Privacy and anonymity are two different concepts. They are both increasingly necessary as we get increasingly wiretapped and tracked, legally so or not, and it’s important to understand why they are an integral part of our civil liberties – why they are not just beneficial to the individual, but absolutely critical to a free society.
Privacy is the ability to keep some things to yourself, regardless of their impact to society. To take a trivial example, I lock the door when I go to the men’s room – not because I’m doing something criminal or plotting to overthrow the government in the men’s room, but simply because I want to keep the activity there to myself.
Research shows that it goes beyond a want and is a deep need – in all societies through history, people have created private spaces for themselves. Even in the most oppressive regimes, people have found a way to do something, something little, outside of prying eyes. This is rather telling.
When somebody says that only criminals have something to hide, they are plain wrong, as evidenced by this observation. Nobody would dream of making a keyboard for people with three arms, based on the simple fact that people don’t have three arms. Yet, some surveillance hawks and cohorts are pushing for a society for people with no need for privacy – despite the fact that such people do not exist.
So privacy is a concept describing activities that you keep entirely to yourself, or to a limited group of people.
In contrast, anonymity is when you want people to see what you do, just not that it’s you doing it. The typical example would be if you want to blow the whistle on abuse of power or other forms of crime in your organization without risking career and social standing in that group, which is why we typically have strong laws that protect sources of the free press. You could also post such data anonymously online through a VPN, the TOR anonymizing network, or both. This is the analog equivalent of the anonymous tip-off letter, which has been seen as a staple diet in our checks and balances.
It’s obvious that these concepts – privacy and anonymity – are beneficial for the individual. But more importantly, it is in society’s interest overall that every individual have these benefits. There is not just an individual benefit, but a collective benefit.
We’ve discussed a bit about the benefit of anonymity already – without anonymity in society, we’ve essentially lost the ability to keep our government in check. Simple as that. (Unless you want to pull a Snowden and flee halfway across the planet, but most people probably don’t want to do that.)
The benefit and necessity of privacy are a bit more… hidden under the surface, and has to do with the fundamentals of democracy. In a democratic nation, we elect people to govern the country, including the full capacity to apply to force to individual citizens. Then, after a term of n years, we hold them accountable to their performance and re-evaluate whether they are fit to run the country or not.
If these leaders with the full capacity of a country’s force had the ability to look into voters’ homes, hearts, and minds, they would be able to hold voters accountable for their thinking and opinions, rather than the other way around. It becomes a complete 180-degree reversal of power. This is why privacy for the citizens and transparency for the government is paramount in a democratic society. And indeed, every society that has had it the other way around – transparent citizens and opaque government – have been, shall we say, low-satisfaction societies.
But anonymity isn’t just important to blow the whistle on scandals. It can have profound catalyzing effects in developing society, in particular when breaking taboos or forwarding forbidden causes that were later vindicated.
For example, the events that led up to the formation of the United States centered early on something known as the Federalist Papers – documents and pamphlets nailed to trees throughout the then-British colony, documents advocating secession from England, independence, and a United States of America.
At the time, advocating such opinions publicly was high treason, not just punishable by death, but by a particularly gruesome type of death. It’s not hard to see why the Federalist Papers were posted anonymously.
Thus, to illustrate the importance of anonymity not just to the individual but to society overall, the United States would not exist as a country if anonymity had not existed at the time preceding the Declaration of Independence.
Therefore, both privacy and anonymity – although different – are essential to a democratic society, not just to the individuals, but to society overall.
As an end note, it could be argued that nobody is really anonymous, but pseudonymous – that is, everybody has a name of some sort, even if it is one that cannot be connected to their common name. If you’re uploading evidence of a government scandal under the nickname “Scarlet Whistleblower”, are you really anonymous, or did you just create yourself a new name for this specific purpose? Arguably, the latter.
This can be seen as a philosophical issue with little real-world impact, and today, it is. However, the teenagers growing up today are used to changing names online more frequently than underwear, and I predict the values around something as basic as a name can change dramatically over the next few generations.