Sunday, 5 March 2017

The real threat of online anonymity isn't Russian hacking - part one


Do you understand the infrastructure that is necessary to cause people to disavow something they know with total clarity, just to keep the money flowing? That’s the privacy debate.

The history of the internet since the rise of Google has been less about using the new technology to effect change in society than it has been about replicating the social control structures that exist offline.

For authorities, online anonymity is most displeasing. The Russians might have hacked the Democratic National Convention and released various emails, or it might have been a person pretending to be a Russian. No one can know, and that lack of knowing directly manifests as a lack of power. People in power hate it when they aren’t in control.

And for many people, plugging in gives them some privacy, a micro-break from shared reality, under the rhetorical cover of "connecting with others." Anonymity allows them to think and do things that in the real world are unavailable.

But in a recent essay by George Friedman, publisher of Geopolitical Futures, former founder of Stratfor (and someone I have a lot of time for), we can see how propaganda doesn't try to get you to believe something, but to do something.


First, a bit of background: In 2013, 5 million Stratfor emails and documents were released by hackers associated with the Anonymous cyber-activist group. I know, because I received some interesting goodies from them as an apology. Whenever he's asked about who reads his material, Dr Friedman often says he’s a “nobody” and nowhere near power in Washington. Yet some of Stratfor’s major clients were shown to be US government agencies and influential corporates.

The documents show his writings are being read by important people, and while it’s impossible to tell if they influence policy, I think it’s safe to say they reflect the thoughts of Washington. So when he took a shot at the Russia hacking debacle, I had to pay attention:

"The first principle has to be to make masks illegal on the internet. Many countries and US states have laws against wearing masks in public. In the US, many of these laws were passed to stop the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, knowing that only anonymity and a large crowd made its members brave. But other countries passed similar laws on the reasonable assumption that someone hiding his face is up to no good. In the end, it came down to this: If you want to be in public, you must show your face. You have a right to privacy in your home and on your property. You don’t have a right to privacy when you choose to go into public spaces."

Notice his subtle shift from “privacy exists in the home” which no one would have an issue with, to “online is the public space.” Don’t think I didn’t see it. His position really, truly is that online anonymity is a bad thing, unless it's used responsibly, then it's a good thing. Using a weird, atemporal logic he asserts that if people can use anonymity online, therefore the online space is public. But his thinking is backwards.

Listen, I know there’s a big push for safety online. And while that’s a legitimate concern, one should pause to ask why, when people have been invading online privacy since the days of Frogger, the moment the Russians get involved suddenly banning online anonymity is a moral stance so that you can be safe. No one else finds this suspicious?

But before you rush to download as many anti-viruses as possible, you should contemplate the difference between what should be done about online anonymity and why it appears something should be done.


If his article was in Time, I wouldn’t worry because the demographic of Time readers aren’t going to be CEOs of anything, as evidenced by the fact they read Time. But important people read Dr Friedman. He goes on:

“Anonymity has another effect. On the village commons, everyone knows who you are and you are held responsible for what you say. On the global commons, you cannot be held responsible for what you say, because your identity is masked. The internet was created to function that way, less on purpose than by technical default. The consequence is that the most powerful human emotions, shame and the desire to be well thought of, don’t restrain what you say.”

Dr Friedman’s argument is nothing new, and it hasn’t aged well. It was the same with online pornography. Any movement to monitor, limit or restrict internet pornography should be seen as an attack on internet anonymity generally, and specifically an attack on the ability of a person to hide what they look at and what they publish.

This is an important point because a significant percentage, if not an outright majority, of porn on the web is amateur – regular people posting videos of themselves as they do on YouTube. Internet porn is a two-way street. And besides, if nearly everyone looks at online porn, then what does it mean if one person does? It means nothing.


The same argument was also deployed for France’s 2010 decision to ban the Islamic face veil. Paris’ rationale was to protect women from being forced to cover their faces and to uphold France’s secular values. The controversy made strange bedfellows of former political enemies.

But the real story was never about women’s rights, minority rights, anti-terrorism or French culture. It was a story about the Panopticon and the French government’s desire to set up thousands of new security cameras in Paris.

Paris now has 2.8 cameras for every 10,000 citizens (compared to one camera for every 11 people in London). The burqa ban was about making those cameras worthwhile. But there is a critical contradiction between security cameras watching people on the street, and a person’s desire to cover their face.

The point of security cameras and abolishing anonymity is not about constantly watching the public. It’s about making the public constantly think it may be watched. It introduces the power of the State into the minds of people on the street, to make them internalise the State’s voice. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault wrote:

“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action…power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so…The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.”

Security cameras do not merely see, they also project power back onto you. When you think you are being watched, the presence of the watcher is felt locally and its power over you is felt acutely. They eliminate the interstitial spaces and moments where authority is believed to be absent.

The real threat of anonymity is invisibility. Not only is the veiled person invisible to the camera, but the power projected by a surveillance camera is rendered invisible to the person veiled.


If someone were planning a crime, the existence of a camera would in no way deter. It would simply alter the manner in which the crime is committed, the person choosing to conduct the crime indoors, in a restroom, or in a parked car rather than on a street corner. People still rob banks and convenience stores even though everyone knows those places have cameras.

Furthermore, if a person plans to commit a crime in public they will probably choose to wear a mask because of the cameras. In other words, the ban on anonymity fails if its motivation is to deter crime. A criminal was already planning to break a much more serious law anyway.

I don’t personally feel oppressed by the visible power of the State, but what if someone does feel oppressed? Do we simply label them paranoid and ignore their opinion? Or would we ignore the person’s opinion because it contradicts ours, and then scramble to find a label to apply to them so the threatening opinion can be safely marginalised?

If I want to walk around the streets in a hockey mask, I should be able to. But Dr Friedman’s point about the internet being a “public space” runs orthogonal to this desire for exposure:

“The promise that the internet would create a democratic commons where all can be heard and the media loses the right to censor has been achieved. Censors and accountability no longer exist. Twitter is the place where malicious people with time on their hands can tell lies.”

But consider that if you’re being punished for wearing a particular type of clothing or saying certain things, it isn’t really a “public” space at all.

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