encryption as much as it is by pseudonyms. This too - trolling - as we call it,has led to considerable debate about the nature of civil discourse, and whether being able to hide your identity online is encouraging crime and abuse. Social media certainly takes the lead in this matter, with Twitter allowing users to choose any username they wish to, but Facebook is trying to enforce a policy whereby people use their real identities to create accounts. In fact, in the best selling book, The Facebook Effect, journalist David Kirkpatrick explains Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's belief in "radical transparency";that humanity would be better off if everyone was transparent and that"having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity."

Yet the website has its fair share of trolling, and Facebook has a mechanism in place for any grievance redressal. In her book, Consent of the Networked , Rebecca MacKinnon describes Facebook's "hate and harassment team" that receives up to 2 million reports from users on any given day, asking for perceived abusive and hateful posts to be taken down. And Facebook is not alone feeling the burden of policing stray comments. Last year, an American magazine, Popular Science declared that it was completing shutting off comments (as opposed to even heavily moderating them) as it believed that trolls were able to "skew a reader's perception of a story, " thereby defeating the purpose of the publication. Most websites are moving towards a signing in system for readers to create a sense of accountability they feel anonymity does not provide.

In fact, the global trend seems to be turning against online anonymity. In October 2013, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the decision of a Estonian Court, which found that a magazine, Delphi, was liable for not being able to "protect the reputation and right of others" when it failed to stem the tide of negative comments on a report of a particular company's recent move that had greatly angered Estonians. While some experts feel that the judgment was based solely on the merits of this particular case alone; that Delphi should have anticipated hate comments, others worry that judgments like these will affect citizens right to free speech . A recent judgment in Canada saw a gentlemen named Brian Burkee being awarded damages against five 'trolls' who have been identified only by their usernames - and now will be tracked down in real life by the authorities.

At the recent International Governance Forum (IGF) held in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2013, Childnet International released a survey on "Global Perspectives on Online Anonymity ." Two-thirds of those surveyed had communicated anonymously online in the past year. However, 70% believed that anonymity leads to abuse, while 53% also believed that anonymity affords people the privacy to seek help on taboo issues or contribute to conversations more freely, without fear of being judged or identified in real life. On balance,86% people felt that those who want to be anonymous online, should be able to.

The fact that is that despite its ugly avatar, online anonymity is crucial to a number of people, including journalists, whistleblowers, victims, and political activists. While not the only reason it was able to happen, but in part the Arab Spring was able to take place as activists were able to organize online without being detected and detained by authorities. As Julian Assange writes in his book, Cypherpunks: Freedom and Future of the Internet , "cryptography is the ultimate form of non-violent direct action." It is the same reason that Edward Snowden, running from the long arm of the U.S. government has been hailed as a hero by many camps - he has revealed the extent to which the National Security Agency in the U.S. monitors not only its own citizens but also others around the world. As a response to this, journalists across the spectrum are organizing workshops to learn how to use encryption services to protect their information and also their sources.

For many, especially those dubbed as 'datasexuals ' by the media -- internet users who routinely (perhaps obsessively) document their lives -- anonymity and privacy are not pressing concepts they worry about. But there are many aspects of anonymity in the 'real world', starting right from a secret ballot in democratic countries, which have been ingrained in the way we function. Anonymity, then, cannot be stripped away in the virtual world, only because it is amplified. What has happened, however,is that the initial euphoria over the goodness and the limitless potential of the internet is beginning to slow down. This is what writers like Evgeny Morozov, author of 'The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of the Internet ' and 'To Save Everything, Click Here ' warn their readers about. Morozov feels giving 'the internet' this all-encompassing quality that one cannot criticize its presumed inherent quality has proven to be dangerous. He warns that the technology of the internet must be evaluated on its individual merits, and must not lose their historical and intellectual autonomy. For example, facial recognition technology, exciting as it is on Facebook and other photo applications, was developed for defense agencies and are today being used for surveillance. In the same vein, encryption enabling projects like the Tor project cannot be hailed as completely evil because it was used by Silk Route,and nor can it be never questioned because some journalists find it is the best way to protect themselves and their sources of information.

Perhaps the best way to consider dealing with anonymity online to give pause to the story of the group Anonymous- a collection of global hackers who seemed to be hell bent on playing pranks and creating chaos for big governments and big companies. Famously, one of their pranks included taking down the Sun's front page and replacing it with a headline that Rupert Murdoch was dead, ordering unpaid pizzas to the Church of Scientology churches across North America, and less lightheartedly, even hacked the CIA. At a point, up till 2010, Anonymous seemed all-powerful and impossible to trace. They won huge support later that year when they launched a massive DDoS campaign against PayPal, Visa and Mastercard when those companies refused to accept donations for Wikileaks and Julian Assange. But three years later, many of the Anonymous hackers have been arrested. This included an autistic teenager from Essex, a 26-year-old ex-soldier from Doncaster, and a 16year old from south London who had also helped Tunisian revolutionaries overcome government internet restrictions.

Ultimately, there are those who will always find a way to use the cloak of anonymity, and those who will always work to uncover it. It might just be a tad premature to be predicting the end of anonymity in the internet age. The internet might not allow it. 

1 Kim Arora, 'Online anonymity should come with accountability.' Times of India, October 15, 2013. Available at:http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/tech/social-media/Online-anonymity-should-come-with-accountability-Manish-Tewari/articleshow/24190479.cms
2 A cypherpunk is any activist advocating widespread use of strong cryptography as a route to social and political change.

3 Nate Anderson & Cyrus Farivar, 'How the feds took down the Dread Pirates Roberts', artstechnica, October 3, 2013.Available at:http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/10/how-the-feds-took-down-the-dread-pirate-roberts/
4 Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski, 'Good for Liberty, Badfor Security? Global Civil Society and Securitization of the Internet.' Access Denied: The Practise and Policy of Global Internet Filtering. (Cambridge MITPress, 2008) Available at: http://access.opennet.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/accessdenied-chapter-6.pdf
5 David Kirkpatrick, 'The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World.' Simon and Schuster, 2011.
6 Rebecca MacKinnon, 'Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.' Basic Books, 2012
7 Suzanne LaBarre, 'Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments.'Popular Science, September 24, 2013. Available at:http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-09/why-were-shutting-our-comments
8 Liat Clarke, 'European ruling on anonymous comment liability shouldn't be universally damaging.' Wired.co.uk, October 14, 2013. Availableat:http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-10/14/european-courts-privacy-ruling
9 Keith Fraser. 'The Hunt for Cam Bakerfan begins.' The Province, September 22, 2013. Available at:http://www.theprovince.com/sports/hunt+CamBarkerfan+begins+Brian+Burke+winsjudgment+against+anonymous+online+

10 Youth IGF Project - Childnet International. 'Global perspectives on online anonymity.' October 2013. Available at:http://www.youthigfproject.com/uploads/8
11 Julian Assange, Jacob Applebaum & Andy Muller-Maguhn,'Cypherpunks: Freedom and Future of the Internet.' November 2012

12 Dominic Balsuto, 'Meet the UrbanDatasexual', bigthink.com, April, 16, 2012. Available at:http://bigthink.com/endless-innovation/meet-the-urban-datasexual
13 Evgeny Morozov, 'The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.' Public Affairs, Feburary 2012 (Reprint)
14 Evgeny Morozov, 'To Save Everything, Click Here: The Follyof Technological Solutionism.' PublicAffairs, March 2013.
15 Gabriella Coleman, 'Anonymous in Context: The Politics and Power behind the Mask.' The Centre for International Governance Innovation,Internet Governance Papers, Paper No.3, September 2013. Available at:http://www.cigionline.org/publications/2013/9/anonymous-context-politics-and-power-behind-mask