CENTERPIECES


> Parable of the Coyote


ANONYMITY (AND PSEUDONYMITY) ON THE NET:
DOZENS OF PROS AND CONS
by CURTIS LANG

Corporate Titans want to know all about you. They want to know where you go in cyberspace, what you read, what you buy, your address and phone number, the make of your car and the size of your income, in order to create an advertising campaign with an audience of one. If they can't sell you products or services, they can always sell the information they've collected to the highest bidder.
Uncle Sam also wants to know all about you. He wants to make sure you don't use the Internet to evade taxes, to swap information about drugs, guns, and powerful encryption software, or to post sexually explicit messages in public cyber-spaces.
Your business competitors want to know all about you (and your business), too. If they have to monitor your phone messages, hack into your computer system, or intercept your e-mail and faxes, so what? It's a small price to pay for inside dirt. Meanwhile, your boss is reading your e-mail, monitoring your on-line activities, and snooping around the virtual water cooler you and your friends have set up on the corporate LAN.
No wonder so many of us have begun to learn about public-key encryption, steganography, and the fine-points of anonymous remailers on the Net. We certainly can't depend on AT&T or Uncle Sam to protect our privacy. As Count Niccolo Machiavelli observed centuries ago, "Only those means of security are good, are certain, are lasting, that depend upon yourself and your own vigor."
In a world where every man and every woman is rapidly becoming his or her own virtual intelligence agency, society must now perform a high-tension balancing act between privacy and accountability on the Net, between security and self-expression, between individual rights and the social good. Although proponents and opponents of strong cryptography and total anonymity try to cast the debate about these questions in the starkest of black and white terms, the issue is far more complex than this.
Meditating on the pros and cons of pseudonymous communications, may make you feel that you're riding an emotional roller-coaster. Just remember that you're not alone.
For now, consider that:

+ In cyberspace, no one can see that you are a dog.

- In cyberspace, no one can hear you scream.

+ The more anonymous the online message, the more gender, class and age differences tend to disappear, according to one academic study.


- In some virtual communities, the more anonymous the message, the more nastily people behave. [See Clifford Stoll's remarks in "Our New Faceless Monsters," by Michael D'Antonio, in the Los Angeles Times of August 27, 1995.]

+ Anonymous messages from political dissidents living under authoritarian regimes can inform the world about human rights abuses and pierce news blackouts imposed by totalitarian governments.

- Anonymous or pseudonymous messages from hate groups and political extremists can spread libelous falsehoods and slanderous remarks about government officials, members of minorities, and other targets of remote control rabble-rousers. They also allow the distribution of information about illegal activities including the cracking of large computer networks,, or manufacturing of explosives or amphetamines.

- Anonymous messages from sexual predators may entice (pre-) adolescents, enabling long-distance seductions that might make runaway children harder to trace.

- Fear of such seductions, info-terrorists and bomb-makers prompts government officials and corporate CEO's alike to create Orwellian mechanisms to censor the Net, to identify all users of computer-mediated communications systems, and to trace the comings and goings of all Netizens. It also leads them to sponsor and support reactionary and unconstitutional legislation like the so-called Communications Decency Act in the U.S.

+ Anonymity encourages us to experiment with a variety of different personae, creating alternative selves online, which allow us to explore and experience the attitudes and beliefs of varied genders, age groups, economic classes, and the like. In the process long-repressed emotions are unlocked and long-repressed needs and desires are safely and therapeutically fulfilled.

- Creating a variety of alternative identities online can induce stress, making integration of the various personae difficult, especially for younger people, and encouraging the more neurotic among us to abandon face- to -face relationships for an online fantasy world.

+ Anonymous remailers (see "Notes on Terminology and Technology re: Anonymity on the Net," which follows this article) allow sex-abuse victims to talk freely about very private matters with therapists and friends online, secure in the knowledge that their identities will remain concealed from co-workers and authorities who might want to prosecute erring family members or former lovers.

- Anonymous remailers might make it easier for organized crime to target innocent victims for blackmail or extortion, by providing a low-risk channel of communication, which is necessary for such crimes to succeed.

+ Pseudonymity empowers unfulfilled spouses, closeted homosexuals, and dissatisfied lovers to easily and safely engage in elaborate sexual bonding and role-playing online, without fear of exposure to family, friends and lovers. Such pseudonymity might embolden the online lover to assert his or her own needs more fully in the real world.

- Pseudonymity empowers the would-be cyber-rapist who uses knowledge of technology to "take over" the identity of the victim (akin to Sandra Bullock's travails in The Net-, then proceeds to perform kinky online sex acts in public forums where the victim is well-known.

+/- Anonymity, like alcohol, releases repressed emotions, lowers inhibitions and allows deeply held conditioning and belief systems to freely assert themselves.

+/- Pseudonymity allows you to create virtual personae in a process called "pseudo-spoofing." These virtual personae, or pseudonyms, or "nyms" can freely disseminate both fact and fiction about friends and enemies on the Net.

+/- Anonymity enables the transfer of digitized account information and bank authorization forms across national borders to offshore banks in tax haven countries.

+ Anonymity allows for specialized virtual communities like the cypherpunks, who share information and expertise about creating secure cryptography for the everyday consumer, producing anonymous remailers, and constructing systems that might allow users to evade various repressive laws and regulations throughout the world.
- In an era when every man and every woman is his/her own James Bond, and tax evasion is as common as that AOL start-up disk in the mail, mega-corporations rule the world-including the Net. The predatory tactics of big biz, freed at last from the fetters of governmental regulations by the global computer-mediated marketplace, might eventually force even whiny anarcho-capitalist romantics like John Perry Barlow to beg Ralph Nader to run for President.

- Cypherpunks and affluent anarcho-capitalists using encryption and anonymous remailers to conduct business will find that a large volume of encrypted data generated from any single location will attract the attention of law enforcement officials, particularly if the National Security Agency and other government agencies are actually monitoring Net nodes and routers (as some have suggested they are). Then the snoops will simply use old-fashioned real-world surveillance on the location generating that traffic, on all phone lines connected to it, and on all the people visiting it; in order to expand their surveillance until they find out what's goin'on.

+ Specialized remailers are springing up to defeat "traffic analysis" used by intelligence agencies. One remailer stores messages for a pre-determined length of time, then re-transmits them randomly, through a daisy chain of remailers in the remailer net, with perhaps five to 20 steps along the chain. At least one remailer in the chain is always located in countries with relaxed laws about electronic communications. Viva free expression!

+ Anonymity provides the CancelMoose the freedom to operate as a Net vigilante in a white hat, policing the Usenet for spam and removing the offending postings en masse. Targets have included advertisers and those posting offensive messages about Bill Clinton.

- Anonymity allows the minions of the Church of Scientology to roam the Net acting as self-appointed Net censors, deleting postings that offend or criticize the Church, and also purportedly spamming newsgroups devoted to discussing the issue of the Church of Scientology vs. the Net.

+ Anonymity encourages the widespread dissemination of political satire, such as the famous "AP" story reporting that Bill Gates bought the Vatican.

- Anonymity allows unscrupulous political campaigners to conduct online smear campaigns behind a shield of privacy.

+ A combination of pseudonymity and electronic cash technology enables consumers to engage in electronic commerce without fear that large corporations will compile logs of their activities online, then sell that information to one another, compromising our most basic privacy rights.

- A combination of pseudonymity and e-cash empowers affluent anarcho-capitalists to engage in point-and-click tax evasion, money laundering and pilferage of copyrighted software.

- E-cash and anonymity allow anyone to buy porno or guns, or engage the services of hit-man online, with relatively little risk of detection. In the case of murder for hire, secure and private online communications would obviate the need for the most risky part of any such plan, the face -to -face meeting required to conduct the transaction and transfer the cash.

+ Pseudonymity allows investors to gather in online chat rooms and trade info with their peers-some of whom may be emboldened by their pseudonymity to share valuable, and even legal "insider" information about companies gleaned from legitimate sources.

- Pseudonymity enables brokers and employees of corporations of interest to a group of online investors to "seed" the forum with either illegal inside information about their own company (or a client's) or with derogatory information about the competition. Such activities skirts laws and regulations prohibiting investor manipulation.

+/- Pseudonymity allows private investigators, spooks, police and hackers to mingle freely with one another online, collecting intelligence about one another and all the users of targeted online communities for inclusion in corporate or governmental databases, or simply for resale to the highest bidder on the black (data) market.

+ Pseudonymity empowers whistle-blowers to post incriminating evidence of corporate or governmental wrong-doing-cyber-leaking is safer than going public in the Real World.

- Pseudonymity allows vengeful employees and ex-employees to post gossip, slander, embarrassing e-mail and trade secrets in public places on the Net with little fear of retribution.

- Pseudonymity allows merry online pranksters to troll Usenet newsgroups like rec.pets.cats or alt.cheap.weddings, posting condescending and inflammatory remarks designed to offend members of the target group in hopes of generating a disruptive flame-war.

- Combined e-cash and anonymity will empower high-tech corporations and affluent anarcho-capitalists to shop the world for human organs, contract killers, medical records, employment histories, bank data, social security and police records, military records, and other restricted or illegal information with greatly reduced risk. It will be easy to purchase information about employees, customers, renters, or insured consumers, but expensive to buy information about the rich and the powerful.

- Pseudonymity increases paranoia.

+ Pseudonymity empowers the individual.

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NOTES ON TERMINOLOGY AND TECHNOLOGY RE: ANONYMITY ON THE NET

New technologies such as the fax machine, the telephone and talk radio all provide some degree of anonymity to people empowered to communicate one-to-one or to large groups. The advent of strong public-key encryption such as PGP, and anonymous remailers allows users of e-mail to implement four varying degrees of pseudonymity or anonymity as follows:
1. Traceable anonymity : The sender uses a remailer which strips away all clues to the sender's true identity so that the recipient cannot tell who sent it, but leaves this info in the hands of a single, trusted, intermediary-the remailer. Often this type of e-mail is sent unencrypted, which requires the sender to trust that the remailer will not read or copy the message, or turn the message over to police or other unwanted recipients.
2. Untraceable anonymity : By routing an encrypted message through a chain of anonymous remailers, the sender can be fairly sure that no one will be able to identify the sender. This technology allows two people to send messages back and forth to one another without knowing each other's identity and preserving the untraceable nature of their communications from corporate marketing types, government agencies, police, and hackers.
3. Traceable pseudonymity: The sender uses a pseudonym to send messages through a remailer or commercial service provider such as America Online that allows subscribers to use screen-names instead of their real names online. The recipient generally cannot tell the true identity of the sender, but the service provider generally could trace the message back to the sender if pressed by court order or other means.
4. Untraceable-pseudonymity : Using a chain of remailers, the sender signs a message with a pseudonym, and if the sender wishes, the pseudonym can be provided with its very own digital signature, thus creating a credible, unique "virtual persona" or "nym." Because the digital signature cannot be forged or linked to the true identity of the sender, the use of this technology allows the user to create and propagate one or more alter-egos on the Net, and to build up their credibility over time. --CL

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Curtis Lang has written about national security issues and the Net in magazine, The Village Voice and New Media magazine, and is Managing Partner of WebCity Development LLC. You can reach him at clang@mhv.net.


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