What happened to anonymity?
In recent years, information on individuals begins prior to birth. Parents announce pregnancies in social media, sharing lists of possible names, even publishing ultrasonic images. Medical records accumulate in parallel. At birth certificates are issued, social security information, school records, immunizations… the framework that will represent a life in data is already in place. The amount of information stored and the framework expands unabated as years progress.
In the digital age no one is unknown. We unwittingly passed into an age when everyone is findable.
The implications are profound. I’m not the first to write on the topic, just the latest to sense some formidable problems. But the amount of thinking remains thin. Try this:
Google “an age when no one is unknown” or “being unknown” – the top page of results is unrelated to this discussion.
In May 2015, 80 academics called for more transparency from Google, in an open letter.
There is a court case Sidis v. FR Publishing Corp. the plaintiff, William James Sidis, was a former child prodigy who wished to spend his adult life quietly, without recognition; however, this was disrupted by an article in The New Yorker. Importantly:
“The court held here that there were limits to the right to control one’s life and facts about oneself, and held that there is social value in published facts, and that a person cannot ignore their celebrity status merely because they want to.“
So if there is an individual right to anonymity, the battle is now one of being “Forgotten.” This conflict emerged in Europe (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_be_forgotten) but as a matter of philosophical concern the presumption deserves some serious contemplation. I’ve echoed some of the info from that article in this treatment.
Right now, I have no choice. Information systems and data exist and I am known. What if I don’t want to be? The court in Sidis v. FR Publishing Corp. has ruled I have no right to anonymity.
Is an essential ingredient of being free, an option to be unknown? Does being free mean that I have a choice about having my data known?
What permission did I give to become “known?” (None in fact, it just happened without my being aware of it.)
A time is coming when everyone on earth will be “known” by a network of artificially intelligent systems. Google, Microsoft, USA / CIA… whatever… rolling up big data and making that information “known” and “searchable” — has such great economic value, the process will continue unabated.
If we have learned one thing in the last 10 years, it’s that once something is encoded (data exists on it) it is no longer “secure.” The simple fact is that if there is data, it can be read. Protective systems can always be hacked.
I don’t quite know yet how this awareness will change my own online habits. But I’m pretty sure it will.