Log in

No account? Create an account
Anonymity and Accountability = Incompatibility - MoonScape [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

[ website | My Website ]
[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

Anonymity and Accountability = Incompatibility [Nov. 14th, 2012|10:59 am]
[Current Mood |calm]

(This post is a near-mirror of a post I made over on SFF.net's discuss-politics group.  This disclosure is made to avoid being charged with "self-plagiarism," a currently fashionable charge that I think is , um, not as important as its supporters think.  I could be wrong.  So could they.)

In our culture, a certain value is placed on voluntary anonymity: the secret ballot, the ability of whistle-blowers to remain anonymous, etc. Most of us understand why anonymity is legally granted for some people, and culturally granted for others. We also understand that anonymity allows some to abuse it--to vandalize, to steal, to lynch--without being caught.  We suspect wrongdoing when we notice obvious markers of using anonymity for private gain--the mask, the hood, the Swiss bank account, the secret funding of movements, the disguise of any kind.   "Why are you hiding this if you're not doing something wrong?" is a common question. 

There's also value placed on accountability: blaming the right person for his/her misdeeds, crediting the right person for his/her good deeds. When the wrong person is blamed, we know that's an injustice--as it is when the wrong person is given credit. Most place more emphasis on putting the blame in the right place. Evading accountability with anonymity is disapproved of when the accountability is for something considered wrongdoing. Signing into a hotel as Mr. and Mrs. Jones when the real names are Bill Brown and Mary White, for instance.

And there's a fundamental incompatibility between those. The anonymous person
cannot be held accountable, because you don't know who she (or he) is.

All that's very obvious, and much of the time, we lazily think that the good guys should be able to be anonymous when doing good things, and the bad guys (whoever we suspect of being bad guys) should not be able to hide behind anonymity--should be identified and punished. We often disagree on who the good and bad guys are, and which situations should allow anonymity and which should not.

The fundamental incompatibility of these two conditions isn't as often in the forefront of our minds.   But last spring, in the middle of a BBC discussion involving me, an ethicist,
and a military specialist, it became starkly obvious. The ethicist had been proposing ways to hold individual soldiers accountable for everything they did, so they could be tried for crimes against humanity when they broke whatever rules existed. This ethicist has written extensively on the ethics of war, the rules of war (I've read only one of his books, but a couple of his other
shorter papers--as preparation for this discussion, in fact.) He doesn't--to put it mildly--approve of most of the current justifications for war, or the rules of war.  So, in the discussion, when it was soldiers being talked about, he wanted absolute certainty about which soldier
fired which weapon when--to trace the bullet that killed or wounded someone back to the individual who fired it (for example.)  Total accountability.

In a brief segment of the program, I had been tapped to come up with an off-the-wall,
blue-sky suggestion that would spark more discussion. (Boy, did it! As well as hate mail from around the world.  Although things settled down after I posted this a few days later.)   I suggested that since identifying for sure the people that some want identified has been difficult--biometrics change with age and getting a DNA scan of someone isn't always feasible--that implanting/imprinting a barcode at birth would fix that problem. It was not, of course, a serious suggestion--not from me, anyway. 

The ethicist's reaction was instant and strong--making everyone accurately identifiable
would destroy his anonymity, should he wish to be anonymous for any good reason (such as taking part in political protest against a repressive government.)  As I was a long way from the ethicist at the time (I was in a radio studio in Texas; the others were all in London) I could not express my surprise with facial expression, and the moderator was keeping the discussion firmly on track on issues.  Saying what I instantly thought ("So--you want anonymity for yourself but would deny it to others?  Just how is that ethical?") would have been a) rude, and b) changed the focus to personalities.  What I did realize, though, was how strong the desire is to have anonymity for oneself, and accountability for everyone else. Asymmetry. 

This desire leads to the conclusion that It's OK for "my" side to conceal some things the other side would jump on...while I insist that they should be transparent about whatever I suspect they've done wrong. From the other side's point of view, they are justified in maintaining
secrecy and anonymity about their doings, while demanding full disclosure and accountability from me. Very few people really want the rules to be the same for all. Most people want the rules to reflect their opinions. Obvious. But not always obvious, in the heat of emergent situations, when previously polarized opinions become even more impenetrable to reason.

What is obvious is that anonymity and secrecy do cloak behavior someone would disapprove of.  That disapproval may be internal: someone who believes it's wrong to "show off" charity may choose to make anonymous donations to disaster relief or leave cash in a friend's mailbox rather than embarrass the friend by having noticed their financial problems.  The disapproval may be external--donating to a charity that others around the giver think is unworthy (such as, for instance, one member of a homophobic family donating to a charity helping gay youth.) Sometimes that behavior is actually good or at least harmless.  But more often, anonymity and secrecy cloak behavior that the law considers criminal and/or large segments of the population label wrong/unjust/bad.  Anonymous hateful emails fall  into this category but so does "keying" someone's car because they have the "wrong" bumper sticker.   

When people do things they consider good--and have no internal barriers to letting it be known--they don't hide the praiseworthy things they've done.   The kid with a straight-A report card doesn't hide it....or "lose" it.   Someone who's "caught" doing good things in secret will own up to what he or she has done, not try to wiggle out of the accountability. 

Technology has given us more ways to be (or at least feel) anonymous in a very large sandbox--the whole world. And it's given others more ways to uncover that anonymity in the same very large sandbox. We are told to keep personal information off the internet (now we're told that. Too late for those of us who got on in the heyday of "we're all friends here--share everything.") Yet how hard is it really to find out where someone lives? How hard is it to check
the server ID to find out where someone sent that email from? Laborious, in many cases, but not technically difficult--just time-consuming.

When someone becomes interesting to someone else (which doesn't take much--most people are interested in others--not all others, but the ones that pique their curiosity) the clever human at one end will undo the barriers placed by the clever human at the other. (Ask anyone
who's dealt with an angry ex-spouse or any other kind of stalker. They find your phone number; they find your residence on Google-maps, complete with street view; they can search national databases for every likely hiding place.)  Social media, GPS devices now found in many cars, many cellphones, tracking where everyone using them is, constantly (and the tools for third parties to acquire and share those data) are ubiquitous. 

So the possibility of privacy has pretty much disappeared for anyone who is of interest to anyone else, what with cellphone cameras and advanced surveillance gear and online search engines, from locations to contacts.   It's never been easier to reveal what's hidden.  And the cost of anonymity has gone up enormously in one sense, and become cheaper in another.  At the shallow level, the anonymous spammer and the anonymous troll are all over the internet--nuisances, a serious problem to some.  "Pile-ons" on the internet nearly always involve anonymous posts (or posts using fake IDs) and these have resulted in real harm to the victim.  Yet these are fairly easy to penetrate, with most email clients also snagging the IP addresses of incoming mail and comments.  

To have anonymity at a level that works against even moderately competent sleuthing, you have to subvert the system (such as, for instance, the Supreme Court, to make it possible to hide the sources of your campaign financing.) Which takes a lot of money. And even then, contributors may be  only safely anonymous until someone--employee, associate, determined independent investigator--hacks their computers or otherwise "outs" them. 

All this obvious stuff has equally obvious relevance to recent news: the campaigns,
the election, and of course the difficulties in which General Petraeus finds
himself.  No one, these days, can assume his/her activities are private now, or going to stay private.   No one, these days, can assume anonymity--even if achieved for a time--will last forever.   Both the technology that allows someone in a mob in Africa to transmit picture and sound around the world to counter that government's lies, and the sheer number of people on the planet connected to one another in so many ways, makes it impossible to have that assurance.  (Not to mention all the other methods of formal surveillance, from satellites to security cameras to wiretapping, etc.)

We aren't hard-wired--evolution has not prepared us--to be either entirely open or to keep everything (anything?) secret.   So mistakes have been, and will be, made in terms of who we tell, what we tell, how we tell, whether we are the person attempting concealment or the person attempting to penetrate concealment.  Ideally (but not realistically) those who are up to no good will be openly up to no good, and those who are not up to no good will be allowed a private life.  Humans--historically and across cultures--seem to need both some social space and some hiding space.  

More practically, we can look at our own assumptions about who should be granted anonymity or not--and make sure that we're applying the rules (whatever they are) fairly.   If you want anonymity for yourself, don't demand openness of others.  

Comments:  All comments will go to moderation.   The moderator has a life and will get to comments when there's time.   The moderator, having paid for this space, feels no obligation whatever to put up with trolls, hornets, or other unpleasantness.  Disagreement is fine, but courtesy is mandatory.   Hot issues bring out the pile-ons and we're not having one here.  (Yes, this IS the same notice as on a post last week.  Another bit of Truth in Advertising.)

[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-11-14 05:49 pm (UTC)
Coincidentally, I just saw mentioned on Twitter a very old essay by George Simmel on the sociology of secrecy and secret societies. A bit tough to read (combination of layout and older ways of writing) but worth study:

(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: shockwave77598
2012-11-14 07:31 pm (UTC)
Both are necessary. You want anonymity because the people you are talking with and hanging around on the Internet are total strangers, and you shouldn't have to tell total strangers your address, weight, blood type and phone number just to have a discussion with them.

At the same time though, if money is involved, that's when accountability comes in. If I'm forking over some cash for something, I want to have someone I can complain to if things don't go right, or a name to warn others of if I'm ripped off. As soon as money starts to move, that is when the anonymity jewel needs to go in the box.

Which is pretty much the case we have now. I can write whatever I like on forums and chat areas without worrying about some borderline psychopath taking grave umbrage to something I say and burning my house down in the middle of the night. But to pay someone for something on ebay, I have to give a credit card or bank account to Paypal. This works fine as it is. There is no need to get rid of the current formula.

Like you said, the ones complaining the most that they don't know who they are talking to are the ones who insist that the rules they promote shouldn't apply to them. It's easy to demand draconian rules when you can put yourself above those same rules. But insisting everyone has to be identifiable at all times puts lives in jeopardy, from hostile govts, and from mentally defective individuals. Whereas nobody knowing my name and other personally identifiable information does no harm at all... except for this guy not trusting me because of it (which I don't care about whether he does or doesn't.)

There is a place and time for both.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-11-14 09:02 pm (UTC)
Um. Having seen the amount of bad behavior coming from anonymous posts on the internet, I'm personally opposed to anonymous posts, and do not myself post anonymously. Thus I follow my own rules, both on my site and on other sites. Post all private info? No. But speak with my own voice, and let people know who I am? You betcha.

A "handle" is one thing, but attempts to totally conceal identity on the internet mean (in my case) barring people from posting on my sites. Since you don't care if I don't trust you or not...I don't care if you like my rules or not.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
[User Picture]From: coleoptera
2012-11-14 08:23 pm (UTC)
"Why are you hiding this if you're not doing something wrong?"

"I also close the door to the bathroom stall when I'm using it."
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-11-14 09:05 pm (UTC)
That only works for some things. Take for instance the time, a few years ago, when I was barred from voting in a city election on the grounds that I didn't live in the city I had lived and voted in for (at that point) some 25 years. I was unable to find out WHO made that decision and on what grounds. That's damned suspicious when you're a blue gal in a red county. I got it changed, yes, but no one would tell me exactly who, and on exactly what grounds, the decision was made. Why were they hiding that? The county's change from blue to red? Maybe, maybe not. But dammit, I'm a citizen, and a voter, and I have a right to know.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: wldrose
2012-11-14 08:50 pm (UTC)
Ahhh the fairness, that is always the hardest thing to balance. Or at least it is for me.

I think part of it gose back to the old new yorker cartoon "no one can tell your a dog on the internet" having access to this space lets many of us tread and participate where custom dose not let us, and loosing that freedom is no small thing.

I have to admit, I have a harder time when I find government or corporations (who are not people) violate what I think of as my privacy. But when a person dose it I find it much much scarier, Why the hell have you chosen me to set your vision on?

Sadly most people who bray about the importance of anonymity are not iranian students trying to overthrow the government, or people showing how BP lied about the gulf oil spill. They are people who look at what they have done and are ashamed. They use their place in a faceless mob to give their id free reign, and when called to account they can slip away going wasn't me, your wrong for thinking it was.

I try to do what I was taught as a small child "tell the truth and shame the devil" and in my books that means standing behind what I say and do. Thats why my picture is up in the corner of this post.

(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-11-14 09:16 pm (UTC)
Yes. And I distinguish between privacy violations (someone upskirting women in a store, or photographing women in dressing rooms, or papparazzi insisting on photographing "celebrities" everywhere, all the time, desperate to get a picture in which they aren't perfect), or showing up at your house because they're a fan and think they have a right to your life, and legitimate investigations. Trying to find out who just removed you from the voting register, or who dumped poison in the creek, or ripped up the political sign in your yard, or keyed your car, or is "cutting deals" with developers to line his own pocket, or hid vital information from a jury so someone was wrongly convicted...those are situations in which the person who did it has no right of privacy *as it pertains to those actions.*

Where I disagree with shockwave77598 is about internet anonymity. If you've been the subject of abusive pile-ons, including threats of harm and death to you and your family...that's nearly always by people who do not identify themselves. They feel safe doing it because they think they're never going to be found. I don't mean everyone should give up handles forever...I do mean, however, that anyone who posts online should be identifiable--traceable--(most are, whether they know it or not) and should be held accountable for their abuses. That's why I track IP addresses, and why I bar posts from "Anonymous." If people are willing to identify themselves and use Anonymous because LJ doesn't give them a way to produce another ID, that's one thing. But pure Anonymous...gets canned.

(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
[User Picture]From: gifted
2012-11-14 09:17 pm (UTC)
Interesting post. My thoughts have wandered this way before, in a similar vein, though I've only touched on the surface.

People questioned me when I used a fake name on facebook, even though it was consistently "me" (and I had announced my identity during the change) -- why would I do that if I have nothing to hide? Because I'm entitled to my privacy. All my business isn't everyone's business. And in this age where virtually every minute piece of information you put in the net can be harvested and profiled directly to you, I would like to retain some measure of privacy.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-11-15 10:28 pm (UTC)
Well, there's information I've never put on the web, and won't. There were certainly posts I made years ago before I realized just how wide the readership is, that I might not have made. In the smaller online world it felt very much like private conversations...and many of us were startled to find out how fast "Joe Blow is a scumsucking toad" got back to Joe Blow. Young people are still startled to find out that potential employers are indeed hunting through their juvenile postings online to decide whether or not to hire someone who gleefully trashed all their teachers and their parents.

Luckily, my adolescent angst never got onto the then-nonexistent internet. All I have to deal with is the reaction to my adult angst.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: klwilliams
2012-11-14 09:37 pm (UTC)
A secret is something you tell one person at a time.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-11-15 10:30 pm (UTC)
Or just one person period. It's a lot easier to keep "good" surprises (party for a friend) than "bad" ones that people really want to tell (and it's the bad ones..."Did you know X is cheating on Jan?" that seem to itch the secret-holders.)
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: blueeowyn
2012-11-14 10:53 pm (UTC)
Hmm, interesting things to think about. Where I work we do have to deal with confidential but not anonymous things. In order to track who has (or has not) submitted their evaluation, we cannot have them be 100% anonymous, however, we do strongly believe in confidentiality of the responses so the data is reported without idenifying information (unless the respondent signs the text entry). For the surveys we do, the key of ID and Survey is separated from the survey data before any real look at the data is done, again to protect confidentiality.

I firmly believe that in an ideal world, my choices in the election should be confidential, however, in order to prevent stuffing the ballot box, the fact that I participated in the election cannot be blocked. I also believe that we may not live in an ideal world, I don't know if the card for the voting machines tracks who is given which card and thus which ballot and.... Of course, in all situations where it is confidential (as opposed to anonymous), you do have to trust the process of the confidential keepers.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-11-15 10:35 pm (UTC)
My mother used to point out the irony of having "secret ballots" that were all numbered--and in those days the voter's ballot number was recorded (I forget if it was by tearing off a corner that also had the numer, signing it, and putting it in another box. By the time I started voting we had the big fat machines with the curtain.) OTOH, if you wanted to be sure your vote hadn't been changed illegally, you could literally work backward to check your ballot. But then...so could the ballot counters, and if they were dishonest...which sometimes they were.

In an ideal world, employers would not threaten employees and try to make them vote for the employer's choice. Nor would neighbors threaten one another. It would be safe to stand up and say "I'm for A" right out in public and not be in danger of retaliation. (That's a VERY ideal world!)
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: redvixen
2012-11-15 01:00 am (UTC)
Ok, first, I haven't heard the term "self-plagiarism" before (guess I'm not sociable enough online). *confused* How can you be charged with stealing your own words? I don't think the supporters of that term understand what it means.

I can agree with not being hard-wired to be entirely open but I think that's more a social rather than an evolutionary trait. As you said, it crosses cultures but I wonder how much that developed because our populations grew beyond the size of a tribe or family group.

I believe that anything I do online can be traced back to me no matter what ID I use. So I make sure it is something I don't mind being associated with and am willing to take responsibility for. However, at the same time I am wary of giving out my real name on sites where I post. Mostly because my sense of humour can be taken the wrong way and I try to avoid stalkers and trolls. If you ever wish to know what it is, let me know and I'll tell you.

From what I've observed, the attitude of "the rules apply to you not me" seems to be a subconscious attitude. When I've mentioned it, most of the people I talk to are surprised that they are acting that way. Of course there are always some who try to deny it but know they are doing it.

Honesty is not easy to deal with when you aren't used to hearing it. I think that, as a society, we are so used to thinking that everyone is lying to us - politicians, advertisers, co-workers, neighbours, even family - that we don't believe in the truth even when we hear and see it. Thus the controversy over accountability and anonymity.

Generally speaking, I agree with what you wrote. As far as politics are concerned, I understand that there are reasons to keep things hidden from the public (whether I agree with that or not) however I believe that all the actions of one government should be available for the following governments to view and hold that government accountable.

But that's just my opinion.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-11-15 10:45 pm (UTC)
"Self plagiarism" is a recent attack term from journalism, and refers to using paragraphs from one of your publications in another without acknowledging the source. Let's say you write an article on head injuries for a horse magazine...and then you write an article on head injuries for a cycling magazine. And--because what you want to say is the same and you think you did a really good job the first time--you simply repeat a couple of paragraphs on the symptoms of concussion after a fall rather than say it differently. Other parts of the articles may be different, directly relevant to horseback riding and to cycling. But someone will (these days) run all your articles through a program designed to find plagiarism and voila! Guilty. Self plagiarism. Two magazines paid you for the same two paragraphs (embedded in longer articles, but still.)

There are more serious situations, of course. By writing in a dozen sports magazines about concussion after falls, you may become considered an expert, commanding a higher price--maybe even getting speaking engagements. And yet you may have written one article, with one set of sources, and simply added bits (small bits) to make the article "slant" for each. You're not any more an expert than after the first one--you haven't learned more--so you're profiting from what some consider a fraud.

I write about writing in multiple venues--talk about characterization, plotting, dialogue, revision, etc. When you write a lot, at a novice level, about anything, you get in a rut. You forget what you wrote last time, and use the same metaphor. I don't consider that self-plagiarism (besides, I don't get paid to write about writing. So nobody's being cheated.)
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: allbery
2012-11-15 04:29 am (UTC)
I think one of the other interesting changes in this space is the commoditization of privacy. There have, even before the Internet, been various ways to compromise individual privacy if someone is determined: private detectives, government record searches, and so forth. They've gotten cheaper and more ubiquitous, though, so more people (including more people who abuse them) have access to them. But it feels to me like the corporate attitude towards privacy has undergone a sea change.

Yes, companies did like to track your purchases with them, and selling doner lists is probably as old as the Postal Service, but that there are now companies that specialize in building huge profiles of people and assembling data about them, and that create complex and invasive Internet monitoring systems (using, for example, Javascript, cookies, and remotely-loaded images) seems new. It's not just Amazon knowing everything you've ordered; it's sites like Facebook that monitor every site on the Internet that you look at that has a Facebook +1 button on it and tie that together into a profile that they then sell to advertisers.

In one sense the risk is no different whether a private individual does it or a corporation does it. But in another sense, the corporation has a reason for doing it en masse and tracking it all continuously. So, rather than having private information be something that's discoverable, it's increasingly something that's already been discovered and is already stored at a Google or Facebook or Amazon and, frequently, available to sale.

The impact of this is complex. On the surface, those companies don't do as bad of things with the data as some private individuals do. For example, they're relatively unlikely to sell their database to a stalker (it can happen, but it's not part of the business model). But, on the other hand, they use it for subtle psychological manipulation (another word for advertising), and I'm not sure how well humans really deal with that. I suspect we deal with it less well than we think we do; everyone thinks they personally ignore advertising and aren't susceptible to it, and yet companies continue spending billions of dollars on something that we're individually convinced is worthless. I'm inclined to think that we're misjudging our own psychological reactions and the companies have a better idea of what they're paying for, and I'm not sure what to think about that.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-11-15 10:55 pm (UTC)
I think most of us are susceptible to advertising...countered by, in some cases, deliberate refusal to do more than like stuff and then not buy it. I think that's partly innate personality and partly early experience. I grew up being very firmly taught the stark black line between "need" and "want." When I buy something I want, but don't need, I'm very aware of it (and may do it anyway--but it's a choice, not an impulse.) Innate personality helps: the most I'm pushed, the less I'll cooperate.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)