Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Anonymity, Again

There's a disadvantage to having grown up with the internet: every stupid thing one said when one was thirteen is up here forever.

And, despite whatever steps one took to be less traceable: never using your real name, never posting your city, etc. there's always, always a temptation to have a linked identity. So if you use a username on Livejournal it might be tempting to use it on Deviantart and then, well, it's practically a brand, so you might use it on Etsy, too. And then you do commissions or pay someone to do a commission for you and you use your paypal, which, a lot of the time, is going to have your name attached to it, because your money needs to at some point pass through something with your name attached.

So you yourself would have attached your real name in a long roundabout way to the things you posted on Livejournal lo, these many years ago.

And that's not even bringing up Facebook. This afternoon, a friend told me she'd been being harassed by someone she met in a chat room. The harassment was happening on Facebook, but he'd blocked her after she told him she didn't appreciate the threats, so she didn't have access to his page anymore, which she kind of wanted to gather information to go to the police.

Google to the rescue! I have this guy's name and the country he lives in. I was able to, in very short order, provide a decent picture (decent as in it fits most of the guidelines for ID photos), all of the biographical information he has online (including names and pictures of his parents and sibling), and links to his Facebook profile, Formspring, and Twitter accounts. The usernames on the Formspring and Twitter were not similar to his name, but he'd input his full name into the information anyway, so this was all in the first page of Google results.

Things he did on the internet, in cyberspace (which some people, including friends of mine, sometimes consider as less real than things which happen face to face), are going to result in criminal charges for this young man.

I can almost guarantee he didn't expect this: if you block someone on Facebook, they're supposed to be gone forever! But they're not. Things which happen online are quite, quite real, and a number of us have some or all of our professional lives on the internet.

Anonymity or even approximations thereof can be detrimental to building a brand if one is trying to be a professional online. Anonymity can seem like a great bastion if one is trolling on the internet, and even the format itself can be seen as a buffer.

But anonymity is a very, very hard to attain and maintain. That's why the creator of Cryptocat is being persecuted so very hard. Anonymity is vital for political agitation and protest under an oppressive regime, but there's a natural tendency to want to slip up and have people you are speaking to acknowledge you as a person. When it's trolls who are enabling me to hunt down all their information to neatly package for the cops, this is great. When it's protesters who end up beaten and jailed for trying to change the world for the better, it is quite a bit less than great.

But the fact of the matter is that, unless one is taking extraordinary measures, you are not anonymous.

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