Anonymity is important - binrc - 2024-01-29 01:10:53 - cc-by-nc-sa

Anonymity is important

This is somewhat of a second part to my post on free speech absolutism.

Anonymity and anonymous speech have existed since long before the United States. The authors of the Federalist Papers (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay) wrote the papers under the pseudonym of Publius themselves. Thomas Paine's Common Sense was also originally published anonymously. The US Supreme Court has defended the right to anonymous speech many times over, deriving their decision from the first amendment using the logic that anonymity provides protection from the tyranny of the majority. Anything that protects free speech should be protected as if it were free speech. In the age of the patriot act anonymity is seen as something only criminals care about. This is an absurd position for anyone, let alone the public majority, to hold considering that there is an argument to be made that US independence and the ratification of the constitution would not have happened without anonymously published works.

Before the internet, writers had to place some amount of trust in their publisher's promise that they would not deanonymize the writer. This is somewhat of a concern if a writer does not trust his publisher or the printing company. Luckily enough, the publishers did not immediately deanonymize the authors of Common Sense and the Federalist Papers. I'm not entirely sure that a modern publisher would do the same if a writer requested publishing for something that goes against the current approved set of political ideologies.

The right to remain anonymous (or under a pseudonym) is integral to free speech. An individual should not feel that he is compelled to censor himself because he is fearful of the mob. In conjunction to the mob, another real fear is the fear of punish by the hand of the government. Although the government should not be persecuting citizens for exercising their liberties, it occasionally happens. Anonymity defends unpopular speech which is just as much of a right as popular speech.

Some have argued that the right to be forgotten is contradictory to the right to free speech which is not entirely true because this right is highly context dependent. A man will never have to face the mob if he is never required to attach a legal identity to his speech. If he he has attached his legal identity to his speech, mistakenly or not, the only outcome in which he has the absolute right to be forgotten is a situation where others are censored. In a digital sense, companies should allow me to nuke my account. In a legal sense, the government cannot restrict the liberties of the many in order to appease the demands of one person.

Anonymity and the internet

The internet was not designed to be anonymous. In fact, the opposite is true. Encryption was not a thought when the internet was designed. Ignoring the glaring issues with nonfree services that exist solely to abuse and exploit their clueless users, the very foundation of the internet was not designed with privacy in mind.

For the nontechnical readers, the internet works a lot like a post office works but instead of "mail" we are sending and receiving packets. Your computer, at a specific address, sends a packet with a FROM and TO address. The packet is sent to the internet, sorted, then sent to the server with the corresponding destination address. When the server receives this packet, it will respond to the request and reverse the process, sending a return packet to your address. This can happen thousands of times per second. Below is a crude ascii visual aid.

││            ││
║FROM:    ███ ║
║    TO:  ███ ║
║                          ║
║ send the page about the  ║
║ internet protocol        ║
║                          ║
routed through the internet to the server
│ │ │ │ │ │ │ │ │
│ │ │ │ │ │ │ │ │
│  │

Without encryption, everything in the packets are public. With encryption, the internet post office (a decentralized coalition of BGP servers) must know where each packet came from and where each packet is going, but they do not know what is actually inside the packet. This system was designed by high trust engineers for use by morally upright users. Privacy implications were not a consideration.

Infantile explanations aside, an IP address does not necessarily point to a specific user because most often IP addresses are dynamic. An IP address is not a reliable legal identity in the same way that a mailing address is a reliable legal identity. Oftentimes, because prosecutors and police departments are composed exclusively of the least technologically literate members of society, innocent individuals will be harassed and prosecuted for something they actually did not do. The EFF whitepaper on how police and courts abuse unreliable IP address information is an interesting read.

Overlay networks like Tor and I2P have been developed in order to help users protect themselves. The way that these networks function is an entirely different discussion, but the simple explanation is that they forward packets through a series of nodes, adding or removing layers of encryption along the way. No single node in the overlay network has the full picture of who the client is, who the server is, or what the packets contain. Certain proof of concept correlation attacks exist with Tor, but they have yet to be used against private citizens in any official capacity. Another important thing to mention is that a VPN is not enough and oftentimes is worse for privacy because users have to provide a third party company with private billing information before promptly surrendering all of their network traffic to the VPN provider.

Anonymizing overlay networks are a useful tool for a man with something to say. Other than that, they're not entirely useful. Tor is LOUD, i2p is LOUD, and VPN connections are LOUD. Generally, these technologies are most useful for whistleblowers and journalists.

For more information about Tor, you can read an article I wrote about Tor. For more information about I2P, you can read an article I wrote about i2p.

Using a pseudonym and avoiding privacy violating websites is usually good enough to remain anonymous on the internet for the average person. Maintaining privacy is important to preserve internet anonymity but privacy concerns are out of scope for this particular article. I have only broadly addressed internet privacy and have not yet written a comprehensive privacy guide that contains all the components I would deem essential in educating and guiding the average smartphone owner (that's all of us) down the path of becoming a ghost in the machine (we are only ghosts in some machines; we must pick our battles).

The Patriot Act and PRISM

This section was outlined when I began writing but fell out of scope. In the future I intend to do a longer essay which will require much more research than I realized in the first place. Although the implications of the Patriot Act and the PRISM program are common knowledge among hackers, it seems like the general public has started caring less and less. No one cares about restrictions and impositions of personal liberties. Why would they? Public consensus is that false securities outweigh liberties and that comfortable lies are more "truthful" than the unrelenting burden that comes with embracing reality.

An appeal to Snowden

Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say. - Edward Snowden

Elaborating on this argument:

  1. saying that you don't care about the right to remain anonymous because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying that you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say
  2. '' right to bear arms because you don't own a gun ''
  3. '' freedom from unlawful quartering of soldiers because we are not currently in a war ''
  4. '' unlawful search and seizure because you have never interacted with police ''
  5. '' protection from double jeopardy and self incrimination because you have never been tried ''
  6. '' right to an attorney because you have never needed legal services ''
  7. '' right to a jury in a civil trial because you have never had a civil dispute ''
  8. '' protection from excessive, cruel, and unusual punishments because you have never been convicted of a crime ''
  9. '' right to freedoms that are not explicitly enumerated in the constitution and it's amendments because you don't exercise any freedoms not in explicitly listed in the constitution and it's amendments''
  10. . '' right to state and local governments that you actually have some influence over because you don't care about having any say in what happens in your city and state ''

Community grade: 75% C