Back in the good old days of the 1990s, the internet was deemed nearly anonymous; one could use a chatroom or a web site and seemingly “become” a different person. Then and now, that aura of anonymity made users bolder, braver, sometimes crasser, sometimes more abusive. In retrospect, the aura wasn’t true.
The hacks of Home Depot, Citigroup, the federal Office of Personnel Management, the Internal Revenue Service, and on and on, have all shown just how vulnerable we and our vital information are online. The names, addresses, social security numbers, credit card numbers of tens of millions of internet users have repeatedly been compromised, stolen, dumped online and/or sold to the highest bidder.
Years ago, in fact, internet “founders” (no, not Al Gore) maintained that online anonymity is a myth. According to Vint Cerf, the developer of TCP/IP, the technology of basic internet communication, “If you want a life of anonymity, join the French Foreign Legion…the Internet is brittle and fragile and too easy to take down.”
There are, of course, additional protections that internet users can take, such as a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or Tor, single-use credit cards and sham identities, but even savvy users can make telltale mistakes. Meanwhile, most of us remain highly vulnerable: even with encryption, some computer whizzes believe that everyone online can be individually identified by 6 to 10 pieces of metadata pieced together by experts.
Despite the worrisome vulnerability of our information, people continue to use the internet as though it gives more anonymity and protection. Perhaps it is due to a misguided faith in “security” systems. Perhaps it is because physical separation engenders a feeling of anonymity. Perhaps it is a resigned belief that hacks are unavoidable. Perhaps we continue to feign anonymity for all those reasons and more.
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