Often confused, anonymity and privacy are undoubtedly different things. They can be combined, for them to act together for your benefit, but they are rather independent. As such, we should never criticise privacy activists for things such as speaking or acting under their true name.
Anonymity is about the goal of separating and isolating your activity from your identity, keeping them totally unrelated. When you want to remain anonymous, you want to hide your identity and remove all identifiable data from your activity, as that data would help a third person, or a third party, to trace that activity back to you. That means, for instance, to write or speak under a false identity, a pseudonym or alias, and to hide or obfuscate your location. When we go digital, anonimity means also to delete the metadata of your pictures, to obfuscate the unicity of your system’s fingerprints, to remove backgound recongisable clues and noise from your videos and podcasts, to schedule your postings so that they go online at a time you are not in front of a computer, and a large and sophysticated set of techniques and schemas.
Privacy, on the contrary, is about having control over the visibility of your data or activity. Given that someone knows a bit about you, like for example an alias, a social media handle, your name, or your face,… your privacy is about to have control over what other things about you they can know.
The Data Privacy is pretty obvious: you can be posting content, or sharing activity, under your real name and alongside your picture. You can be perfectly fine with a third person or party finding you in the various social sites you post, but not with them knowing where you posted your content from, what your personal e-mail address is, or where you live, or who your relatives are. Also, you may want to encrypt your intimate messages to your significant one, so that nobody else than you two could ever see the content, the data, you shared. You can even want to keep private the fact that you messaged them. That is to say, you may want to hide, obfuscate or obliviate the communication metadata.
None of the above privacy concerns means that you’d want to go anonymous.
Activity Privacy is about controlling who can see what you do. The full textent of its implications when the activity is done over the internet is much less obvious.
Activity Privacy is quite obvious in the real world, but rather tricky to see in its full extent, at least for the first time, in the digital realm. For example, in the real life, you may not want your clients, or your work coleagues, to know a lot about some of your personal activities: that’s easy to see. Maybe even you don’t want your neighbors to know where you work.
In the web, the activity is also extended to the mere browsing and search history activity, because they tell a lot about you and it lets third party services “tailor their content for you”. Letting third parties like Facebook or Google track what you are searching, browsing and reading across the web, is the same as having a cohort of people following you while you have a walk through the city. Imagine that your plumber, a tailor, a butcher, your parliament representatives, your barista, your accountant, etc., are waiting for you at your door and they follow you, taking notes. Just to see where you walk through. Just to try to guess you and be able to offer you a meat cut and a coffee tailored to your lifestyle, hints abot tax-deductable activities on your path, or political speech carefully aimed to whatever your cultural activities tell them about you.
The problem about the information your activity conveys, in the internet, is that the internet is almost all about information: is seeing the information you consume. And offering tailored content is nothing else than tailoring the information for you, which is dangerous if it introduces, or amplifies, a bias.
One can think that the activity privacy is achieved by going full anonymous, but that is impractical. You may be a traditional business owner that needs to work with banks, or you may work for a conventional company that requires your name, and that deposits your pay in a bank account. You may always need to identify yourself to a small number of companies or institutions.
Anonymity can also defeat the purpose of your online self, as expressing your own ideas, beliefs and ideology can’t be done behind a different identity. You’d lose your own voice. You are your absolutely fundamental representative: you have a fundamental right that consists in speaking and acting in your name. Going anonymous is losing such right.
I will be writing about resources in this blog on both aspects of our protection –anonymity and privacy.
Posted under: privacy