To Be or Not to Be ... Anonymous, That Is

Jennifer A. Kurtz, MBA

Back in the early 1990s, a work colleague–now with Forrester Research– recommended that I consider the future of anonymity services. His recommendation was prescient then and remains timely today. I am still pondering how to reserve "the right to be left alone," as Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis framed privacy rights in the 19th century.

Almost 20 years after my colleague's comment–and several generations of mobile computing, web crawling data collection, optimized data aggregation, and social networking apps later–the challenge of seeking anonymity, or even a modicum of privacy, is much more daunting. We each have to make conscious, personal decisions about how much information we knowingly give up about ourselves.

Make no mistake: There is a permanent record. Actually, there are many permanent records for each of us, often contradictory and inaccurate, whose existence we may be unable to discover. We may not even have the power to correct those records we do know about, as anyone who has ever tried to convince a credit reporting agency of its errors is well aware. There are, of course, techniques for limiting some of the information broadcast and recorded for all 'Internity' (my word for the length of time unwanted information about us may be available from an Internet source).

We should all critically read the privacy and data retention/ownership policies of any organization with which we share information and be judicious about taking shortcuts that translate into unintentional broadcasts. This includes communications and publishing platforms (AKA social networking, photo sharing, etc.).

Digital and physical privacy-enhancing practices can help mask our Internet or geophysical location. Examples of the former include Tor, the "onion routing" network that uses encryption and layers of proxy servers and relays to anonymize Internet traffic. Originally sponsored by the US Naval Research Laboratory, Tor was recognized in 2011 for enabling dissident traffic in defiance of Egyptian and Libyan Government restrictions on political expression. HotSpot Shield uses hypertext transfer protocol secure (HTTPS) technology to protect transmissions for those who use its free software.

Physical barriers can also be used to block signals from "talkative" personal devices, such as smart phones, notepads, post-2006 US passports, and some credit cards. Faraday wallets that block cell phone beaconing and radio frequency identification (RFID) transmissions can be purchased for between $12 and $80–and are now available in leather (even hot pink!). Although active jamming of wireless transmissions is illegal (per the Communications Act of 1934, as amended), passive blocking is permissible. Researchers are working on developing a paint that can be used to block electromagnetic signals. Imagine, a movie theater, concert hall, or restaurant in which cell phone interruptions are eliminated and you can enjoy a quiet hour or two without being available "in abstentia." Not anonymous or incognito, perhaps, but reclaiming the "right to be left alone."

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Faraday Devices–Faraday cages and bags leverage ability of conducting materials, such as fine metal mesh or perforated sheet metal, to attenuate radio signal transmission and reception. Their use is recommended in certain forensics procedures, for example, when investigators have confiscated cell phones or lap tops and want to ensure that recorded messages or files are not deleted remotely.

Tor–The Tor project (no longer capitalized as the acronym for The Onion Router) was initially developed by the US Department of the Navy to protect data in motion by shielding information associated with the transportation layer from traffic analysis. Basically, when using Tor, the data package's identifying attributes contained in the header (e.g., source, destination, time stamps, size, etc.) cannot be traced. Tor may be used as an alternative to a corporate virtual private network (VPN), for example. (SOURCE: https://www.torproject.org/about/overview.html.en)



Alderman, E. & Kennedy, C. (1997). The right to privacy. New York: Random House. Cate, F. (1997). Privacy in the information age. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Sumagaysay, L. Q&A with CEO of AnchorFree, Maker of HotSpot Shield. Good Morning Silicon Valley