Privacy needs a culture of anonymity (more than technical solutions)

Our understanding of privacy is currently in permanent discussion and re-definition. Social networks encourage sharing of private details but this also means sharing these details with a large corporation (and most likely with its advertising clients). Intelligence agencies skim through our conversations in their quest to identify potential future maybe terrorists. Quite some people are scared because of this.

We see different reactions: the technology savy now roll out heavy encryption and other technology.  It quickly becomes an arms race to get something “really” secure and anonymous. For the majority, this technology looks – and in large parts sadly is – highly complicated and as if it will take all the fun from digital interaction. It looks as it even reassures them in their fatalistic perception that they are lost anyway. Then they stop caring altogether. And there are still enough that didn’t really notice and are not inclined to take part in the discussion.

Technology, in consequence, should not be the first thing to look at here. What we need is a cultural shift towards anonymity and privacy. That means insight into the value of privacy (e.g., as a precondition for liberty) when we actively think about it, e.g. in discussions. But it should eventually go deeper and become an almost subconscious value that we consider intuitively, like fairness. Anonymity should weave into our everyday decisions, not as an “always on” but an always available option.

La Bauta (in the back) was the everyday mask in Venice - picture by richspalding

La Bauta (in the back) was the everyday mask in Venice – picture by richspalding

In an article for the magazine <kes>, Johannes Wiele puts up three theses:

  • Social conflicts can’t be solved, just temporarily settled/negotiated (in pluralistic societies)
  • Almost all actors in politics pursue (what they think is) the good cause
  • (Despotism provokes resistance. This point is less relevant here but can explain one of the motivations for such a cultural shift)

The first two points combined mean: we need to arrive at a common understanding on society level of the benefits and risks of digital technology. We need to compare our “traditional” values and the preconditions they build on to the conditions of the digital world. Some values might be difficult to keep, some might need to be redefined, and we will need new, different social rules. These discussions must reach society level (involving “all actors in politics”) to achieve a broad understanding and constitute new social norms (this also resonates with Sascha Lobo’s call at re:publica this year). Technological implementations, such as email encryption, might be a consequence of this new culture but they are not at the heart of it.

Wiele references the mask culture in 18th century Venice to illustrate how vivid and detailed such a culture can be: various masks for various events, rituals around masking and un-masking, obligations like the prohibition to carry arms while being masked (see his blog for details). Wiele also mentions that masks became popular because of the excessive surveillance prevailing in Venice at that time. Wearing a mask was part of a strict social codex and its appearance was very regulated. This gave others, such as non-Venetian traders, the security that the bearer of the mask had certain priviledges and could be trusted, while still hiding his identity. This is like a 3rd party confirming, e.g. certain access rights when you want to use an online service but without giving away your full identity (and, ideally, without getting to know itself for which service and when you use this confirmation). Digital certificates represent parts of this concept but they don’t have a working “mask mode” yet.

Because it was a cultural or social standard, noone had to justify why s/he wanted to stay anonymous under normal circumstances. The mask culture might even look playful to us nowadays which I find a good aspect.

A culture of (choice of) anonymity could be an interesting development and consequence of the current situation. It is certainly the only way for a  profound and sustainable, or trustworthy and applicable, concept of privacy.

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emotisys on asteroids!


Recently, I moved my entire online household to a new infrastructure and a new provider. I felt I was reaching the limits of my old one, e.g. in terms of mailbox size, and–what was more important to me– functionality like server side mail filtering and security features like ssh/sftp access. During my most recent research project (part of SASER) I learnt quite a bit about server security and -attacks, which gave me decent motivation. Then again, I didn’t want to maintain nor pay for a full blown server. And I wanted to keep “my stuff”, such as emails, under German privacy law and with a trustworthy provider. Quite a shopping list. I’m very confident that I’ve found the perfect match for me:


Here are some reasons:


When I visited their website for the first time, I was immediately struck by the colloquial but informative language they used. You never feel like being in a tech shop although you get every technical detail explained if you want. They managed to find an informal tone, the right length of explanations, the right examples where you need it, and to sprinkle subtle humor on top. I read half of their instructions even before I signed up, just because it was an easy read! This is a very rare thing if you look into most of your manuals. And you can just write them and get help very quickly in the same supportive tone. Since it’s the “technical staff” writing the texts, you get a feeling for their attitude. Being accessible and personal contributes to trust.


If you want to manage private data online, it’s not enough for the service provider to have good intentions: their competencies must allow them to run state-of-the-art technology in a way that keeps your data safe. As the thorough documentation shows and also the team portraits tell you, the people behind uberspace know what they are doing. They also tell you (better: everyone)  about the limits of their service and that they are not without fail– that I find an important part of “expertise”. Of course, no service is without fail (due to humans and software) but most of them will give you a false sense of security and hide the details in fine print. Credible expertise is a basis for trust.


When you look at the most popular/best marketed webhosters, their offers are full of superlatives but also *-links to the fine print. What looked like a great offer will become actually quite pricy 6 months later. uberspace make it very clear what you get and what you can’t. They tell you about their technology, their services, and their calculation (!). Actually, you can decide yourself how much you want to pay but with their transparent calculation they give you a good understanding of what will be fair. And since they obviously treat you fair, you are inclined to do so in exchange.

They will explain how they made all of these choices. Along the way, you’ll learn quite a bit about webhosting, including how secure your data can be. They also have terms of service, although they are called house rules. Again, they are not in dry and “exact” judicial language but lay out situations that require, e.g. interventions by uberspace staff and explain what will happen.

You get the impression that they have a reason for everything they do–if they don’t, they won’t do it. Best example is the personal data required to start an uberspace: zero. There is no reason for them to record it, they don’t need to contact you, they don’t need your bank account (if you don’t pay by yourself, they’ll simply close your webspace. Fair deal). Not recording not essential data is obviously very simple, noone needs to tick any privacy statements, and it’s just good practice of privacy. Data they don’t store can’t be misused, get stolen, or required to be handed over by law. Clear business models, clear dos and don’ts, clear data policy: transparancy builds trust as little else.

Challenging and Encouraging

In short, uberspace is for autonomous users. People who already know or want to learn about web hosting technology, want to take a look behind the scenes, so that they are in control of their scripts and data. uberspace do a great deal to help you with that, including a more or less subtle push towards the command line interface. This again is a sign that uberspace take their users serious: web technology isn’t Lego but you can learn it, too. The more you understand, the more you are in control.