Posted by: Taylor Hoff | June 9, 2010

Absolute Anonymity Isn’t Practical

Law #9: Absolute anonymity isn’t practical, in real life or on the Web

All human interaction involves exchanging data of some kind. If someone weaves enough of that data together, they can identify you. Think about all the information that a person can glean in just a short conversation with you. In one glance, they can gauge your height, weight, and approximate age. Your accent will probably tell them what country you’re from, and may even tell them what region of the country. If you talk about anything other than the weather, you’ll probably tell them something about your family, your interests, where you live, and what you do for a living. It doesn’t take long for someone to collect enough information to figure out who you are. If you crave absolute anonymity, your best bet is to live in a cave and shun all human contact.

The same thing is true of the Internet. If you visit a website, the owner can, if he’s sufficiently motivated, find out who you are. After all, the ones and zeroes that make up the Web session have to be able to find their way to the right place, and that place is your computer. There are a lot of measures you can take to disguise the bits, and the more of them you use, the more thoroughly the bits will be disguised. For instance, you could use network address translation to mask your actual IP address, subscribe to an anonymizing service that launders the bits by relaying them from one end of the ether to the other, use a different ISP account for different purposes, surf certain sites only from public kiosks, and so on. All of these make it more difficult to determine who you are, but none of them make it impossible. Do you know for certain who operates the anonymizing service? Maybe it’s the same person who owns the website you just visited! Or what about that innocuous website you visited yesterday, that offered to mail you a free $10 off coupon? Maybe the owner is willing to share information with other website owners. If so, the second website owner may be able to correlate the information from the two sites and determine who you are.

Does this mean that privacy on the Web is a lost cause? Not at all. What it means is that the best way to protect your privacy on the Internet is the same as the way you protect your privacy in normal life—through your behavior. Read the privacy statements on the websites you visit, and only do business with ones whose practices you agree with. If you’re worried about cookies, disable them. Most importantly, avoid indiscriminate Web surfing—recognize that just as most cities have a bad side of town that’s best avoided, the Internet does too. But if it’s complete and total anonymity you want, better start looking for that cave.

Words of truth for my fellow members of the facebook generation. Sometimes opting-out equates to loss of functionality. Therein lies the rub: What functionality can we lose and still be content? I wager that (as in all things), there is a happy medium between only having three random pictures and no interests, and everyone scoping your backyard from space. The extremes become so tempting in today’s black/white world. Tell everyone everything, or live in a cave. I choose the happy medium: My favorite movie is 28 Days Later. What’s yours?

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