Anonymity vs. Privacy
August 23rd, 2010

A year ago I would have cared very little about the ensuing battle over “net neutrality.”  I would have been content to let the big players fight it out either in the court of public opinion or, more likely, actual court, and wait for the verdict to be handed down.  As it is, that is still what will happen (I am not even a two-bit player on the World Wide Web) but I have a dog in the fight these days.

The moment I launched this little blog such issues suddenly mattered to me (even if I didn’t realize it at the time).  This site is exactly the type of site that would not get priority treatment in the new internet landscape that is being floated.  If I care that I can easily post and you can easily read, then I want to make sure that the web facilitates that transaction.

At any rate, net neutrality is not really my point today.  Rather, in all of my observation of the coverage of the net neutrality battle, I came across this interview with Eric Scmidt, the CEO of Google.

In it, Schmidt talks about the dangers of online anonymity.  Specifically he says, “In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you.”  This freaked me out a little at first.  There are all sorts of things that I wouldn’t want made public.  What if I Google an old boyfriend?  What if I look up the procedure for declaring bankruptcy?  What if I look up the symptoms of some horrible disease?  (All of the above are hypothetical, by the way.)

Then I read Schmidt’s follow up comment: 

“Privacy is incredibly important,” he said, adding, “Privacy is not the same thing as anonymity. It’s very important that Google and everyone else respects people’s privacy. People have a right to privacy; it’s natural; it’s normal. It’s the right way to do things.”

And this commentary struck a chord with me.  As I thought about it I realized that many of us (at least myself, for sure) have long equated online anonymity with online privacy.  I can go just about anywhere on the web and unless my computer is hacked no one will ever know.  While that is a monumental comfort to many internet users who are up to no good (What, there are people online other than touchy-feely bloggers?  No.  Couldn’t be…) as Schmidt says, it’s dangerous.

There is a lot of private information about me out in the world.  It resides in places like my doctors’ offices, my HR department’s personnel files, my tax returns, even my fingerprints.  This is not data that I want made public, but it is data that I am comfortable residing in the hands of trusted keepers.  The strange thing about the internet is that we inadvertently make lots of different parties keepers of our private information.  Google.  Amazon.  Yahoo.  These major sites are some of the biggest players.  But any site where you’ve made an online purchase has data about you on file as well. 

In the pre-internet world I could walk into a bookstore and make a purchase without anyone logging that purchase into a catalog of previous purchases that is constantly evolving into a user profile designed to predict my preferences.  I still can.  But if I order my books online (more likely) I have to be comfortable with the knowledge that Amazon.com is amassing volumes of data about my shopping and purchasing habits.  They are one of my keepers now. 

While I think Eric Schmidt raised some eyebrows with his comments about online anonymity, I actually think he’s on the right track.  Online anonymity has facilitated all kinds of atrocities in the real world (look up some back episodes of Dateline if you’re curious…).  Online privacy, on the other hand, will protect those of us who are harmless yet don’t care to have our affairs made public.  The tricky part is deciding whom to make our keepers.  It’s hard to trust someone you’ve never met.  And yet we do it here in cyberspace every single day.

3 Responses to “Anonymity vs. Privacy”

  1. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    It’s true. We think we “know” people, and yet we really don’t, do we? In fact, I think I should tell you now that I’m really some hairy guy in Baltimore with a Star Wars fetish.

  2. Gale Says:

    In that case, Kitch (if that is your real name…), you should tell the sassy blonde woman from the Rockies that you’re using her entire life and family that as a front. I think she might not approve. :)

  3. Cathy Says:

    This is a big deal. Of course Schmidt wants no anonymity. This article sums it up well: http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/google-ceo-schmidt-no-anonymity-future-web:

    Schneier wrote, “Here’s the problem: The very companies whose CEOs eulogize privacy make their money by controlling vast amounts of their users’ information. Whether through targeted advertising, cross-selling or simply convincing their users to spend more time on their site and sign up their friends, more information shared in more ways, more publicly means more profits. This means these companies are motivated to continually ratchet down the privacy of their services, while at the same time pronouncing privacy erosions as inevitable and giving users the illusion of control.”

    The loss of anonymity will endanger privacy. It’s unsettling to think “governments will demand” an end to anonymous identities. Even if Schmidt is Google’s CEO, his message of anonymity as a dangerous thing is highly controversial. Google is in the business of mining and monetizing data, so isn’t that a conflict of interest? Look how much Google knows about you now.

    Google scares me. They make me remember the book 1984 and Big Brother. Keep in mind though, I use Blogger and every other Google product known to man. Go figure. It’s like AT&T of the 1970s. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.