Anonymity Online is Impossible – by “Logan M”

Thomas Pynchon has disappeared. He has not actually disappeared, of course, but very few photos of him have been taken in the past forty years and almost no-one, even his most devout fans, recognize him if and when they see him on the street. Pynchon has achieved an almost unfathomable level of anonymity – and we think he is insane for it.

Thomas Pynchon on the Simpsons

All media require a yielding of some information in order to transmit their data. The spoken work means that the content of our message is no longer private to the individuals involved. We take precautions against eavesdropping if we have reason to do so, but these actions themselves show that we accept this loss of privacy in return for the convenience of the spoken word. Similarly, when we communicate using the medium of the mail (physical, not electronic), we give up the privacy of the recipient of the message. Return addresses are not mandatory, but I challenge anyone to send a letter with no delivery address listed. In sending a letter we reveal to those who handle the mail as well as anyone and everyone near the delivery address that our intended recipient is being contacted. We give up the privacy of who is being contacted in return for the convenience of the postal service.

Logo for PostSecret - A Program Where People Send Letters to Frank Warren

The internet is simply another medium through which data is transmitted. However, because of how the system is designed, one must be connected to a central hub (an ISP) before one can transmit data. This connection, and the fact that the ISP routes all signals coming to and from it, means that the ISP knows everything that you do online (whether or not a specific individual at the provider does). This is the privacy that you give up when you sign onto the internet – you lose the ability to act anonymously.

There are of course programs and systems like TOR, which allow you to make anonymous your internet activities to an extent. However, this is simply another part of the ongoing arms race between ISPs and sites attempting to control information and people attempting to conceal it. When people figured out that whispering made conversations less able to be overheard, other people designed amplification devices. When people developed codes for their ideas, other people cracked those codes. TOR and other similar programs are important in that they further this progression of technology and work to set up a balance between groups of people. What they do not offer is perfection; anyone seeking perfection must avoid the system entirely.

Amish Couple

My girlfriend does not have a Facebook account. She does not use LinkedIn, Blogger, or otherwise put her information online. This does impact her life negatively because she is unable to interact with her friends using this medium, but, for her, the desire to remain private is more important than these benefits. For now, this is an understandable view, and in fact the correct action for someone who wishes to remain anonymous and private. I wonder how long it will be, though, before society moves on to the point where a virtual recluse is viewed in the same light as Thomas Pynchon – someone to be mocked on TV and called out on blogs for being, as I said earlier, insane.

Our future

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