[SYMPOSIUM] Online Anonymity: Right or Threat? at @lboroCRCC #CRCC2017

Simone Natale kicked off with The New Yorker published a cartoon in 1993 – “no one knows you’re a dog”, with the idea that the online makes it easy to hide your ID. Timandra Harkness indicated that is an updated version – zoom out and we can see the surveillance cameras giving ALL the data – the tech is already there.

John Downey from Loughborough’s Centre for Research in Communications and Culture highlighted what they were seeking to achieve with the interdisciplinary centre, focusing on empirical questions and normative questions: “what world should be like”.

Timandra Harkness (Website)

Kicked off with the first full session (Radio 4, author of Big Data: Does Size Matter?), Research Fellow at University of Winchester.

  • The aggregation of data gives us much new data.
  • Life choices are expected to be free from things that violate our secrecy and anonymity.
  • Secrecy and privacy are terms that are often used interchangeably – but privacy is more socially accepted than secrecy as a ‘good thing’.
  • See Tiffany Jenkins BBC series re secrecy – e.g. pregnancy don’t want to share yet! Secrets are part of our identity.
    • Have an internal self that is just ‘you’.
    • Sharing own secrets and keeping other’s secrets is vital to building trust, etc
    • Want to keep own thoughts away from public scrutiny.
    • Want spaces for private discussions – frank & open – without assuming going to be shared anywhere
    • Anonymous shares with a wider public space – can share more widely without suffering the consequences?
      • Others say should be able to suffer consequences, what about e.g. right of reply?
    • Trump’s new immigration policy, to look at social media. Has led to Tamandra questioning what she is posting. Her job involved putting ideas into public debate, but what are the possible consequences?
      • What happens if give ‘a position’ power, then elect/get taken over by someone different. It’s hard to get powers back once given away.
    • There’s a long history of putting ideas into public forum (e.g. pamphlets), but a lot of sharing is about choice who to share/when.
    • Anon Twitter accounts, (cheeseboard), national parks (was it really them or someone else who thought NP should keep tweeting).
      • Friend journalist. can one of you contact us anonymously? Why should we trust this account… A broker between anon and the public…
    • Big Data: Does Size Matter looks at the possibilities of the technology, including the story of Oakland (US) – which formed plans to triangulate data related to its citizens, but didn’t have any privacy policies. After debates – legal and otherwise – has led to scaling back on hardware and software in use and a very active citizen working group, and influenced thinking on policy elsewhere – and has implications for American 4th amendment
      • Big data can be useful, e.g. for finding lost children, etc so legislation for what purposes can be used, who can, how long data stored, etc. is under discussion.
    • Questions for a privacy commission. The DAC – tracks numbers faces etc – but also aggregates data. It puts together seemingly innocent bits of data, and starts profiling people. There’s a positive strength offering new insight from collated data, but there’s also a big danger.
      • See e.g. Open data re taxi rides in New York… Can tell a lot. For example – put together with photos of celebrities getting in and work out where got out, what they paid, etc., and can ID Muslims because of times they stop (for prayer), etc.
    • Privacy activists argue that we don’t relinquish the right to privacy once we leave private spaces, especially when the online is a hybrid public/private space, so that right should extend there. There are essentially debates about what trade offs are acceptable – e.g. safety from bombs, otherwise want accountability for reasons why breaching privacy.


  • We’re often providing data that we’re unaware we’re giving. We used to know when you’re giving data, now new tech is appearing all the time. Example: Glasgow, using intelligent lights that dim when no one around. Now turns out that have microphones/cameras, which has generated negative debate. Police say can use the data if the ID fits, etc.
  • Think about what data your phone is giving away e.g. as it constantly searches for wifi signal, giving quite accurate locational data (many people turn this function off)
  • Facebook says “our rules – take it or leave it?” We should ask questions – what do they do with our data for advertising, etc. Where is that doundary between private/public? Facebook is a bit like Canary Wharf = owned by a group so behaviour can be managed/directed by private organisations. Even public spaces are subject to council rules, such as ‘no handing out of leaflets’, ‘no ball games’, etc.
    • If social networks are becoming the new public arenas for interaction – shouldn’t the public have option to see how these are developed/data used = transparency?
  • There is no 100% private space (unless Usenet?), but social expectations highlight what is acceptable/not acceptable
  • We need to think about social rights – e.g. others posting pictures of you.
  • Secrecy needs others to support you, but with anonymity can choose (if the technology will let you- famous studies- Sweeney) e.g. 20 people per postcode so small fragments of data could pull together and identify a very small group, if not individuals.
  • Trump offers an opportunity to focus , an opportunity for self censoring … (History of that?), manage public discourse .. Easy to find (name). People have done this easily – now we know/ are more aware
  • Privacy/info rights not well understood. Does privacy offer space to develop a character before go into world, whilst anonymity protects you once out in world / freedom from oppression (only useful in public) why e.g. have secret ballot. There are public as well as private benefits – things are changing?
  • Anonymity can raise the tone of public debate, not just lower it as trolling gives it a reputation for…
  • The changing public discourse – fuss when Oyster cards were first released – but the default now is to store and collect data indefinitely ‘just because’. Yes, could have anon oyster and top up with cash, but phone/electoral rolls/CCTV/pattern of use means could easily identify someone if determined. If do one anon thing & then combines with other, all puts cracks in the anonymity.
  • A few years ago were policies about whether people had right to look through social media for employment – has anyone legitimised this kinds of surveillance? And where is this going?
    • Has had to get used to having different aspects of life in one space- liked to keep slightly-separate personas e.g. for home/work.
    • New policies e.g. Companies giving workers fitBits is a form of surveillance.
  • Google has new software that can unpixelate faces, etc – we need to speak up now…
  • Are the big headlines like AI taking our jobs hiding other debates that we should be more aware of?
    • Sentencing ‘informed’ by AI, if judge ignores – has to live with consequences if makes different choice.
    • Places where strip out key data but leaves enough to identify
    • Can’t appeal against an AI – hand over decision and no feedback loop (Weapons of Maths Destruction)
    • Is a movement – now companies are having to start explaining their algorithms.

Tim Jordan (Sussex University)

  • Starts by seeking to define anonymity.
  • Using Snowden and Chelsea manning as case studies, not because there is anything particularly new from them, but because they exemplify the new normal.
    • Snowden – especially re ubiquitous surveillance. He chose to own his leaks not remain anonymous – to be responsible for what put out in the world. He didn’t want to extend the ‘architecture of oppression’.
    • Chelsea Manning not so much about the content, but the way went about it – via Wikileaks where intention is to sever links between content provider and content… Laptop indicates may not have intended to be anon, but was until mentioned to someone else informed security services, etc
  • Communication theory is often collapsed into wider discussions of culture. Sometimes we need to think about comms alone.
    • Think about how meaning can be transferred – how e.g. this session becomes a ‘known’ shape of session
  • Compared online/offline comms
    • Letters (1800s) = tactile in a way that emails aren’t. Describes what seems obvious: eg paid per page, stabilise the shape by knowing that has start/end etc… The content of communications indicates specific knowledge at other end… (Letters taking several months)
    • Compared to online gaming comms,… (note the ‘double body’ – react to each other – avatar/human body) – all can be spoofed, etc – we read style of email for identity markers – identify if phishing…
  • We live with different sets of communicative practices …
  • Within online communicative practices no one is ever anonymous … Forms of identity allows to be heard indifferent contexts.
  • 4chan attempt to troll people… Liberal use of the Term ‘fags’ – part of their challenge as to what is offensive…
  • Anonymity needs to be rethought in the context – not in relation to responsibility and security but about multiple forms of identity generation – works off your style – will read against identity markers.
  • Identity= different in different online contexts …
    • False ID online re about them able to present a convincing style..
    • Doesn’t mean a right to create any ID online ..
    • Facebook strong shape online re authenticity, but then get context collapse … Less acute on other platforms.
  • Online/offline= abstracts – we live in contexts … We move in/out- need to understand dynamics of power in contexts …


  • Why not compare email and letters =more comparative? Wanted intensity of context.
  • Question of digital proficiency – ‘easy’ to hide self if know how to… Who can learn this?
  • Facebook – queries about whether activists should be online … (Think before you post) but e.g. Facebook for Egypt was seen as safe in Arab Spring in way may not be now… More repressive regime.
  • Think about e.g. our devices and how they are built – they are broken, basic Internet protocol is broken because of identifiable ness… Some is changing awareness.. Was built to be incredibly open – TOR only real successful example… Also an arms race against govt as well as private. Is optimistic that with the expertise to use other people’s hardware = somewhat of an equalizer.
  • More intimacy and bonds … E.g. Disability communities?
  • Self – gaming, etc maybe it has a space in context no one knows who really are … Whereas social platforms break down and have more access to life. Think about affordances, structures, etc of the social space. Copy ideas from each other… Has positive ideas for digital, but not that of first wave of internet scholars…

Judith Aldridge (University of Manchester)

  • Researches drug crypto markets – consider harms/benefits of vendors and purchasers.
    • Questions of morality – how others and drug dealers view their own activities.
    • Should crypto markets be a push to rethink moral issues about e.g. regulation – lack of regulation assumes harm.
    • Regulation theory – not just top down enforcement from state, but all actions that steer the markets, including actors and structures.
  • Drug crypto markets v like Amazon/eBay, look at quality, price and delivery – key is FEEDBACK!
    • How do you know you’ll get your products? Use escrow service & Bitcoin … See buyer has paid, receive, happy with it, money is released…
    • Discussion forums manage conflict/adjudicate… All on Tor which gives some protection… Share strategies to reduce risk of arrest, risk of being ripped off.
    • In crypto-space regulatory practices exist in place of trust… Is it enough? Seems not.
    • Analysed 600 listings and discussion forums. Research took place before police operations … Key difference online/offline – stretched over time/space + extra handlers … Rather than quick f2f – create new locations of risk.
  • See profiling of suspect packages … Vendors used advice to avoid raising red flags… Fake names were a risk, not a benefit, although anon online.
  • Online/offline .. Blurred.. Drugs are not virtual … Sellers/buyers= offline.
  • Were safer online – 4% not 12% re law enforcement issues, but typically online= higher rip off risks.
  • Who’s excited by this research – academics, policymakers, the media, etc?
  • What about the purity of drugs?
    • If a dud offline= difficult to change dealers, online = to find a new dealer = easier.
    • Users not always best judge of purity – need forensic evidence …
  • Does more access mean more use? May be like a kid in candy store first, but otherwise not really … Would think that if the risks lower = price lower – but typically doesn’t – down to risk of loss, plus better purity, etc
  • People don’t like to think about it but there are positives – online cannabis and ecstasy most sold – social interaction, pain relief, etc
  • Moral – is drug taking an individual moral failing – do vendors think so?
    • Discourse analysis of online forum …
    • Are they rationalising what they know to be wrong, or truly believe?
    • Is selling drugs good because anti state? Anarchy-capitalism.
    • Are they sub cultural or becoming mainstream?
    • Effect – speed up innovation… Already seeing… Will they still share knowledge now know law enforcement looking and lose crowd sourced payoff ..


  • Tor, market = easy compared to bitcoin, which removes those with lower digital literacy.
  • Easier to trace buyers rather than sellers .. 2/3 arrests online are buyers.
  • Currency fluctuations a bigger issue…


Nikos Sotirakopoulos

  • Online/offline .. Call of transparency re children/old … So can see not being mis treated.
  • Foucault – panopticon. Tried having a bin that would take photo each time put content in bin … Who wins throwing least away … Students thought recycling more important than privacy, despite reading panopticon… Privacy/transparency- the Oprah Winfrey effect?
  • Now even see people tweeting about own death – an event to be shared.
  • Celebrity- we want to know everything… Pay, political view, etc. If don’t disclose = something fishy!
  • Approach to privacy = self righteous… I want to e.g. watch porn in private, but want to know about everyone else, and maybe for the state to intervene.. The personal is political – gone too far? Personal is then public? What should be imposed on us?

Wendy Grossman

  • Political statements can be private?
  • What are our perceptions of anonymous and trolls (in popular deptictions) – over time – and now – what does that say about what we think ..
  • Open rights – talk about e.g. teenagers trying out gay identity In safety. Who are the whistle blowers? Who maintains anon, who doesn’t?
  • Flaming is as old as the Internet, bad behaviour blamed on the Internet, etc (Pew Research) – quite often (in Compuserve she moderated) – people you know – beyond10k online community does not scale well … Human moderation is what makes online communications work …
  • People think they don’t care about privacy(young people- privacy paradox) – their threat level is compared to parents … What they wants to hide is different — purchasing vibrator/fan – more likely to buy vibrator online.
  • Been online with ‘might hire me’ mindset …think will behaviour have consequences elsewhere – the Benidorm Syndrome – never see those people again …
  • Usenet – used to put home address till started writing about Scientoology.
  • Employers don’t want workers to be anonymous.
  • The Well – oldest online community- used to use credit card to join – experimented with anonymous users – want privacy for selves but not others – the transparency policy.

Russell Lock

  • Scrabble – endless fun with strangers, doesn’t give data/chat. Queried whether wife’s webcam secure … Covered with hat.. (She was naked)
  • Are we not sabotaging our own anonymity… We share thousands of tweets – the tech has improved for data mining … Can’t take that data back .. ‘Damage’ already done. We can self censure from now on…
  • Can secure future of anon for future generations… Enjoyable/highly addictive – going to live with consequences of that… Govt – said lie on every website except govt sites = won’t work
  • We give away holiday /food/politics – if change habits now =will draw attention to ourselves.
    • John – is a threat/right – but we haven’t realised its gone.
    • Wendy – What’s your threat model? Improve tech to manage… More worried about Tesco can give targeted marketing.
    • NIikos -does that not mean I get good deals…
    • Wendy – why not go to corner store – he knows – smaller scale … So can he get?
    • Nikos – doesn’t see as invasion… What kind of assumptions have they made about you… Based On your previous knowledge? Implied contract – do we understand it?
    • rue anonymity- 3rd party happening behind – we have no access to challenge it …
  • Once out (mistaken) can’t take it back … Wendy – e.g. early forums … Weren’t searchable, then archived, Google now owns that data.
  • Russell – just about the angle we hit the iceberg, WE ARE going to hit it…
  • Wendy – depends on your threat model – who is person afraid of being identified by – e.g. specialist groups can probably find one… Should we have the right not to be networked?
  • Nikos – only thing that has changed is scale – could have one negative moment follow you forever…
  • Do the goal posts stay the same though? E.g. tweets about Trump – on understanding American free speech … Now that seems to have changed .. What policies can manage this?
  • A lot more difficult to find … Google will find all the data you’ve ever shared re AI … In last anonymous in context without a pseudonym?
  • Will the NHS ever take your Tesco data and refuse your knee opp because you bought pizza too frequently? Is politics being reduced to marketing? Just because you can leverage the data, doesn’t mean we should/through legal – but might be circumvented…
  • Nikos – the threat is not the technology, but the decisions behind it, etc – learning element to it … Small number understand what machine learning is, but it manages part of their everyday lives..
  • Provenance of information going to be key- could go both ways… Is the dystopian picture being shared helpful?
  • People worried about their digital lives – who does anything about it? When comes to paying people are not- people are saying with their actions that they’re prepared to make that trade … Think most are informed about this…
  • Consider also the utopian view … Looking at data and help improve experience / give benefits … Do people know what is ‘the bad’, and where’s the positives?
  • Architecture of universal surveillance… If someone encrypts 🙁 it’s there, but says Tim – we give individual info, govt, etc collect/correlated diff ways, aggregation has a choice behind it.
    • Ethics and political principles – know that information is available to us to use also …,e.g. open govt info.
    • Can access data without degradation… Data = enhanced experiences possible?
  • Tech has always changed the way the world worked – Russell – and it will continue to change the life experience – doesn’t believe as dystopian … Media when first aggregation problem hits headlines!!
  • In historical terms, internet still v new … At some point we reach peak advertising… Dystopia – see The Handmaid’s Tale … Slaves by power of internet/gender – who’s in charge?
  • Has been as issue since beginning … EU used to complain re AOL CDs – better at traffic analysis than content – so a target…

Sorry if any of it doesn’t make sense, I’ve tidied it up roughly, but notes were taken on iPad, which I think is now getting a little old!  Header Image – source.