Future Tense

Attempts to Stop Terrorists on Social Media Threaten Both Privacy and Anonymity

Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2014. Feinstein recently proposed a bill requiring social media companies to report any “terrorist activity” to law enforcement.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It’s happening again. After Paris and San Bernardino, politicians and security experts have reignited the call for a ban on encryption. “I think the biggest threat today is the idea that terrorists can communicate in dark space,” said House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, referring to groups like ISIS. Donald Trump echoed his sentiment with his own special brand of dumb, when he announced at a stump speech in South Carolina that he might pay a call to Bill Gates on “closing up that Internet.” “Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people,” he said.

Trump jokes aside, the threat to the Internet is real. Last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein proposed a bill requiring social media companies to report any “terrorist activity” to law enforcement. Civil liberties advocates say that this type of surveillance violates rights to privacy. But the threat is more insidious than that. Beyond our privacy, our anonymity is in peril. Anonymity, as it’s practiced in its everyday form, is vital to our citizenship. It is how we explore identity and challenge corruption. It is how we make new personal connections and how we learn to take pride in our gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. Binding social media companies to enforce a vague law will lead to overreporting data and overreaching the original intentions of the law. This mission creep doesn’t just violate our personal information; it creates a chilling effect on our ability to be Americans.

Most of us don’t realize that privacy and anonymity are two very different things. Privacy, for example, is something you have at home. Even though the post office, your credit cards, and your family and friends know you live there, no one can see what you’re doing in your home. Anonymity, on the other hand, is more like hanging out in a city, going to a bar, or participating in a protest. It’s a different kind of freedom. People know what you’re doing but not who you are. Anonymity is important because we need spaces to engage with other people while withholding our identity. Think of the millions of people who have turned to Alcoholics Anonymous or suicide hotlines.

Our right to anonymity is one of the most fundamental rights we have as Americans. The very founding of our nation was established by a set of anonymous authors in The Federalist Papers. The Supreme Court reinforced the protection of anonymous political speech under the First Amendment in 1995 McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission. Whistle-blowing, one of the most important anonymity traditions, is protected through a collection of rights, acts, and statutes on federal and state levels. And of course that most basic act of democracy, voting, is conducted anonymously (unless you choose to Instagram your ballot).

Anonymity is even more precious on the Internet. People treat sites that don’t require real-name login as confidential spaces to connect with others.

I am a global tech ethnographer. In my research, I explore how people express their identities on the Internet. My research on online behavior includes college students in China, teens in the United States, and migrant communities in Mexico. I once spoke to a male teenager from a small town who said he was too scared to come out to his parents. He told me he felt suicidal until he found people in similar situations online—meeting others anonymously allowed him to come to terms with his sexuality. The group anonymity provided a safe space for him. In my research, I’ve found that’s the case for any marginalized group. That includes the LGBTQ community, people of color, and people politically at risk, like Syrian refugees.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who have found spaces to form new friendships and like-minded communities on anonymous online sites, like Twitch, Reddit, Tumblr, and Twitter. Many high-traffic sites with audiences that range from programmers to cancer survivors and parents are all based on anonymous participation. People engage in anonymous sites not to remain private but to be public—public on their terms. And that that is why being anonymous is inherently a social act, which is why bills like Feinstein’s are so insidious. Curtailing anonymous behavior online diminishes the Internet’s most heralded power of allowing people to form self-organizing networks.

In this day and age, anonymity gets a bad rap. The mainstream narrative frames anonymity as a heinous act, reserved for pedophiles and trolls. But that’s simply not true. For one thing, people are just as willing engage in antisocial behavior with their real names. Research has shown that the most high-quality online commenters are often pseudonymous.

Security functionaries harbor a fantasy that by tracking all networked data, they could pinpoint the “homegrown,” domestic terrorist communicating anonymously. But the facts point to the contrary. Even the FBI admitted that bulk collection of anonymous communication under the Patriot Act did not lead to the identification of a single suspected terrorist.

Besides, creating a backdoor to encryption is mathematically impossible. The security software community is continually reminding us that encryption is what keeps our world and Internet secure. Encryption protects not only our privacy but also our anonymity. When the government calls for tech companies to surveil themselves or demands the keys to their encryption, they’re creating a false dichotomy between anonymity and security. We all want our governments to keep us secure, but there are still many ways to do intelligence work without bulk surveillance, as Nathan Freitas illuminates in MIT Technology Review.

We live in a networked society where control over our privacy is tenuous. Marketers, the government, and Facebook all have millions of data points about our habits, preferences, and histories. Especially in these conditions, there needs to be space for anonymity.