Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Value of Anonymity

This semester, I have been teaching a class titled "Privacy in a Networked World." The class explores the evolving expectation of privacy with regard to the Internet, in addition to areas where the right to privacy and freedom of speech come into conflict. On a related note, one of my research interests lately has been the enforcement of copyright/intellectual property laws vis-à-vis digital content - DMCA, etc. These two areas of study recently intersected for me as I was doing research on how copyright-enforcement entities frequently flirt with violating the privacy of their "suspects."

I began reading about Bit Torrent (a protocol for sharing files, sometimes copyrighted), with which, believe it or not, I have no firsthand experience. In the process, I read a post at Lifehacker about preserving anonymity online using Internet proxy servers. Apparently, the RIAA, MPAA, and other copyright-enforcement cartels actively monitor torrent users to locate their next victims. Given this, it's reasonable to assume that, if these entities track our activities online (thereby violating our privacy), there are others (governmental, commercial [think targeted ads], etc.) doing the same. So, the question becomes, can we preserve privacy online or do we give it up and accept the fact that "privacy is dead" and "get over it?"

First, in order to ward off any "if you've got nothing to hide..." arguments, let's take a step back and consider the value of privacy and anonymity online. Consider journalists in countries with staunch commitments to censorship - China, Iran, etc. These countries frequently intimidate and incarcerate (or worse) their political dissidents, usually for nothing more than what we would consider exercising basic, American First-Amendment rights. If disclosing the actual events that led to the Tiananmen Square incident could earn a Chinese journalist almost a decade in prison, there needs to be some kind of mechanism to ensure anonymity, and therefore freedom of information dissemination, online.

It’s certainly true that there are numerous tales of anonymity protecting free speech, like those of the Chinese journalist and the obvious example of Twitter’s role in protests of the Iranian elections. However, it’s important to also consider the right to privacy itself and what it is meant to prevent: a person being judged out of context. For example, if one has an interest in the Manhattan Project, he should be able to pursue his curiosity without his search queries for “atomic bomb” being construed to mean that he is attempting to build one. One mustn’t do much work to find cases of clandestine subpoenas from the Department of Justice seeking the identities of all visitors to a particular website.

In my opinion, while I see privacy online as a waning right in this era of DMCA and the Patriot Act, there are some actions we can take to prevent privacy violations from occurring – in addition to supporting the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation in fighting injustices. Over the next couple of posts, I will outline some ways we can preserve anonymity and limit the privacy violations that have become commonplace.

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