The reasons you can’t be anonymous anymore
In today’s hyper-connected world, it is becoming harder and harder for anyone to maintain their privacy. Is it time we just gave up on the idea altogether?
By Bryan Lufkin
May 29 2017
Imagine walking into a roomful of strangers. Perhaps you’ve travelled to a new city. You don’t know anyone, and no one knows you. You’re free to do anything or go anywhere or talk to anyone. How do you feel?
Perhaps you feel free of the judgment and scrutiny from acquaintances or associates. Perhaps you feel energised that you can use this opportunity to experience life on your terms, at your own speed. But whatever your feelings would be, you would at least safely assume that you can enter this isolated situation without being monitored or tracked by a far-flung company or individual – right?
Wrong. What you’re experiencing as you walk into that room is anonymity: a sociocultural phenomenon that’s afforded privacy and freedom. But in the year 2017, it’s pretty much all but dead. It’s emerging as one of the major challenges of our age: how should we go about both ensuring national security and enhancing our lives through technology, whilst also maintaining a basic right to privacy that feels like it has existed since the beginning of human history?”
The internet made us stop caring
Anonymity, which is Greek for “no name,” is a uniquely human psychological experience: it’s the idea that we all have identities to present to the world, but under certain circumstances, can switch the identity off and operate in total secrecy.
“We need a public self to navigate the social world of family, friends, peers and co-workers,” says John Suler, professor of psychology at Rider University in New Jersey, and author of The Psychology of Cyberspace. “But we also need a private self – an internal space where we can reflect on our own thoughts and feelings apart from outside influence, where we can just be with our own psyche. Our identity is formed by both. Without one or the other, our wellbeing can easily become disrupted.”
Being anonymous allows us to try new things or express ideas without being judged. In 2013, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania published a study in which they conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of internet users on four continents. One interviewee, for instance, created an anonymous online community for English learners to practise their language skills. Anonymity helped them better manage certain spheres of their lives. One participant said that he frequented message boards to help people solve technical problems, but sought to avoid unwanted commitments through the detached nature of the internet. Plus, being anonymous in an environment like the internet can help safeguard personal safety.
“Our results show that people from all walks of life had reason, at one time or another, to seek anonymity,” the researchers wrote of the 44 interviewees.
But according to a 2013 study from the Pew Research Center, while most internet users would like to remain anonymous, most don’t think it’s entirely possible. The study found that 59% of American internet users believe it is impossible to completely hide your identity online.
And while some people are taking basic steps to preserve anonymity, like deleting their browsing history, many users who say they value anonymity aren’t really walking the walk.
One could even argue it’s even detrimental not to divulge at least some info. Career coaches worldwide trumpet the professional importance of having a fleshed-out public LinkedIn photo complete with full name, headshot, full work history and more.
Perhaps this is more of a cultural thawing toward previously uptight attitudes. I remember getting on the internet for the first time. It was the 1990s and on my father’s work computer. In those days, internet service providers went to great, paranoid lengths to discourage users from divulging even basic tidbits in their public profiles, like first name, city, even gender.