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To be or not to be: anonymity online

July 14, 2017

Perhaps it is a symptom of my generation, but I have never been especially fussed by government surveillance. A friend of mine summed it up when he said bemusedly, in response to the Snowden ‘revelations’:

“I’ve always just assumed they’re spying on us.”

He’s not paranoid. He just doesn’t give a damn. He and I are both unconcerned by it all, to a degree that people of a certain age and political lean simply can’t understand. Our basic thinking is that, because neither of us are terrorists, we haven’t an awful lot to worry about.

If that seems naive, it’s important to remember that just because such things can change at any moment, that doesn’t mean they do, or ever actually will. It is possible to react prematurely to threats, when they are barely on the horizon. This is what the masses often do.

Arguably, it is more ridiculous to live your life under the assumption that everything will explode in a big apocalyptic fireball than it is to put one finger in your ear and assume that everything is fine and dandy – and, if ever it stops being so, this fact will be fairly obvious, fairly quickly.

Or perhaps we arrogant youth overrate our intelligence and skills of observation.

It seems as though the closer you are in time to the Holocaust, the more likely you are to think that mere inaction, and the “meh” attitude of Youths Today, can suddenly and automatically lead to the genocide of six million people without anyone noticing until it’s too late.

The Holocaust was actually a little more complicated than that; someone had to be prejudiced, first. That’s a maggot of human thought which we’re working on deconstructing, albeit slowly.

There’s a reason why citing Hitler and the holocaust in every political point has become the stuff of eye-rolling; it’s because assuming the absolute worst in response to everything is the sign of an underdeveloped mind. Pessimism isn’t realism, any more than optimism is. By necessity of definition, it’s in the middle.

That said, the line between apathy and paranoia is drawn sketchily in this day and age. Our technical lack of know-how compared to the rate of change leaves the vast majority of us out of the loop, and leads many of us to see the automation and mass-encroachment of certain systems as inherently insidious, as opposed to mostly useful.

People worry about surveillance as if the concept on its own is startling, as opposed to its application. But you know, I’ve read Ninteen Eighty-Four. It’s very unrealistic. Orwell, and the delightful creators of Black Mirror (or other similarly dark fiction) have a dim view of the average human, it seems. All the technology in the world can’t make us all pure evil to the core.

As such, I have been blasé to the entire concept. Cameras in the bathroom? Who cares? GCHQ won’t watch me shit, because it’s not interesting to them. And what’s to be embarrassed about anyway? Everyone does it. You’re the weirdo if you want to stream pictures of it. I’m not that fussed. It’s just waste. I don’t want to see it – other than that, go crazy. Jerk off for all I care.

After all, I’ve grown up with increasing numbers of video cameras, on buses and trains, and in the street. As far as I’m aware they change very little, except to make me feel slightly better when a local ne’er-do-well gets on my carriage. I glance nervously at the camera like “Are you watching this? You’d better be watching this,” as if there are live pixies in the camera itself, as opposed to a bored man in a booth somewhere, watching playback on police behest.

It’s well-established that the feeling of being observed makes you behave better. That’s why increases in observation make me feel better, not usually worse. I think it comes down to something simple: who do you trust less, the government, or regular people on the street? Experience tells me that, in this country, it’s the shady bloke on the corner you’ve got to watch out for, not the flamboyant gesticulators in the House of Commons.

Really, what is the worst they do, in terms of inherent evil? They try to improve the world and they fail because they have bad ideas. Compare that to the hundreds of people who put cats in wheelie bins for a laugh and sell hard drugs to children for cold heard cash, and you might agree that this threatening institution we call The Government isn’t so bad after all. If running through a field of wheat seems bad enough to mention, maybe we’re not so unsafe.

On the other hand…

That being observed makes for a better-behaved society is all very well, as long as the behaviour you wish to keep private is actually bad behaviour. I could launch immediately into Communism and its various problems, but let’s keep it close to the ground. There’s a more common situation in which observation can make us feel trapped, and it has to do with regular society again, not the government.

Unfortunately, sometimes the paranoia of society is infectious, and it affects freedom of speech. With all the shaming and the finger pointing built into the discourse of the modern age, the naturally curious – or people who want to do good in this world – are sometimes too self-conscious to act on some of those natural and harmless impulses.

I, for example, want to educate myself, to better understand the issues of our day, but have frequently thought twice about Googling anything to do with paedophiles and terrorists. When taking the plunge, I have always quite painstakingly tried my hardest to sound like an innocent bystander – which shouldn’t be difficult, since I am.

Yet I still end up feeling as though at any moment, SWAT teams will rappel dramatically down my wall, waving massive guns with mounted spotlights in my face and accusing me of running some kind of cartel – all for being unknowingly associated with some other bugger they’ve had their eye on for a while.

A perception not helped by films, plus the fact that this sort of thing actually does happen, albeit rarely in democracies. I bet people whose job it is to do high profile investigations are insulted by the notion that they charge in with guns ablazing, when actually they mainly sneak in, armed with years of covert intelligence.

Rational or irrational, it’s amazing how you don’t see your behaviour for what it is until faced with the freedom to change it. I recently downloaded Tor, the anonymous web browser, out of curiosity. I noticed immediately that the lingering feeling of being watched still hung over me, entrenched in my psyche.

I cannot confirm, and have to simply trust, that my browsing is now private. Yet, simply because it is supposed to be, I am suddenly conscious of the mild stress of Googling in the modern age, knowing that everything you do is tracked. Rather than assuming I’m in treacherous waters and stoically swimming on, as I do on the surface web, I’ve been doing the more evidently exhausting thing of perpetually asking “Is it safe now? Am I out?”

How many perfectly innocent requests for information have I not keyed into Google, because I have an image in my head of such a potentially incriminating thing being used out of context? Like perhaps when I inexplicably find myself in court for a trumped up charge used to silence my great truths, or something (hey, everyone has streaks of paranoia).

I mean, I am a journalist by training. One day I might actually do something meaningful with that. And if, alternatively, I was someone nefarious who wanted to silence journalists, my first port of call would be blackmailing or discrediting them, using private data I lifted from their digi-life.

The endless logging of our most idle thoughts and inner souls makes that too easy, given that any given person occasionally says something that might be dodgy in some places to some people sometimes; and now, for better or worse, that entire process goes online.

There are many types of political activism and many types of politics to be vilified. In today’s culture, it seems all too easy to interpret as “hate speech” things which are meant as hypothetical questions, or playing devil’s advocate in the interests of fairness, reason or philosophy. That used to be much more acceptable than it is now.

If you became a media circus for any reason – or if you’re the great scandal-faucet that is being-a-celebrity – all this would suddenly matter so much more. All the things that you had the good sense to keep private in your everyday life could become public knowledge, if someone – like, perhaps ironically, Wikileaks – decided it should be.

One thing humans don’t seem to have quite evolved out of yet is a good old fashioned witch hunt, which dear Julian Assange – if he is telling the truth, or merely deluded instead of deceitful – should know better than anybody.

Trial by media is, these days, trial by social media, from a public that – thanks to a new, one-way enshrining of freedom of speech – can make any accusation they like and face no consequences, since you can’t very well sue the whole of Twitter for defamation.

The mainstream media has more reason to toe the line than Joe on Twitter, because they always have a face, and therefore can be held to account. But, wouldn’t you know it, his ability to remain anonymous may well protect Twitter Joe from needing to answer for his actions. So, evidently, the ability to anonymise on the internet is a double edged sword.

My enduring thought, pre and post Tor, is that it is society that needs to change, not technology. If it ever became laughable to use someone’s idle Google searches as evidence in a court of law against them, that would be the day when we know longer had any reason to be concerned about the constant surveillance of our online habits.

If every blackmailer and every sneaky government agent could not get any member of the public to react to the information he had gathered – because we were all to smart and too rational not to recognise a ludicrous smear campaign when we saw one – he would cease to have the power to rig a trial or extort a desired result in plain sight.

As usual, the answer is education. If we ever iron out our appallingly childish, backwards online behaviour, whether we anonymise or proudly moon our true colours for the whole world to see would be a matter of absolutely no consequence.

Tor is a good stop gap to make up for the cracks in systems, particularly those far worse than here in democracy. What Tor can achieve in parts of the world where government surveillance really is insidious – used to capture, torture and murder – may well liberate those societies at a faster rate.

The aim, however, should be to live in a world that no longer feels the need to hide.

We afford people privacy when voting, and in equal opportunities forms. But, in a hypothetical world in which we felt sure that others generally don’t interfere or influence our votes, and don’t discriminate against, the need for this anonymity would be markedly diminished.

If we look behind the curtain of privacy concerns, we can see that the issue is less about visibility (which we are all used to) and more about feeling scrutinised. This highlights the extent to which privacy is about perception, and is not literal.

The number of cameras in our society is less relevant than how discreet they are, which relates to their usage; the more cameras there are, the *less* each of them are “used”, in the proper sense of constant surveillance.

Instead, they all become dormant, only relevant in the event of crime. The man in the booth can’t watch everything all of the time. Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother, is not logistically possible in real life. We would have to all be spying on someone, round the clock. 

Thus, the majority of our collected data is as “dead” as if it had passed in front of our eyes and faded from memory. It is doubtful that surveillance companies keep a fraction of what they record. There is always a better use for data storage; increasingly better but larger software programs, for example.

So, having established that privacy is more about feeling hidden than actually being hidden, the best place to hide is in plain sight; to be able to walk the street and know that, although you are seen, you are not being scrutinised.

Scrutinisation is what happens when you fall under suspicion. A world which is less suspicious, i.e., more open minded, is therefore the answer to the question of how to feel free.

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