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.

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

  1. hannes:

    brandeins also has an article about Wiele’s analogy of masks for anonymity concepts for today.

  2. hannes:

    article updated to make it (hopefully) more concrete and understandable. I also added the point that the Venetian mask identified its bearer as memeber of a certain social class which I find quite inspiring.