Computer Crime Research Center


Anonymity in Cyberspace: Finding the Balance

Date: July 09, 2006
Source: Computer Crime Research Center
By: Mohamed CHAWKI

About the Author:
Mohamed Chawki (LL.B), (BA), (LL.M), (DU), (FRSA) is a “Junior Judge” at the Council of State ( Conseil d’Etat), a Phd Researcher in cyberlaw at the School of Law, University of Lyon III, France; an expert in cybercrime at the International Scientific and Professional Advisory Council of the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme (ISPAC); a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in the United Kingdom (FRSA) and a member of Cybercrime Institute in France. Mohamed Chawki has taught part-time on Cybercrime and Cyberlaw for the LL.M English programme at the ITI Institute. He has authored many articles in English and French journals and conference papers. He is recipient of numerous academic prizes and the Medal of Excellence in 1998.

Anonymity in cyberspace is a major concern for the global community. The introduction, growth and utilisation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been accompanied by an increase in criminal activities. With respect to cyberspace, identities are easily cloaked in anonymity. Once a message sender’s identity is anonymous, cyberspace provides the means to perpetrate wide spread criminal activity to the masses, with little chance of apprehension. On the other hand, anonymity in cyberspace allows whistle-blowers and political activists to express opinions critical of employers and the government enables entrepreneurs to acquire and share technical information without alerting their competitors, and permits individuals to express their views online without fear of reprisals and public hostility. On this basis the question of whether a State or a government can create a narrowly tailored restriction on cyberspace anonymity without violating the privacy remains unresolved. Accordingly, this paper seeks to address and analyse the following issues. Firstly, it starts by presenting the concept and several types of anonymity. Secondly, it focuses on the Internet and how it can be achieved, and why it is an essential tool for free speech. The paper will also describe proposals to outlaw anonymity over the Internet, since it has often been tied to criminal activity by law enforcement bodies. Finally, the paper concludes that total anonymity may be possible through the use of privacy-enhancing technologies such as those offered by and Freenet. Moreover, educated legislators can criminalize most true anonymity in cyberspace and still pass security.

“While the Internet and other information technologies are bringing enormous benefits to society, they also provide new opportunities for criminal behaviour”

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, Jan. 10, 2000.

Anonymity[1] often considered a cornerstone of democracy and a First Amendment guarantee, is easier to attain than ever before, due to the recent emergence of cyberspace.[2] Cyberspace [3] allows people to share ideas over great distances and engage in the creation of an entirely new, diverse, and chaotic democracy, free from geographic and physical constraints. [4] As of September 2002, more than 182. 67 million adults had access to cyberspace in the United States and Canada, [5] and over 605.60 million had access worldwide. Those numbers are growing rapidly. Due to the nature of ICTs, identities[6] in cyberspace are easily cloaked in anonymity.[7] With this anonymity, cyberspace provides the means to perpetrate wide spread criminal activities with little chance of apprehension.[8] Reacting to several attacks on eBAY, CNN and other web sites, [9] former President CLINTON underscored the opinion that the government needs to maintain a watchful eye on cyberspace. [10] On the other hand, anonymity in cyberspace allows whistle-blowers and political activists to express opinions critical of employers and the government enables entrepreneurs to acquire and share technical information without alerting their competitors,[11] and permits individuals to express their views online without fear of reprisals and public hostility.[12] It is clear that in various parts of the world people may have an interest in not being identified and thus connected to certain published views and opinions.[13] Due to the international character of the Internet, those reasons for anonymous communications which are related to the “freedom of expression” may gain new dimensions.[14]

Before the information age, a person’s identity, and information[15] relating to his or her identification seemed to be more precisely controlled.[16] But all that has changed. The advent of the information society has vastly increased the need for identifying mechanisms and thus public availability of the relevant technologies. [17] Names, addresses, e-mail addresses, photographs, social security numbers, etc., are freely available on the Internet and numerous identity related characteristics are for sale.[18] On the Internet, any one has the opportunity to gain knowledge about other people. The development of ICTs makes more and more people reluctant to reveal their true identity.[19] In combination with this, different services have recently been developed which make Internet activities, such as surfing anonymous.[20] Facilities are also anonymous. Facilities are also available to provide individuals with a pseudo identity.[21] Hence, anonymous communication is promoted as the solution to the problem. However, anonymous raises various legal questions: What exactly do we mean by anonymity? Why would people want to communicate and transact on an anonymous basis? What are the practical and legal constraints upon anonymity when communicating and transacting with others? Finally, total anonymity may be possible through the use of privacy enhancing technologies.[22]

There are actually two types of anonymity: true and pseudo-anonymity.[23] However, many scholars fail to address the distinction between these types. In this article, we will distinguish between true and pseudo – anonymity, two completely different forms of expression, with differing degrees of political and social values.[24]

1.1 True Anonymity
This kind of anonymity is untraceable. Indeed, only coincidence or purposeful self-exposure will bring the identity of the mystery sender to others; the identity of a person acting in a truly anonymous manner can not be definitively discovered through any amount of diligence. [25] Some attempts can be made to discover the identity of the sender through inference, but any concrete trail of clues betraying the message sender has been erased by circumstance, the passage of time, or by the sender himself. Although some forms of truly anonymous communication, such as political speech, are considered valuable, this form of anonymity has exceptional potential for illegal acts because the message senders cannot be held accountable for their actions.[26]

1.2 Pseudo-Anonymity
In this kind of anonymity, communications are inherently traceable.[27] Though the identity of the message sender may seem truly anonymous because it is not easily uncovered or made readily available by definition, it is possible to discover the identity of the pseudo-anonymous message sender. This kind of anonymity has significant benefits; it enables citizens of a democracy to voice their opinions without fear of retaliation against their personal reputations, but it forces them to take ultimate responsibility for their actions should the need somehow arise.[28] Although governments could misuse their ability to uncover the identity of people acting pseudo – anonymously, it is not in the government’s interest to break that trust; by respecting pseudo-anonymous identities, governments can often avoid the far more dangerous abuses stemming from true anonymity. [29]

Anonymity is important for on line discussions involving sexual abuse, minority issues, harassment, sex lives, and many other things.[30] Anonymity is also useful for people who want to ask technical questions that they don’t want to admit they don’t know the answer to, report illegal activities without fear of retribution, and many other things.[31] Without anonymity, these actions can result in public ridicule or censure, physical injury, loss of employment or status, and in some cases, even legal action. Protection from harm[32] resulting from this type of social intolerance is a definite example of an important and legitimate use of anonymity on the internet. An example of how vital such anonymity can be is exemplified by the following excerpt from a newsgroup post during a temporary shutdown of[33]

“I had been posting to a non-technical misc newsgroup about an
intimate topic for which I felt I required privacy. I have received
immeasurable help from the people in that news group...Please, folks,
believe me, I *need* this service. Please consider my point of view and
permit [email protected] to turn the service back on.”

On such a basis, it is important to express certain opinions without revealing our true identities. Anonymity allows an individual to seek online information, resources and support without jeopardizing their public reputation and relationships. Fear of discrimination might prevent an individual from seeking help. Anonymity allows information gathering about issues like addictions to alcohol, gambling, drugs or sex; sexual identity, where identifying as non-heterosexual could cause problems at work or home; testing or treatment options for illnesses like AIDS; or information about birth control...
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2008-06-09 11:47:32 - Sorry for the multiple messages, I pressed... Albert Nonymus
2008-06-09 11:46:24 - Interesting read, for the... Albert Nonymus
2008-06-09 11:45:53 - Interesting read, for the... Albert Nonymus
2008-06-09 11:45:37 - Interesting read, for the... Albert Nonymus
2007-02-26 07:36:24 - The information I found here was rather... uomo
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2006-08-10 22:16:48 - I agree with you that anonymity should not... Marianna
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