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The Importance of Anonymity


The Importance of Anonymity[edit]

Introduction[edit]

On 16 December 1966, the UN General Assembly ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 17 states: [1]

1. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.

2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

As the reader is probably aware, modern nation states are eroding our freedoms at an accelerated rate. The privacy of all global citizens is being grossly invaded with an extensive, mass surveillance network which has contributed to repressive activities (see this report from Privacy International). Untold billions are under the constant scrutiny of domestic authoritative regimes and law enforcement; the hallmark features of a police state.

Unless precautions are taken, the Internet Service Provider and global surveillance systems like ECHELON and PRISM can record everything done online: what the user reads, writes, and with whom they communicate. Only the ill-informed continue to believe this is a conspiracy theory, see this report from the European Parliament.

The Clearnet Risk[edit]

Tracking and Profiling[edit]

Intimate tracking and profiling of the majority of Internet users is possible, because all messages and data that are sent contain the IP addresses of both the sender and receiver. Only a small minority consistently use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), the Tor network, I2P and other tools in an attempt to disguise their network traffic.

A suitable analogy for the "clearnet" risk is ordinary mail sent through the postal system which contains addresses of both the sender and receiver for two-way communication. IP addresses can be easily traced back to the physical location of the computers and their owners, ultimately identifying specific users. Moreover, just like with a postcard, any information traveling on the Internet can be read by the many computers that relay them.

Notably, tracking and profiling is conducted by both government (see below) and corporate entities, with cooperation becoming the norm. For instance, government has engaged the services of ISPs to fine-tune their collection efforts over decades. By either stealing from, legally compelling, or colluding with corporate data harvesters such as ISPs, Facebook, Google and Amazon, far more detailed dossiers have been compiled on every internet-connected individual. Showing utter contempt for the public, authorities have allowed surveillance capitalism to flourish in pursuance of their goals.

Government Interference[edit]

Tracking and profiling are not the only clearnet risks. In oppressive states, government actors frequently disrupt access to information sources that pose a reputational risk or which expose malfeasance - Wikileaks is a classic example falling into this category. Similarly, unbiased Internet resources and forums may be routinely censored, with users redirected to sites that constitute disinformation when viewed through an objective lens.

One obvious government goal is to convince the populace of a preferred reality [2] so the formation of an adversarial mindset is hindered. Specific techniques include Internet filtering (including "search bubbling"), shadow banning, active propaganda efforts and mood manipulation. If successful, control is exerted over the population without expending significant effort; resorting to traditionally violent and repressive measures is not required.

By defining permissible thoughts and actions amidst widespread surveillance, an early warning system exists for dissent or seditious acts. The efficiency of propaganda is monitored in real time, as well as the communications of all citizens. This enables 'dangerous' individuals or groups to be repressed before a critical mass unites in opposition to existing political structures, policies, laws, agencies or abuses. The strength of the government response is generally proportionate to the predicted threat; sometimes only token reforms of the system are necessary to appease people, or the firing of petty officials subject to complaints. [3]

If deliberate plans of action are discovered, government can sabotage efforts before they materialize into a movement. For instance, agents may infiltrate groups and cause disunity, or forge messages between members to cause infighting and arguments. On a macro-level, similar techniques are applied to prevent alliances that would compete for influence or resources. Ultimately, authoritarian states will not hesitate to locate and assassinate people who pose a realistic threat to the regime. [4]

Privacy as an Inherent Right[edit]

Human beings have a fundamental need for private spaces to communicate their innermost thoughts, feelings, fears and desires. When their private sanctums are threatened by the prospect of unceasing and omnipresent surveillance by government and private entities, the effects are malign. Free speech and expression is chilled, distrust in authorities is heightened, and independent thought counter to the prevailing wisdom is suppressed via self-censorship.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that surveillance has molded the behavior of entire populations. Without the consent or foreknowledge of the public, an electronic form of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon has been rapidly constructed over the past few decades. Today's Internet user is like an inmate in a prison, where unseen guards could be watching at any time. Over time, subtle changes occur in behavior as a consequence of the "observer effect"; a new method of social control: [5]

The most insidious threat that expansive surveillance poses reaches even earlier into the lifecycle of dissent. For a thought to be birthed in a Miltonian sense, it must first be conceived, and here pervasive surveillance has a contraceptive effect. Those watched change not only their behavior; they change their thinking, too, so that they do not even conceive the thoughts that would become their “intellectual offspring.” This is what Neil Richards calls the “normalizing gaze of surveillance,” and it is perhaps analogous to the “observer effect” in physics. Unobserved, a citizen’s thoughts - like particles - follow their own path. But the more closely watched they become, the more their possible paths are determined by the very act of observation.

Many readers would challenge this assertion with the retort, "Nothing to hide, nothing to fear." Unfortunately, with almost everyone having a skeleton in their closet, this argument seems glib. Security and encryption expert Bruce Schneier may give the unconcerned reader some further cause for doubt: [6]

The most common retort against privacy advocates -- by those in favor of ID checks, cameras, databases, data mining and other wholesale surveillance measures -- is this line: "If you aren't doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?"

Some clever answers: "If I'm not doing anything wrong, then you have no cause to watch me." "Because the government gets to define what's wrong, and they keep changing the definition." "Because you might do something wrong with my information." My problem with quips like these -- as right as they are -- is that they accept the premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong. It's not. Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect.

Two proverbs say it best: Quis custodiet custodes ipsos? ("Who watches the watchers?") and "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Edward Snowden shares a very similar view to Schneier: [7]

“Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

Other rebuttals to this argument are possible: [8] [9] [10] [11]

  • Most people have something personal they wish to conceal, irrespective of its legality.
  • There is no compelling argument that all laws should be built around the efficiency of law enforcement as the over-riding factor.
  • It is strongly contested that any and all civil rights should be sacrificed upon the altar of "national security", particularly without the consent of the governed.
  • Privacy is not synonymous with secrecy, that is, hiding "bad things".
  • There are many things to fear from a nation state that willingly collects, processes, and disseminates information on the entire populace. Information is power, and a deadly weapon in the hands of tyrants.
  • The social value of privacy is the right to not participate in the collective life; the freedom to shut out the community. That is destroyed by mass surveillance.
  • Vote unseen, the construction of Orwellian systems that profile complete populations is anti-democratic. The information gathered has unknown uses, is secret and never revealed, prone to abuse, impervious to access, and unable to be corrected.
  • It is not evident that sacrificing privacy has led to increased safety; the root cause of modern asymmetrical warfare is a reaction to government policies, not the result of an inadequate state security apparatus.
  • Over time, the rules change, but once ephemeral conversations and idle thoughts have now become permanent records.
  • What is used today in the "War on Terrorism" ™ could be a tool tomorrow to repress any groups who arouse the ire of government.
  • Individuals do not personally determine if they have something to fear; today's automated, passive surveillance systems do that for them. The rule book is yet to be published.
  • It is the duty of every citizen to defy unjust laws. Throughout history, the mass defiance of unfair, prejudiced or illegitimate laws was a critical factor for society to progress. Mass surveillance threatens to snuff out movements before they are even born.
  • It is not necessary for me to justify the right to privacy, but rather it is incumbent on the government to justify its intrusion into my personal domain.
  • Rights are not something to be traded away as part of some twisted cost-benefit analysis or consequentialist argument.
  • The fact that a person has something to hide is still insufficient to justify full-take surveillance of the entire populace. [12]

Conclusion[edit]

In general, ubiquitous surveillance has proven ineffective in mitigating 'national security' threats. Despite failing its core objective, governments worldwide insist on expanding the scale and duration of these measures. By doing so, the true intent is revealed: suspicionless, warrantless profiling and tracking of all citizens, and the elimination of domestic 'threats' to the existing power structure.

A host of societal costs are ignored in this blatant power grab: [13]

  • Broken political systems.
  • Unaccountable and secret government actions.
  • Surveillance outside of legally sanctioned limits.
  • Erosion of trust in commercial computer products, services and systems.
  • The loss of liberty.
  • Self-censorship.
  • The embedding of systems which are prone to abuse.
  • Attacks on innocent users relying on anonymity software.

Ultimately, a political rather than a technical solution may be the only viable approach. That is, stemming the tide of abuses and upholding individual rights might first require the formation of a representative democracy which truly respects the views of its constituents. Unfortunately, the slow pace of political reforms means the only interim defense is strong anonymity measures that help to protect against both government and corporate spying in the modern age.

Further Reading[edit]

The Tor Project has prepared a page Who uses Tor in case the reader is interested.

Further reading on that topic:

Reasons to Stay Anonymous[edit]

A few examples:

Harassment on the border:

Other reasons:

  • Staying out of the press with a real name.
  • Separating private, professional and project-related activities.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CCPR.aspx
  2. Modern history students will note this usually includes notions of supreme governance, the infallible nature of the leadership, supposed threats posed by external actors or foreign nations, and the catastrophic risks of changing the political status quo.
  3. The People's Republic of China (PRC) is a typical example. Pro/anti-regime speech is tolerated so long as it does not call for street demonstrations.
  4. If committed recklessly, the killing of activists or agitators can spark mass movements if most assess there is nothing left to lose.
  5. https://www.yalelawjournal.org/forum/why-rely-on-the-fourth-amendment-to-do-the-work-of-the-first
  6. https://www.schneier.com/essays/archives/2006/05/the_eternal_value_of.html
  7. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/7308507-arguing-that-you-don-t-care-about-the-right-to-privacy
  8. http://scholarship.law.gwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1159&context=faculty_publications
  9. https://falkvinge.net/2012/07/19/debunking-the-dangerous-nothing-to-hide-nothing-to-fear/
  10. https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110524/00084614407/privacy-is-not-secrecy-debunking-if-youve-got-nothing-to-hide-argument.shtml
  11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/nothing_to_hide_argument
  12. A recent example is the insistence of government that back-doors be made available in popular encrypted applications like Signal and WhatsApp for "security" purposes. By falsely claiming a handful of dangerous suspects cannot be adequately monitored -- despite IC disclosures already evidencing a multitude of tools which can easily break into all end-points -- the true passive surveillance intent is revealed.
  13. https://www.schneier.com/essays/archives/2014/01/how_the_nsa_threaten.html

License[edit]

Whonix ™ Anonymity wiki page Copyright (C) Amnesia <amnesia at boum dot org>
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