Contrary to what this celebrated (and much too overused) 1993 New Yorker cartoon might suggest, recent events have shown us that we are not as anonymous on the internet as we would like to think. On November 9th, CIA Director David Petraeus offered his resignation after the FBI uncovered details of his extramarital affair through an extensive electronic surveillance and tracking effort. In October, notorious Reddit moderator and “internet troll” Michael Brutsch (a.k.a. violentacrez) had his personal information outed by Gawker reporter Adrien Chen, causing him to be fired from his real life job as an application developer.
So what about anonymity for the rest of us on the internet? After all, we’re not CIA Directors or infamous internet sensationalists, worthy of special attention by the government or the vengeful press. Well…..
We live in a world where much of our internet activities leave a distinct digital record through which our personal identities can be compromised. Our IP Addresses are available through even the most cursory Google search of “IP Address”. Our internet service providers retain mounds of data available to law enforcement, and it’s suspected that a few might even be selling them to commercial third parties. “Web cookies” installed on any computer record private browsing histories, in many cases “personalizing” web pages based on a user’s preferences. And this is not to mention the many, many forms you’ve probably voluntarily filled out on the internet with your personal information before clicking on the “I’ve read the terms of service” box. (Are you sure you’ve actually read all this? And this? And this? And this? Just like you were supposed to?)
The fact of the matter is that if you’re a dog on today’s internet, given enough time and resources, the chances are good that they would at least suspect that you had some canine preferences.
Today, we hear of countless attempts by both private industry and government to break the veil of anonymity on the internet.
In 2010, Blizzard Entertainment (purveyors of current games such as World of Warcraft and Starcraft II) introduced Real ID, which required forum users identify themselves with their real names. In the early days of Google+, Google demanded that every user use their “real name only” on the social networking site, a Google VP describing it as akin to “like when a restaurant doesn’t allow people who aren’t wearing shirts to enter.”
In government, there are constant legislative efforts to reduce internet anonymity online in the name of everything from stopping child pornography, to reducing digital piracy, to stopping hacker attacks from the likes of Anonymous and LulzSec.
However, in the end of it all, despite all the trolls, internet anonymity remains something to be defended. The fight for internet anonymity in many ways represents the classic struggle between social control and personal freedom. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech, of the press, of association, of assembly and petition. Anonymity has been affirmed by the Supreme Court as having significant social and political value in public discourse. Recent events during the Arab Spring have vindicated the power of anonymous communication on the internet.
So… if you’re a dog on the internet and want to keep people from learning that you’re a sentient, computer using canine (probably a good idea), there are a bunch of things you can do to further protect your anonymity online.
Tools and Resources
(for the hyper-paranoid)
– Read this guy’s blog and follow everything he does. (hint: one of the steps involve getting a new Linux operating system)