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.)