Thursday, January 16, 2014

Anonymity Is the Default Condition

I get bent out of shape over the abuse of the Fourth Amendment, so I was happy to read Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld's ideas about how to get past the idea of privacy and begin to value the concept of anonymity.

Anonymity is very different from privacy. Walking the streets, you’re not in private, but you may be anonymous if no one recognizes you. If you go into a store and pay cash for a book, what you’re doing isn’t private, but, again, you may be anonymous, and that anonymity might be very important to you. When people post material on a freely accessible website, their postings are public, not private — but they may well be anonymous. In such contexts, the question is not whether privacy should be honored but whether anonymity should be protected.


[Federal judge] Richard J. Leon..., who ruled against the NSA program last month, ...saw that there was something wrong in the NSA program apart from whether metadata is private.

Given the way cellphones are used today, Leon concluded, metadata can be mined to produce a live-streaming digital portrait of an individual’s entire life. “Records that once would have revealed a few scattered tiles of information about a person,” he wrote, “now reveal an entire mosaic — a vibrant and constantly updating picture of the person’s life.” For example, well-mined metadata could reveal a “wealth of detail” about a person’s “familial, political, professional, religious and sexual associations.”

I don't know that I completely agree with Rubenfeld's proposed solution, but at least it's going in the right direction.

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