Online Anonymity

Posted on 13. January 2014

by Stephan Kool

stephan-kool-modified6 Months have passed since Mrs. Merkels remarks about the ‘Neuland’ internet. As far as we can tell, the excessive spying by the NSA and other intelligence agency has been going on unchanged ever since. The most recent news is that the European parliament has just agreed on receiving a testimony from Edward Snowden.1

I am continuously annoyed by the slow speed by which representatives, national and European, handle what is most probably the worst infringement on article 12 of the human rights declaration ever. The monitoring of all internet traffic and the possibility to enter every computer made by a major US company is in my opinion at least an arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence, things western democracies have pledged to protect their people from by signing the human rights declaration.

It is a relief that the right to forget is on the agenda, but only debating this slightly misses the point. But first, I allow me to endorse the principle of online anonymity.

The short version is that online anonymity makes your computer invisible and thus protects your privacy.

The longer and more complex version must include that online anonymity tools such as TOR have been criticized a lot over the past months. The reason it has been criticized is because it has been used, and is probably still used, to participate in illegal activities such as distributing child pornography, selling drugs and hitman services.2 Online anonymity tools are popular amongst criminals because their online activities cannot be traced back to their computer. But there is more to online anonymity than just criminal activities.

Many government agencies use these tools as well because criminals use obfuscating techniques to hide their activities. When a computer from a government agency tries to approach a website with suspected illegal content, the website changes its content into e.g. kittens. Online anonymity enables the FBI, the Internet Watch Foundation and others to visit the illegal websites without identifying themselves as governmental operatives, like undercover operations.3

Concerning the specific case of TOR, journalists, Arab uprising activists and whistleblowers use it to either circumvent government censorship or to remain hidden from political persecution. A Syrian woman went as far as to personally thank the creators of TOR for her safetybecause these people made her able to safely communicate with her family.4

The Right to be forgotten is not an alternative to online anonymity. It would probably state that after a specific period of time (e.g. 5 years) personal data should be deleted. Yet the principle of forgetting logically succeeds the collecting, remembering and optional use of information. If not supported by other laws, the right to forget might become the right to collect data and use it against someone the previously defined period of 5 years after which it must be deleted. The right to forget may strengthen privacy protection through online anonymity in case anything is accidentally leaked, but it does not replace privacy regulations.

Getting back to the NSA revelations and concluding: If government institutions are not able to protect human rights people should empower themselves by becoming anonymous online without being suspected of criminal activities. The promise by western democracies to give the right of privacy to their citizens should be held. The right to forget can be a nice addition, but no replacement.

Footnotes

For more on TOR and online anonymity, check the website torproject.org or watch the 30c3 video talk below:

  1. http://www.europeanvoice.com/article/2014/january/meps-to-vote-on-snowden-testimony/79203.aspx
  2. http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-10/09/silk-road-guide
  3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJNxbpbHA-I [00:03:06 – 00:04:35]
  4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJNxbpbHA-I [00:07:20 – 00:08:00]