Would Doing Away With Anonymity Make the Internet Safer?
With the recent controversy surrounding Kaspersky software , some people have been bringing up Eugene Kaspersky’s views on privacy. You might think that the owner of an antivirus company would be big on anonymity.
But Kaspersky, in fact, thinks that a reduction in anonymity would be good for the internet. It’s not a commonly held viewpoint. And it’s quite controversial. But is Kaspersky onto something? Would reducing internet privacy increase our security?
There are a number of issues at stake here. Let’s take a look at them one at a time.
What Kaspersky Is Really Pushing For
To be clear, Kaspersky isn’t saying that we should eliminate all anonymity. He’s saying that there should be certain parts of the internet where you need a “passport” that’s linked to your real-world identity. Right now, you can log into almost any site with just your email address and a password.
And while we usually trust that the person who has this information is, in fact, the person they claim to be, this can easily be subverted. In many cases, that’s not a huge deal. Someone signing into your Facebook account is annoying, but probably not damaging on a long-term scale.
If they get into your bank account, a travel booking agency, or a government website, however, that might not be the case. They could do serious damage and get you into a lot of trouble. Those are the kinds of sites that Kaspersky wants to protect with an online identity linked to your real identity.
Kaspersky isn’t the only person who’s spoken out about this idea. You might be surprised to find out, though, that the U.S. government has given it a great deal of thought.
In fact, back in 2015, the Department of Defense stated rather bluntly that they wanted to reduce online anonymity. That wasn’t the first time they’d talked about it either.
Academics, governmental organizations, security enthusiasts, and others have pledged their support for some sort of universal identification. Unfortunately, a few governments known for their surveillance and oppressiveness have also started putting these systems into place .
Why Anonymity Is Dangerous
Okay, so it’s not widely popular. But the fact that there are people who support the idea means it’s worth talking about. And, of course, there are a lot of people out there fighting for increased anonymity. Let me play devil’s advocate here.
Anonymity Enables the Worst of the Internet
I think most people will agree with me when I say that there are some terrible people on the internet. Minorities face a huge amount of harassment every day. Death threats, rape threats, cyberbullying, doxxing, and other abusive online behaviors abound, especially in places where anonymity is guaranteed (like Reddit and 4chan).
These types of behaviors have cost people their jobs, made them seek treatment for PTSD, and ruined their lives in other ways. And anonymity makes all of these things possible.
If someone knows that a forum moderator will be able to report them to the police for hate speech or a death threat, they’re going to think twice about whether they should type the comment they’re thinking about.
Anonymity Reduces Security
In some cases, the fact that our internet identities aren’t connected to our real-life identities makes it more difficult to secure our sensitive data. Bank accounts, online payment services, government websites, credit monitoring bureaus , and even email providers hold a great deal of sensitive information.
And if someone is able to get into those sites posing as you, they could cause a whole lot of trouble. The fact that there’s no way to tell if it’s actually you opens that data up to potential mayhem.
Intra-governmental applications would also gain a great deal of security from real identification. The computers that support our military and infrastructure should be as secure as possible. Even biometrically secure. There are certainly some people who are pushing for limited-use universal identification in situations like these.
Anonymity Makes Social Networking Dangerous
Social networks are great. They let you stay in touch with the people you care about, and they help you make strong connections with people. But what if the person you’re building a connection to isn’t who they say they are?
That’s how dating-site scams , social engineering, and other internet dangers arise. There are plenty of stories about kidnappings, identity thefts, and serious deceptions on social media. Some of them involve kids.
And all of that is made possible by anonymity. Some people go years thinking that the person they’re talking to on Facebook or a dating site is someone they can trust. And when the let-down comes, it comes hard. There can be serious repercussions.
Anonymity Provides Protection
Despite all of these dangers, anonymity is a cornerstone of the modern internet. Why? Because it provides a lot of protection for people who need it. Let’s take a look at some of these groups and why we should keep protecting them.
Anonymity Protects Vulnerable Populations
In many parts of the world, standing up for human rights can be dangerous. People routinely lose their lives because they campaign against injustice perpetrated by governments or paramilitary groups.
Anonymity lets these people, and the journalists who tell their stories, get the word out without fear of recrimination.
Few people would be willing to take the risk of sharing these stories without the protection of anonymity. And if we want to continue hearing about what’s going on in these places, we need to protect the people who are speaking out.
Anonymity Protects Access to Information
We like to think of the internet as a bastion of free access to information. There isn’t much you can’t find on the internet. But some countries severely restrict what their citizens can access.
Anonymizing technologies like virtual private networks (VPNs) give those people access to information that might otherwise be blocked. They could use VPNs to access journalism that’s critical of the government, for example. Or to find out if the information on national news networks is actually true.
Losing access to VPNs and other anonymizing tools would be bad news for people seeking the truth.
Anonymity Lets People Express Unpopular Opinions
You don’t have to look to third-world dictatorships to see people afraid of speaking out, though. Political discussions get especially heated, and facing a backlash from people who know your real name isn’t an enticing prospect.
Not only that, but many people are nervous about real-world consequences if they express their opinion. They could be bullied, fired, harassed, or targeted for violence. Being able to post anonymously lets people discuss fraught topics.
That open discussion is necessary to expose people to other viewpoints, inform others about topics they’re not familiar with, and all sorts of other admirable goals. And doing so anonymously helps people do it without fear of recrimination.
Should the Internet Stay Anonymous?
You’ll find few people who believe that anonymity should be curtailed on the internet. But looking at the pros and cons above, you can see why it’s a difficult issue.
And most people who support the reduction of anonymity say that it should only apply to certain parts of the internet. The ones where stakes are especially high. After doing a lot of reading on both sides, I can see the benefits of this arrangement.
Of course, there aren’t any signs that this is going to happen in the near future. But it’s something we need to keep in mind. If we’re going to continue to interact anonymously, we need to make sure we’re doing it responsibly, ethically, and safely.
Do you think certain parts of the internet should be de-anonymized? Or should everyone always be completely anonymous? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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