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Anonymity - what do we know about it?

White fence with black sign and black star on itThe idea of anonymity can't surprise anyone who has ever used social networks, left comments on forums, made purchases online, or read articles. Even more — it can't surprise people who have never used computers or don't surf the internet daily.

All of this happens for a simple reason: we knew anonymity in a more simple form centuries ago — starting from the private property of the 17th century, the right to privacy of the 19th century, and later on. The US right to privacy was also described as the right to be left alone — it's how we perceive anonymity today in the broad sense.

Anonymity — a state of being unidentified in any process of possession, transfer, or creation of information. The identity can't be disclosed to anyone except the person who owns this identity or represents it. That's what distinguishes anonymity from confidentiality. But is it this clear?


Law is not on your side


Almost always, if we are talking about an ad hoc local law regarding anonymity (and later it will be clear why). A specific order can give a hint: there are our interests, the interests of the social group we belong to, and the interests of the government. 

In general, the individual right to anonymity is recognized worldwide and is protected by international agreements, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDP). Anonymity serves as an opportunity to express your thoughts freely without possible bullying, harassment, discrimination, and any human rights violation. Also, it prevents the unauthorized use of personal information which leads to fraud, identity theft, and manipulation of opinions. People can say or publish things they would never reveal under any other conditions: fear of retaliation usually prevents them from acting.

The importance of anonymous communication is impossible to deny; therefore, some recommendations for observing the freedom of speech were created and implemented in different countries. And yet, the internet and offline spaces don't offer many opportunities for anonymous posting. Why is it so?


Right and Wrong


Man in black hoodie with question mark instead of face using computer in dark roomWhat can't be controlled can be dangerous — that's precisely the case of anonymity. The message or action which has no author and has harmful intentions means that no one will be brought to justice. Defamation, discrimination, illegal trade, organization of terroristic attacks: when it happens online, whom to blame? The government has a choice 'in-between' where the obligation to identify yourself restricts freedom of speech, but the absence of surveillance leads to numerous cases of uncontrolled and unpredicted behaviour. 

The creation of a complex system that combines anonymous options and processes of identification is a complicated task. Complicated enough that today there is no country with a variety of anonymity options and a thorough attitude to privacy. Therefore, the amounts of data collected on each Internet user or citizen, in general, are tremendous and can be used without people's concern.

To join the majority of online and offline communities, you need to identify yourself and agree to the terms of services. Otherwise, you will not be able to participate in the life of the community you've chosen — legislative limitations force an individual to make exchange personal information for certain benefits.

Anonymity is still perceived as a sign of possible danger that should be controlled all over the world (despite the recommendations of international committees regarding it). The only difference in the approach of different countries is in the forms of limitations they require. While France controls import, export, and connected operations with equipment for encryption, China forbids users to share any information without identifying themselves. The same happened to the apps, which prevented users from being tracked — Chinese citizens had to say goodbye to many VPN apps in 2017.


Tor — on the guard of everything


Everyone who has ever wanted to stay untracked or get access to essential information sooner or later discovered Tor. An anonymous browser with multi-layer encryption is the first tool you can find looking for safe ways to surf the internet. Leaving the technology of Tor behind, we are more interested in its users: who are they?

Green code falling down on black background

Some statistics: top-5 countries by users of Tor are Russia, the United States, Germany, Indonesia, and France. Up to 20% of Tor users are from Russia, and more than 18% from the US — unexpected results if we remember that the former country is not free, but the latter provides freedom of speech (according to the Freedom House 2019 results). It seems like people continue to use anonymous platforms regardless of declared rights they do or don't have — simply because they want the opportunity to choose to reveal themselves or not.

More clear is the situation with countries in which Tor is officially banned: 60% of indirect Tor users are from Iran. Often anonymous services are the only opportunity to inform people about the emergency, ask for help and get it. What is the real power of Tor and how it changes lives, you can check here — Stephanie Ann Whited explained why we shouldn't confuse Tor with the platform for illegal activity (or even the dark web).


Anonymous whistleblowing 


We've finally come to the final point of the story about anonymity: anonymous whistleblowing. Revealing the identity of people who reported crime can be dangerous: informers risk their careers, reputation, and often lives. The importance of victim protection is recognized more evidently than general protection of anonymity. The anonymous option for whistleblowers was officially introduced in the EU Directive of 2019, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) accepts and processes anonymous reports in the US, Corporations Act in Australia also allows anonymity since July 2019 —  more and more countries join the 'anonymity movement'. 

Empty hall of administrative building with empty seats and table in centre

The tendency to protect the option of anonymity at least in some spheres of daily life shows that it's a necessity: without informants, valuable information on tax evasion, human trafficking, and security breaches would never be disclosed. Problems arise when the right to be anonymous is violated: not only as a censorship measurement but as a new interpretation of the law which existed before. Doesn't make any sense, but a recent American example explained it. A high-profile case of the informant who blew the whistle on Donald Trump posed a threat to other anonymous whistleblowers.

In the ongoing investigation, there is a serious demand from Republicans to the whistleblower: this person as an original accuser should appear in court. Even the opportunity to talk about the disclosure of a whistleblower's identity points to the vulnerability of legal protection for anonymous informants. The more significant issue is ignorance: the importance of anonymity hasn't been widely discussed, and the law regarding it is ambiguous and weak. When the identity is disclosed, neither anonymity nor confidentiality has value.


In defence of anonymity


We strongly believe that anonymous services brought more good than evil to our lives — international agreements only confirm that this belief is reasonable. Even though there is no hope to implement anonymous options for everyone in the nearest future, we should raise our personal awareness of the connection between security and anonymity.

Popular misconceptions are the key to a mostly negative perception of anonymity in our society. Let's think of the following: social surveys show that more people stick to the idea that identity police reduce the rate of hate speeches and bullying online. It doesn't work as planned, because we have an example of real life: people may commit a crime and don't hide their identity, they discriminate against and harass a number of witnesses. Crime will always be a crime, anonymity or not. Anonymity is about many things: private space, possession of personal information, access to vital resources, and protection of human rights. And yes, sometimes about crime.

Living in the age of technology, don't forget to protect yourself — there are a bunch of methods that keep your information secure and ensure your fundamental right to privacy.