In the future, the cost of anonymity will be irrelevance

May 14th, 2013

I recently started reading “The New Digital Age” by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. There is not much substance to the book (Evgeny Morozov would have a field day), but it makes a number of interesting predictions and comments about how current trends in technology will develop. One discussion stuck out about the need in the future to have more verified accounts. If your account is not verified–perhaps because you do not want to share information with social networks–you will be buried and suppressed in the search results, and made irrelevant.

Your online identity in the future is unlikely to be a simple Facebook page; instead it will be a constellation of profiles, from every online activity, that will be verified and perhaps even regulated by the government. Imagine all of your accounts— Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Google +, Netflix, New York Times subscription— linked to an “official profile.” Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results. The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance; even the most fascinating content, if tied to an anonymous profile, simply won’t be seen because of its excessively low ranking.

Think about that for a second. As it stands now, the stories you see in your Facebook feed are not those of all of your friends. Rather, they are the stories that Facebooks thinks you may want to see. If facebook deems one of your friends not someone who interests you, then you will not see those updates. This has already happened to me. Facebook has buried a number of my friends, and I’ve missed updates that I would otherwise have wanted. Now, imagine that the key to being promoted on Facebook is through validating your account by providing personally identifiable information. Those who choose not to provide this information will disappear into obscurity.

One of the more troubling concepts is that certain states–most likely authoritarian regimes–will force people to obtain verified accounts.

Some governments will consider it too risky to have thousands of anonymous, untraceable and unverified citizens—“ hidden people”; they’ll want to know who is associated with each online account, and will require verification, at a state level, in order to exert control over the virtual world.

And even if such laws could not be passed in the United States, I could imagine various consumer privacy laws, passed with the intent of protecting data security, could arrive at this result indirectly. As Schmidt and Cohen note:

And, in the slightly less totalitarian autocracies, if the governments haven’t already mandated “official” government-verified profiles, they’ll certainly try to influence and control existing online identities with laws and monitoring techniques. They could pass laws that require social-networking profiles to contain certain personal information, like home address and mobile number, so that users are easier to monitor. They might build sophisticated computer algorithms that allow them to roam citizens’ public profiles looking for omissions of mandated information or the presence of inappropriate content.

Last week I was at a conference at Yale Law School, and commented on a paper that argued that in order to promote more free expression online, the government should take steps to intervene in the policing of social media accounts. The paper was vague on specifics, but suggested that the government could mandate that certain process be provided before terminating a social media account, or perhaps that search engines could not arbitrarily disappear a person (as I suggested above).

While I shared the paper’s concerns that Google or Facebook shuttering people into obscurity is bad for society, the prospect of the government interjecting itself into this process, and taking steps to force people into providing these kinds of information troubles me much, much more.

Especially because society’s desire to broadcast all aspects of life through social media has the effect of building the surveillance network that George Orwell could only have dreamed of.

But authoritarian regimes will put up a vicious fight. They will leverage the permanence of information and their control over mobile and Internet service providers to create an environment of heightened vulnerability for their citizens. What little privacy existed before will be long gone, because the handsets that citizens have with them at all times will double as the surveillance bugs regimes have long wished they could put in people’s homes. Technological solutions will protect only a distinct technically savvy minority, and only temporarily. Regimes will compromise devices before they are sold, giving them access to what everybody says, types and shares in public and in private. Citizens will be oblivious to how they might be vulnerable to giving up their own secrets. They will accidentally provide usable intelligence on themselves— particularly if they have an active online social life— and the state will use that to draw damning conclusions about who they are and what they might be up to. State-initiated malware and human error will give regimes more intelligence on their citizens than they could ever gather through non-digital means. Networks of citizens, offered desirable incentives by the state, will inform on their fellows. And the technology already exists for regimes to commandeer the cameras on laptops, virtually invade a dissident’s home without his or her knowledge, and both listen to and watch everything that is said and done there.

See also my previous work on privacy and social media after the Boston Marathon Bombers.

I’ll have more to say about this topic–particularly how the conceptualization of this type of data as protected speech may serve as a waning bulwark against the trek towards the dangers of this new digital age.