Privacy, secrecy, and you

We’ve all heard a hell of a lot in the media recently about our sudden lack of privacy. Comedian David Mitchell suggested on “10 O’Clock Live” that the internet has basically made spying too easy: when spies had to really work hard to cover a lot of ground, we were relatively protected from being spied on through sheer numbers (assuming you, dear reader, are not a known terrorist. I’m sure you’re not). This is no longer the case, as computers can crunch an awful lot of messages awfully quickly.

It’s a fair point.

So why do we fear being spied upon by our governments (or, perhaps, “their” governments)? And what can we do to keep our communications more private?

Well, to answer the second question first I have a radical proposal: get rid of anonymity. Yes, I know everyone is going on about how we need services which protect our anonymity but, really, do we? A greater threat to our embryonic online social scene than any foreign government is people who, feeling secure in their anonymity, behave anti-socially. And we’ve seen enough examples of just how anti-social people can get on the internet to realise that the time has come to do something about it. It’s just not acceptable to allow people to be hounded on Twitter, Facebook or anyone else by hate-filled vitriol; even death threats. We can end this quite simply: by removing anonymity.

These public services are not intended to be used anonymously. Facebook’s #1 rule under Registration and Account Security is: “You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook”. Twitter’s policy is somewhat less specific, but does clearly state that: “You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others.”

The trouble is, there is no real way for Twitter, Facebook, Google or any other provider to know for sure whether you are who you say you are. You could be using a made-up persona, or you could be impersonating someone else: either way you’re able to post anonymously.

So my radical suggestion is this: that we extend the systems we already have which give people legal identity – passports, most usually – and use them as a source for online identity. So, just like if I want to sign up for online tax returns I need to prove my identity with an official source, so too should I have to do this when I sign up to Facebook, Twitter or any of the others.

There is still scope for anonymous systems, but they serve a different purpose. Try this thought experiment. If there were two versions of Twitter, identical in every way except that one allowed anonymity and the other enforced “official” identity, which would you use? The anonymous one, because you fear government snoops? Or the regulated one? I suggest that you choose the regulated one because 1) you will know that the tweet from your favourite footballer really did come from your favourite footballer; 2) you will know that your message to your favourite footballer will be going to him; 3) you will be unlikely to receive really offensive or threatening messages because nobody wants to do time in prison; 4) your favourite footballer may actually read messages you send to him, because he won’t be using the system in send-only mode (which everyone in the public eye does, currently, much of the time, in order to avoid having to read hate-filled vitriol).

The world would be a happier place all round. Let those who wish to remain anonymous remain anonymous… but on other systems.

Does this keep our conversations more private? I’d argue yes, it does. Governments would have no need to routinely monitor messages if they knew that the proper, legal avenue – a court order – would work.

How about the other question: why do we fear being spied upon by governments? My honest view? I’m really not sure that we do. But hell, it sells papers.

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About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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