Ever and anon

When you spend a significant amount of time (in my case more than 15 years) enmeshed in a particular topic (e.g., identity management) some discussions (you might call them arguments) periodically arise with predictable regularity. That is, whenever new people are added to the discussion those evergreen topics will rise up once again. It happened in a discussion I was monitoring last week.

Twitter is not the ideal venue for rational discourse by a large group of people (say, 10 or more), resembling as it does a cocktail party rather than a discussion panel. But it can be useful when the people involved are spread wide geographically and unable to gather in a "local" watering hole at the same time.

This particular discussion was about privacy. It was interesting and far ranging. But, inevitably, someone equated privacy with anonymity. This comes up almost annually and has done for the past eight to 10 years. Each time it does it gets smacked down. But some newbie will always bring it up again.

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Anonymous means unknown. And not only unknown but unknowable. It's most generally used in literature to refer to a work whose origin has been lost. The work has been repeated and adapted, modified and reworked so that even the original author might not recognize his or her own work. Historically, someone knew who wrote it but that knowledge has been lost.

It is still possible to be anonymous on the Internet today but it's a lot harder, requiring multiple layers of redirection (see anonymizer.com, although even they speak of "protecting privacy").

What we call anonymity is, in reality, pseudo-anonymity. Take this news story in the Wall Street Journal -- "Jury in trial of Mass. men to stay anonymous". The jurors really aren't anonymous -- the judge knows who they are, the court clerk knows who they are, so does the bailiff, the prosecutor and the defense. I'd imagine that the jurors' family members, friends and neighbors all know that they're on that jury, also.

What's really being done is that the court is keeping the identities of the jurors private.

This is why the whole issue of equating anonymity and privacy gets resurrected so often - people understand neither one term or the other.

So just remember this: Anonymous means no one knows who you are. Or, more precisely, no one knows who performed a particular act. No one. Not family, not friends, not co-workers, not co-conspirators, not Web sites and not Internet service providers. No one.

Come back next issue and we'll talk about what privacy is.

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