Anonymous, the hacktivist collective, has given anonymity a bad name. Yes, anonymous online services may be used to send bomb threats or abusive messages, but anonymity also does some good online.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

May 4, 2012

4 Min Read

Is online anonymity a bad thing?

Calls for the death of online anonymity get invoked by everyone from the anti-cyber-bullying crowd to social networking proponents. Tie comments to an actual person, goes the reasoning, and people will think twice before trying to intimidate someone online.

To be sure, anonymous services can be abused. For example, the ongoing FBI investigation into a series of bomb threats against the University of Pittsburgh has led the bureau to execute search warrants against a number of remailer services. For the uninitiated, such services strip the header information from emails, and messages pass through multiple remailing servers, thus helping to disguise the message's origins. Meanwhile, the hacktivist collective Anonymous has built its anti-government and anti-corruption reputation based on the right--or at least ability--of people to take anonymous online revenge against perceived wrongdoers.

[ What's the back story on Google's Street View data collection practices? See Google Wardriving: How Engineering Trumped Privacy. ]

On the social networking front, Facebook and Google+ have been behind drives to create "real identities," or at least verified ones. For example, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg last year said that "having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity." Of course, the Facebook paradigm depends on people being who they say they are. How does the whole Facebook paradigm look if the person running the official Scarlett Johansson Google+ page turns out to really be a 14-year-old boy living in Malaysia?

Eliminating anonymity is also pitched as a way to combat bullying online. "I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. ... People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. ... I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors," Randi Zuckerberg, formerly Facebook's marketing director, said last year.

But anonymous online services can be used for good--for example, for human rights advocates disseminating information from within countries with tight controls on information flow, for whistleblowers who want to provide information to authorities without revealing their own identity, or for people who might just be shy.

Anonymity--as well as pseudo-anonymity--can also be, if not a virtue, at least a social nicety. For example, Facebook last year restored anonymous defriending after users complained about people being able to see, from their timeline, when someone had stopped being their Facebook friend.

For a more positive example, a recent study of psychologically troubled teenagers by Azy Barak and Meyran Boniel-Nissim of Haifa University in Jerusalem found that blogging online using a pseudonym, as well as expressly allowing others to comment on their posts using pseudonyms--compared with just keeping an online diary on which no one could comment--produced markedly improved mental states in the teens.

"The sense of anonymity and invisibility experienced by Internet users promotes their confidence to express thoughts and feelings. Furthermore, users do not feel committed to the offline social codes--including attire, nonverbal gestures, and eye contact--when interacting online with other people; therefore, they can pay more attention to written content and to themselves. These characteristics induce the therapeutic value of venting emotions and releasing pressure," they wrote.

People crave connections; no real names required, at least online. On a similar note, Disqus, which develops website commenting software used by 600 million unique visitors across more than one million websites--including this one--sees 61% of posters use a pseudonym, while 35% are anonymous, and only 4% use their real identities. Furthermore, Disqus has also found that pseudonymous posters are far and away the most valuable contributors, contributing 6.5 times as many posts as anonymous contributors, as well as a far greater number of quality posts--based on other users "liking" their contributions--as other contributors.

In fact, discussion forums provide a great use case for remaining anonymous, since some topics or postings are so banal as to not even merit someone's real or at least verified identity. Should posting car-repair questions require a real identity? What about the teenager who posts queries to a cannabis bulletin board, then must face the fallout of those posts when interviewing for his first job 10 years later?

Throwaway usernames and no worries about traceability--barring something rising to the level of a bomb threat--help people jump in and make connections. Discuss politics. Indulge in flame wars over the quality of live Husker Du recordings. Politely disagree about which local diners serve the best apple pie. This free-for-all, with no identity checks required, contributes to making the Internet great. Why mess with success?

When picking endpoint protection software, step one is to ask users what they think. Also in the new, all-digital Security Software: Listen Up! issue of InformationWeek: CIO Chad Fulgham gives us an exclusive look at the agency's new case management system, Sentinel; and a look at how LTE changes mobility. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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