Monday, August 14, 2006

Anonymity, identity - and privacy

Digital ID World's Eric Norlin posted an interesting piece today in which he reiterated the seemingly simply but actually quite profound "Norlin's Law": "The internet inexorably pulls information from the private domain into the public domain." As proof Eric offers: "Google your name today and google it again in 90 days (more will be known about you over time)."

That's something to remember, but I want to comment on his bigger issue in this post, which is a response to an earlier writing by David Weinberger. Weinberger, at the end of a long plea for more transparancy in the undertakings of government & business, rants:
"...personal anonymity is the default in the real world -- if you live in a large town, not only don't you know everyone you see, but you're not allowed randomly to demand ID from them -- and it ought to be the default on line. The top-down demand for strong digital ID, which sounds good on paper, is likely to flip the default to the peril of political freedom, the growth of new social forms, and the liberating sense of personal play. Transparency is a prima facie good for institutions, but we individuals are more complex than that."
Norlin's response is:
"Framing the 'online anonymity' issue in the context of being a default makes it a binary issue — a simple on/off switch; either anonymity is the default, or something else (from pseudonymity up to strongly authenticated identity) is the default. But online identity is *not* a binary issue. Identity (be it authentication, access, authorization, federation or any other component) operates on a spectrum."
And I think they both got it wrong.

If I live in a town, as Weinberger posits, then there are many people whom I know and many who know me. And those two sets are not equivalent. But that doesn't mean that all of those people - or even some of those people - know everything I do nor do I know everything they do. Privacy - which is very important - is not the same as anonymity. But it's easy to paint it as such and that's what David does. Norlin gets sucked up into this fallacious argument and the two are now off on a discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of strong identity.

But one comment to Norlin's article shows the difference:
"So what does a respected, PTA mommy do when she signs onto a chat room as "NaughtyGirl" to discuss adult things? She wants a pseudonym that won't tie back to her real identity. How does that work so she protects her fantasy life from her public reputation?"
But the "PTA mommy" isn't anonymous! Within the namespace of that chat room she is uniquely identified as "NaughtyGirl" and every thing she posts can be (one hopes) believed to originate from that digital identity. What's vitally important to her, though, is that no one who knows her as Mrs. Jones can identify her as NaughtyGirl. That digital identity, that persona remains a protected, private, aspect of her life. It's privacy we must preserve and protect. Anonymity is too often abused to be afforded the same protection.


I have added a take on the privacy debate on the my blog. Please check it out.

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