Is Anonymity Important Online?

There are many discussions across the world about using the internet and how it should be policed.  Many of the less democratic countries already have rather sweeping digital laws allowing content to be blocked, services closed down and users arrested.  These laws usually are phrased rather vaguely, using excuses like national interest or public safety.  They’re usually designed to be broad enough to cover whichever situation the authorities require without sounding unduly restrictive.  The reality is that in many countries the 140 characters of a Tweet is enough to get you hefty prison sentences.

People seek anonymity for different reasons depending on their location.  Of course in countries like Iran, China and lots of Far Eastern  you have to be very careful what  you say online, if you criticise leaders that can be enough to get you locked away for a very long time.  In 2015 a Thai man ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ a Facebook photograph which was critical of the Thai Royal family, he’s currently awaiting trial and faces 32 years in jail.  Needless to say Thailand is a country where you should be very careful about what you do online particularly if it involves the royal family.

In other more democratic and arguably civilized countries there are somewhat different concerns about privacy online.  You are unlikely to get arrested for being critical of Western leaders online, however don’t assume that your comments are not being monitored.  Most of the advanced countries, particularly in places like the US and UK, online activity is extensively logged.   In the UK legislation is being passed to legitimize this behaviour but it’s fairly certain to assume it’s already being going on for many years prior to this.

Much of the problems about privacy relate to the fact that it’s so easy to monitor people online.  The internet is simply not designed for privacy, it uses insecure clear text protocols like HTTP and email, whilst distributing our connections through a mesh of hardware owned by all sorts of people and corporations.   If you have access to a network hardware in a telecommunications company then there’s little you can’t access with the right resources.  Of course, the morality of this can be quite unclear but there are other areas where legality can be used as a perfectly justifiable excuse.

For example download a Bit Torrent client, join a swarm to download a pirated copy of the latest blockbuster movie and in your screen you’ll instantly see a page full of IP addresses of people illegally downloading copyrighted material.  It’s not hidden, not hard to find and only one step away from turning that into a list of names and addresses.   The people who use these programs are mostly unaware that they are not downloading torrents anonymously, in fact they’re doing it whilst actively broadcasting their identities.

The important factor to remember whatever you’re doing online, wherever you are and irrespective of who you are – you are probably being monitored to some extent.  Whether it’s merely being sucked up by one of the UK security services huge data trawls or more specifically by a media company seeking damages for copyright infringements – it could be happening.

John Herrod

Technology Author and Consultant

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