While I haven’t posted much this month, it isn’t because I’m not writing: it’s because what I’m writing just doesn’t seem to pull together very well and so I have 4 or 5 items held in ‘draft’. See, I’ve been trying to integrate thoughts on accessible versus technically correct understandings of technology as it relates to privacy, and to issues on public relations and the use of FUD by privacy activists, and what I think of the idea of ‘anonymity’ in digital environments that are increasingly geared to map, track, and trace people’s action. Given that it’s the data privacy day, I thought that I should try to pull some of thoughts together, and so today I’m going to draw on some of those aforementioned ideas and, in particular, start thinking about anonymity in our present digitally networked world.
To take the ‘effort’ to try and remain anonymous requires some kind of motivation, and in North America that motivation is sorely lacking. North America isn’t Iran or China or North Korea; Canadians, in particular, have a somewhat envious position where even with the government prorogued – a situation that, were it to happen in Afghanistan would have pundits and politicians worrying about possibilities of tyranny and violence – there isn’t a perception that Canadians ought to be fearful that proroguement heralds the beginning of a Canadian authoritarian state, or the stripping of Charter rights and freedoms. This said, I think that people in the West are realizing that, as their worlds are increasingly digitized, their ‘analogue’ expectations of privacy are not, and have not for some time, been precisely mirrored in the digital realm. This awareness is causing worry and consternation, but is not yet (and may never be) sufficient for wide-scale adoption of anonymization technologies. Instead, we have worry without (much) action.
Immanuel Kant’s essay “On the Common Saying: ‘This May be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice'” argues that theory is central to understanding the world around us and that, moreover, attempts to say that ‘theory doesn’t apply to the world as such’ are generally misguided. Part of the reason that Kant can so firmly advocate that theory and reality are co-original emerge from his monological rationalism, but at the same time time we see him argue that the clearest way to bring theory and practice into alignment is with more theory – rather than adopting ‘parsimonious’ explanations of the world we would be better off to develop rigorous and detailed accounts of the world.
Parsimony seems to be a popular term in the social sciences; it lets researchers develop concise theories that can be applied to particular situations, lets them isolate and speak about particular variables, and lends itself to broad(er) public accessibility of the theory in question. At the same time, theorists critique many such parsimonious accounts because they commonly fail to offer full explanations of social phenomena!
The complexity of privacy issues in combination with a desire for parsimony has been a confounding issue for privacy theorists. Nailing down what ‘privacy’ actually refers to has been, and continues to be, a nightmarish task insofar as almost every definition has some limiting factor. This problem is (to my mind) compounded when you enter online, or digital, environments where developing a complete understanding of how data flows across systems, what technical languages’ demands underlie data processing systems, and developing a comprehensive account of confidentiality and trust, are all incredibly challenging and yet essential for theorization. This is especially true when we think of a packet as being like post card (potentially one with its content encrypted) – in theory anyone could be capturing and analyzing packet streams and data that is held on foreign servers.
If you visit this blog, or any facet of my website, I can identify the IP addresses that have been here. From there I can backtrack and identify the geographic location(s) that my visitors are from and, if I really desire, can spend the time to trace individual computers. This means that I can identify a visitor to the terminal that they access the computer from; I can bridge the ‘divide’ between digital environments and the analogue environment that we eat and breathe in.
Dynamic Identity and Static Info-Requirements
There is a common myth that you can be anyone that you want on the ‘net, that identity is effectively infinite, that identity is mutable insofar as people can assume a multitude of identities that deviate from their analogue identity. Some argue that this degree of mutability persists online, and often identify Massively Multiplayer Online (MMOs) environments such as Second Life (SL), Guildwars (GW), and World of Warcraft (WoW) as prime examples of this mutability, but such assertions are misleading at best. Players in these digital environments assume command of avatars that are created during the character generation phase of the MMO experience. During this phase you can choose your avatar’s gender, race, and basic ‘geographical’ starting locations.
There has been a sustained argument across the ‘net and in traditional circles, that privacy is being redefined before our very eyes. Oftentimes, we see how a word transforms by studying its etymology – this is helpful in understanding the basis of the words that we utter. What do we do, however, when we work to redefine not just a word’s definition (such as what the term ‘cool’ refers to) but its normative horizons?
In redefining the work ‘privacy’ to account for how people are empirically protecting their privacy, are we redefining the word, or the normative horizon that it captures? Moreover, can we genuinely assume that the term’s normative guide is changing simply because of recent rapid changes in technology increase the difficulty in exercising our right to privacy in digitized environments? To argue that these normative boundaries are shifting largely because of how digital networks have been programmed presupposes that the networks cannot be designed in any other way, that digital content will flow as it does now the same way that gravity acts on our physical bodies as it presently does. The difficulty in maintaining such an analogy is that it assumes that there are natural laws to an immanent programming languages that structure how we can participate in digital environments.