2007/03/19

Search Engines and Anonymity's Demise

There was a time, not so long ago, when you could hide behind a screen of anonymity. Your writings, actions, even personas could be kept separate from your public identity, but that time is past, and giant search engines like Yahoo, Google, and MSN have had a large role in the demise of online (and offline) anonymity.

Take, for example, the case of Yu Ling, a 55 year old Bejing resident whose husband Wang Xiaoning was arrested and is now serving a 10 year sentence in "...Beijing Prison No. 2...for inciting subversion with his pro-democracy Internet writings." Mr. Wang was convicted largely on evidence provided by Yahoo, his Internet Service Provider--his anonymity undermined by the very service that he thought was protecting it. Now...setting aside the tragedy of Ms. Yu's plight, I think it's naive to assume that a multi-billion dollar business like Yahoo isn't going to play ball in a multi-billion dollar market like the People's Republic. But one has to wonder about the implications of our own personal histories coming back to haunt us in odd, and sometimes detrimental, ways.

On this very blog I maintain a pseudo-anonymous persona that I don't usually let slip, but figuring out my real identity is merely a matter of executing a proper WHOIS lookup on my domain name. Sure I could do more to armor my identity, but given a few other key--and easily obtainable--pieces of information even that would be difficult. So where does this leave someone who has been relentlessly critical of nations, governments, companies, industries, and online/offline personalities? I would say: At considerable risk.

For example, I have been courted by Google for jobs on two separate occasions, but would they really want to hire me knowing that I have often published scathing critiques of their technology initiatives? And potential damage from what I would call "interconnection abuse" doesn't stop there. Consider that there are now companies that pay millions just to obtain "click-stream" data from ISPs, and although the data is considered anonymous because it contains no explicit identifiers, determining the person behind the stream is no more difficult than that WHOIS lookup I just mentioned.

So finally we get to the point: How will the inability to remain anonymous affect our lives? When literally every online action is monitored and correlated, can we count on our ability to exercise our right to speak, to work, and to travel? Or will we have to self-censor our every online action in order to keep from being made into outcasts by governments, nations, corporations, and the media? Unfortunately, the simple phrase "I was Googled," may take on a very sinister meaning in the near future.


I've been thinking about this topic for a while but want to thank Victor at Argville for inspiring me to get this posted.

38 Comments:

Utterly chilling.
I'd like to be a fly on the walls of some of these companies and take a look at thier Blacklists. Welcome back to the 1950's.
Frog, the Electronic Freedom Frontier is an organization that helps us maintain our freedoms despite the far reaching "spying" that goes on.

The "information highway" has always been a data-mining operation. As the process becomes more sophisticated and invasive, we become more at risk. I make no pretense of thinking that my "secret identity" is a secret. At some level, I want to be known publically for supporting the Constitution, for supporting human rights, for supporting the freedoms America was founded on. What it will come to is still devolving.
Anyone who places himself permanently in view of public eyes should understand what that exposure means.

If everyone in the country creates a personal blog and admits to drug use as they divulge every detail their lives, perhaps the public display will have no impact.

But anyone who thinks an employer will overlook a MySpace of FaceBook site while assessing a potential employee is delusional.
kvatch, you wrote:

"How will the inability to remain anonymous affect our lives?"

Anyone posting on the internet under his own name is no longer anonymous -- by choice.

YOu claimed:

"When literally every online action is monitored and correlated, can we count on our ability to exercise our right to speak, to work, and to travel?"

Monitored by whom? It's the difference between paying cash or using a credit card. If you want to remain anonymous, don't publish your thoughts on the internet.

You anguished:

"Or will we have to self-censor our every online action in order to keep from being made into outcasts by governments, nations, corporations, and the media?"

Don't let your paranoia run away with you. Some people might declare you a hero. Some an idiot. And some will refuse to employ you.

If you brought printed copies of your critical comments to an interview with Google, would you expect to be hired?

In essence, you're asking for protection FROM yourself, not FOR yourself.

You know how it goes. We are often our own worst enemies. The internet only magnifies and multiplies the amount of damage we can do to ourselves.

Do you think people who want to work undercover for the CIA should create Facebook of MySpace sites for themselves?

You observed:

"Unfortunately, the simple phrase "I was Googled," may take on a very sinister meaning in the near future."

Not sinister. But if you produce anything Googlable, interested observers will read it. Don't pretend you haven't Googled people you know just to see what pops up.

Next, software people will develop products that wipe away our internet presence. Someone will soon market the software that strips your name and identity from your online rants returns you to a state of relative anonymity.
I have thought of that also, but it is probably too late now. Plus, people can see my growth from angry person to depressed lunatic
no_slappz has some interesting things to say.

I have many of Kvatch's concerns about the transparency of the internet. I think I've come down on the side of using it in my personal, business and blogging life because the upside, at least for now, outweigh the downside.

That doesn't mean I can't bitch about it. Yahoo, MSN and Google's obsequious cooperation with the Chinese Government's efforts to electronically insulate its citizens is especially galling to me.

For some reason, I get a lot of hits on my blog from China (as an aside, I guess that means I have to get a bit more strident in my ACLU'ish tendencies so as to get blocked). Given that I am a very small blog in a very big internet, the math seems to indicate that there are a lot of Chinese people out there exploring what the rest of the world has to say.

I think the genie is out of the bottle when it comes to China's censorship efforts. Years ago there was the one guy on the square with a sack of groceries standing off a tank. If Yahoo, MSN and Google rediscovered their collective balls and quit censoring themselves, the Chinese Government would be left with turning off the internet switch or setting up its own sanitized portals. Both events would be met with a bunch of people holding "get a free Ipod" and "Viagra at wholesale prices" coupons in the cyber-square standing off the electronic tank.
I'm still enough of a rebel to say, F-U to those who would infringe on my rights as a citizen. I have a constitution and I don't care what Bushie says, I'm standing by it.
Shorter No_slappz, "If you speak out there will be consequences!"

Right, Herr Slappz?
Why do you think it is that every time I see a comment from No_slappz, (obviously a juvenile, as he uses the childish "z" misspellings), all I hear is Charlie Brown's teacher?
So many good comments and I can't answer them all, but here's a few:

Diva... I'm a frequent contributor to the EFF, even attended a few meetings.

Slappz

In essence, you're asking for protection FROM yourself, not FOR yourself.

Not at all. I made no such argument. I merely asked the question by pointing out that the transition of speech to a medium that builds-in the lack of anonymity--when coupled with a commerce system that encourages the discovery of one's identity--invites abuse. The plain fact is that for the first time in our history, reaching an audience depends on your owning up to what you say. The medium requires it. As you put it:

The internet only magnifies and multiplies the amount of damage we can do to ourselves.

...and that is the point. Magnifying of the consequences of free speech, or putting in place consequences where formerly there were none, is most certainly going to have an effect. In your world, this isn't a problem since there is no actor willing to abuse the tool for their own purposes. We are our own worst enemies--but the effect is the same.

But if you produce anything Googlable...

If? Nonsense. Most everything on the Internet is Googable, and this part below is nonsense as well...

...software people will develop products that wipe away our internet presence.

Never going to happen. It is in the interest of corporations like Google to ensure that this never does happen, and they are far better funded than anyone who would attempt to reintroduce anonymity back into the system.
We've been tracking all of your anti-American muckraking (which is obviously inspired by outside agitators). Your identity and location have been determined. The Ministry of Truth will be picking you up for questioning. Do not try to escape.
peacechick mary wrote:

"I'm still enough of a rebel to say, F-U to those who would infringe on my rights as a citizen. I have a constitution and I don't care what Bushie says, I'm standing by it."

peacechick, first, no one is coming after you.

Second, to which rights are you referring?

The Constitution protects you from the government in matters of free speech.

At the same time, the Constitutions gives people and organizations that have been libeled the power to counter-attack legally.

Do you know what libel is? Or slander?
frederick, you wrote:

"Shorter No_slappz, "If you speak out there will be consequences!"

Right, Herr Slappz?"

Yeah. It seems you think I control the Internet. It also appears you don't like reminders of reality.

If you publicly declare your views -- issue electronic statements that are the equivalent of permanent electronic billboards -- you've knowingly and consciously stuck your neck out.

However, you can parade your views on the internet anonymously, if you choose. But if you libel a person or organization, you can expect trouble, though you may slip away unharmed if your cover is good.

On the other hand, if you challenge a powerful opponent on the Internet, you need not worry if your statements are true. Truth is the ultimate defense in any libel suit.
kvatch, you copied and wrote:

"In essence, you're asking for protection FROM yourself, not FOR yourself...

"...Not at all. I made no such argument."

You want the freedom to carve your views into the stone of Internet storage, and you also want the power to prevent others from acting in response to your expressions. That's delusional.

YOu asked:

"I merely asked the question by pointing out that the transition of speech to a medium that builds-in the lack of anonymity--when coupled with a commerce system that encourages the discovery of one's identity--invites abuse."

I have a blog and you'll never find it. Neither will any potential employer. On the other hand, a buyer of blogs or a party interested in advertising on my blog or any other, may value the iconoclasm or uniqueness of many blogs and bloggers.

The world is changing a little. But one fact remains. Speaking freely is risky. It always has been. If you don't think so, recall all the politicians who've torpedoed their careers by sticking their feet in their mouths.
kvatch, you copied and claimed:

"...software people will develop products that wipe away our internet presence...

"...Never going to happen."

I'll take that bet.

You wrote:

"It is in the interest of corporations like Google to ensure that this never does happen, and they are far better funded than anyone who would attempt to reintroduce anonymity back into the system."

Google may have money. But if your statement were true, Exxon would be the world's only oil company, ATT would be the only phone company and GM would be the only car company.

Never in the history of this country has one company prevented the creation of another, or stifled the spread of a concept. Your scenario only works in centrally planned economies.

However, in the US, the public education system has come uncomfortably close to extinguishing its competition by controlling public funds.

Meanwhile, if millions of people are suffering from the effects of having been Googled, you can be sure "Google damage Insurance" will arrive. It's too obvious and its creators would earn too much money to count.
You want the freedom to carve your views into the stone of Internet storage, and you also want the power to prevent others from acting in response to your expressions. That's delusional.

Your opinion, stated as a fact, is still nothing more than an opinion--regardless of the number of gratuitous insults you tack on the end.

But seriously, if you really believe this tripe, then I suggest you use my words to demonstrate it. You could start by demonstrating where I said that free speech is not risky. All I pointed out, and which you appeared to agree with, is that lack of anonymity makes free speech more risky.
I'll take that bet.

Really?! What bet? I would not be so foolish as to bet on something that can never be resolved in my favor. But considering that Zero Knowledge (the 1000 lb gorilla, now gone), MEconomy, TOR, and Anonymizer, just to mention a few, have all tried and failed in that market, and with government regulation likely to make anonymization illegal, I can comfortably stand by my assertion.
To quote Carrie Bradshaw, "Can you see me?!" (ducking behind my computer)
Well, I will gladly stand behind anything I have ever said or wrote, even the dumb stuff that made no sense. My FBI file started back in the 60's, why should I run for cover now? OK, so I'm only a commenter, not a blogger, true, but that's just laziness, not craziness. I don't dare back out on the truth. I've always assumed every online action is monitored. A nation of outcasts? Is that Australia? Sign me up ~~ D.K.
d.k. raed, you wrote:

"My FBI file started back in the 60's, why should I run for cover now?"

First, how do you know the FBI maintains a file on you?

Second, if, in fact, the FBI has been tailing you over the years, the information the agents have compiled, analyzed, reviewed and prioritized isn't freely available to any old nosy party.

Third, people spilling their guts on their blogs or in comments left on the blogs of others aren't often facing troubles with the government.

The troubles start when one blowhard libels some thin-skinned complainer.

You wrote:

"OK, so I'm only a commenter...I don't dare back out on the truth."

When it comes to information on the Internet, how do you know what is true?

You, in your paranoia, stated:

"I've always assumed every online action is monitored."

But it appears only a couple of people in China and one or two other un-free states have landed in jail as a result of loose talk. Given what's written every minute on the Internet in the US, you would think the whole country should find itself locked up.

But it's not happening.
I am sure that people google you before they hire you. Luckily, I work blue collar jobs that don't care about such things, yet.
Ah Fashiongirl... not yet, but if Google gets their way, they'll be listening in on what goes on in the background.

But it's not happening.

Prove it. Narrowing the issue to simple incarceration is just a dodge that you use to avoid the larger issue.

We don't have to speculate on whether or not massive data mining operations are being abused by our government. We know that it's happening. AT&T is being sued for placing illegal data shunts on their Internet backbone relays...today! And what do you suppose the Feds do with all that data? Who knows? But I'd be willing to bet that 10 or 20 thousand people erroneously added to TSA's "no-fly" or other terrorist watch lists, didn't get there by making a rukus at the airport.
Graeme... Google me and you get a bunch of way boring crap. Google "Kvatch" and well...you know. 'Course "Kvatch" isn't what's at the top of my resume. ;-)

D.K... I'd like to say that I'd have the cojones to own up to everything I'd ever written, but the balm of anonymity certainly does make one bolder.
I've been in an FBI profile in the 60's...my boyfriend was a conscientious objector and they tailed him. I read a report he was given by the Draft Board representative (if memory serves) and some of our dates were in the report. When he picked me up at my parents home and where we went and when I returned home. It even talked about his MG sports car that he drove. I speak out about the madministration so I expect that I am monitored. In fact I'd be surprised if I were not...and rather insulted too. I also will stand with the Constitution...as long as it is left to do its intended job. I guess Mary and I will be cell-mates someday if they destroy it proper. And by they I mean the current admin. in all it's illegal glory. Great post K.
Slappy just doesn't get it.
slappy is just a little boy with delusions of adequacy.
Isn't Slappy the name of a clown? Slappy Sales? Soupy Sales' younger brother?

At any rate, we have a lot of "conveniences" that infringe on our anonymity. Internet, cell phones - hell, our business mines data on people to understand their travel preferences. We send out emails and mailings specific to what they would want in a vacation. People know how I shop - I get a lot of email about baby clothes (gramma of a two year old) as well as the latest updates from the Apple Music Store.

I think it was Lew Scannon who mentioned in a post almost a year ago that as long as we are comfortable, we will be hard pressed to change anything.
Thanks for the compliment on the post Sumo. I think in the end I'm less worried about deliberate misuse of data than "sloppy" misuse. The TSA "no-fly" list is an excellent example--no way to determine how you got on and no way to get off.

Fred, Sewmouse, Diva... I'm tickled to have No_Slappz around. Who else would write, with each comment, more words than were in the original post? I'm flattered that he (she?) lavishes so much attention on my little blog. ;-)
sumo, you wrote:

"I've been in an FBI profile in the 60's...my boyfriend was a conscientious objector and they tailed him. I read a report he was given by the Draft Board representative (if memory serves) and some of our dates were in the report. When he picked me up at my parents home and where we went and when I returned home. It even talked about his MG sports car that he drove."

More accurately, a file on HIM mentions YOU. Big difference. It appears, though, that you'd like sufficient notoriety to have an FBI file of your own.

You wrote:

"I speak out about the madministration so I expect that I am monitored."

You and 6 billion other people. Closer to home, there are certainly more than 100 million internet posters showering the current administration with criticisms and vitriol. Don't worry, they won't barge in at midnight to drag you to the gulag.

You added:

"In fact I'd be surprised if I were not...and rather insulted too."

The preceding says it all. Not only are you anonymous -- in the eyes of the current administration -- you, in that timeless female tradition, are angry you're unable to attract attention.

You declared, amid the sounds of triumphal music:

"I also will stand with the Constitution...as long as it is left to do its intended job. I guess Mary and I will be cell-mates someday if they destroy it proper."

Better get yourselves arrested, sent to Guantanamo and subjected to a kangaroo court soon. The current administration is clocking out in less than two years.
kvatch, you wrote:

"You could start by demonstrating where I said that free speech is not risky."

Based on your comments and those of others here, it's obvious there's little understanding of "free speech" here.

The Constitutional protection for "free speech" means the government will not censor private citizens.

So far, the government has held up its end of the bargain.

The issue of how private industry uses information you have freely contributed to the public forum falls into another category. Here you travel at your own risk, and you always have.

The heart of the First Amendment and "free speech" has no connection to your internet eruptions and effulgence.

Now, however, your own ability to expose yourself and bring unwanted attention to yourself has been leveraged a million-fold by one of the most equalizing forces humans have ever enjoyed -- the internet.


As I said, you're looking for a one-way street. You want the right to tear into whatever disturbs you in life, while remaining free of any responses to your outpourings.

But such a state never existed and never will. Preventative medicine suggests that one needs only to keep one's hands off the keyboard to maintain the good health of one's reputation.


On the other hand, we could revert to the primitive state. But the only way to resume it is to destroy the presses and kill the educated -- or install a dictatorship.

You closed:

"All I pointed out, and which you appeared to agree with, is that lack of anonymity makes free speech more risky."

Once again, "free speech" isn't what's been discussed.
Once again, shorter Slizaps: "Ya better shut your trap if you know what's good for ya, see..."

Why don't you get back to filing SLAPP lawsuits for your Corporate overloards.
frederick, you wrote:

"Once again, shorter Slizaps: "Ya better shut your trap if you know what's good for ya, see..."

"...Why don't you get back to filing SLAPP lawsuits for your Corporate overloards."

frederick, have you ever been sued for libel? Been the defendant in a defamation suit? I'm sure the answer is "no."

I've had that unpleasant experience. Moreover, I know what it means to fight back through the courts. I doubt you do.
"Moreover, I know what it means to fight back through the courts. I doubt you do."

And that makes you special, how? I wonder how a nice person like you could have ever been mistaken for the type to run their mouths to the point where someone just couldn't take it anymore and hauled your ass into court.

BZZZ!
frederick, you wrote:

"And that makes you special, how?"

Not special. Just experienced. At this point, you're all talk, no experience.

You gassed on:

"I wonder how a nice person like you could have ever been mistaken for the type to run their mouths to the point where someone just couldn't take it anymore and hauled your ass into court."

Ahh. Based on the preceding, it appears you approve of the idea of a corporation using its financial advantage to bludgeon a critic.

You're a hypocrite, too.
Not special. Just experienced. At this point, you're all talk, no experience.

Based on the sheer number of words you've lavished on this topic, I think we've got a pretty good idea of who's "all talk".
He's giving Hitchens a run for his money alright.
kvatch,

Wal-Mart has been the setting for a high-stakes firing. Two top executives were booted because Wal-Mart said they were having an affair while both were married to other people. The two denied the charges.

But the estranged wife of Sean Womack, who worked for Julie Roehm (the other woman) supplied Wal-Mart with their e-mails.

Toast.

As Cardinal Richlieu wisely said, Never write a letter, and never destroy one.

Both Sean and Julie knew the rules when they were hired. It's not that violating the rules was a capital offense. It's just that they did themselves in. For them, cell phones probably would have been a better communication medium.

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