Anonymity in a computer system is an illusion.
The Illusion Of Anonymity
Tuesday, 15 December 2009 16:51 Hrs
❝ Anonymity in a computer system is an illusion.

Earlier in the year I decided to re-activate my Facebook account. [0] It was in response to Black Saturday. [1] Till then I was quite content living in my own Internet bubble. The past was the past and I could pick and choose how I interacted with it. You could find me if you looked.

❝ I’ve been on the Web since ’94, the Internet longer. [2]

The Black Saturday fires [3] forced me to change the way I interact online. I had to quickly adapt. It’s been a strange start to the year so far. I’m running across people I haven’t seen or heard of for many years and I&’m not sure quite why. Now it seems every time I run into someone and I mention are they online they respond more than likely with,

❝ yes, on Facebook!

I’ve had an account for a long time, but I never use it. Why? I’m certainly not that interested in having to learn the ins and outs of the interface and permissions. But faced with an increasing number of people I know using it I’ve come up with a plan. It’s pretty simple. Grab all my open content and funnel it back to Facebook. Just find a content aggregation site, Add all the sites you want to collate and point the RSS file to Facebook. Instant content without having to touch the site.

❝ Facebook is to the Internet, what Microsoft was to the PC.

This solves a couple of problems in one hit. Firstly it means I don’t have to worry about my stuff being sucked up and dictated by any one company. The other is I still appear on Facebook to anyone I know who lives there. Facebook reminds me of the large shopping malls. You can see people walking around at a lower level, call them over if you want to or simply ignore them if you feel like it. That kind of behaviour is creepy. I know it happens but... Even creepier is closed pages. People want to exist in Facebook (or travel through the mall) yet remain anonymous.

❝ Facebook reminds me of large shopping centres.

Pumping my open content into Facebook has some interesting side effects. Because the information is search-able on the open web, I don’t need to close access to most things. I don’t bother putting phone contact details. I simply use phones for outgoing calls. The rest of the time it’s turned off. So what else is there to put up?

Anyone can view my page. They just can’t edit or comment without my permission. Pretty my much as it exists on the Open Web. The only thing exposed is my friend network. Have to think about that. On the other hand these networks are exposed on other sites but not to the same degree. [4]

Small worlds

At the time I didn’t understand why I was all of a sudden being contacted by people I hadn’t seen or heard for many years. Now I do. Technology like Facebook, Flickr and Twitter cut across my small world networks [5] allowing me to contact people I hadn’t seen for years but it also let me find lost people by virtue of knowing friends of friends. [6] Social software really did make a difference.

A balancing act

But there is also a downside. I’d also have the potential to run into people I didn’t want to interact with. [7] How do I balance the two competing demands? The solution was to use the advantages of the Open Web [8] with a few tweaks. I’d self censor posts, but leave the bulk of the content open for all to see. This is the future.

❝ You decide what kind of presence you want on the Internet, not someone else.

So I decided just how would I interact with people that I’d shared a past with. I could close everything off and whisper to them. This represents how face to face conversations happen. I see someone but unless all my other friends, friends of friends are privy to the conversation they’ll only get it second hand.

Social software changes the rules. Now all your friends, friends of friends, strangers can see your conversations all at once, if you choose. Facebook is no different in this respect. But Facebook isn’t a real conversation with your friends.

Sold a fairytale

❝ Anonymity in a computer system is an illusion.

To think your conversations in a social software setting are the same as real life and will remain private is naive. Total privacy is a pretense. Anonymity in a computer system is an illusion. So what happened this week? Facebook decided to force users to be more open. [9] The advantages of thinking about the idea of friends, privacy and networks and how this effects my electronic social networks has allowed my privacy settings on Facebook pretty painless.

I’m not trying to be too smug here. I could still be bitten. But if I do, it won&38217;t be through sheer ignorance. For those who are lamenting their lost anonymity, yes it is a betrayal of sorts. But it also required a suspension of belief in the reality of how software works [10] and how companies operate. [11]


[0] Facebook, ‟My Facebook account’

[1] Flickr, ‟Bushfires, Black Saturday Flickr collection”

[2] Flickr, ‟2006JUL261050: blast from the past... 10 Years on the Internet”

[3] Flickr, ‟Black Saturday Bushfires set”

[4] Flickr, ‟Facebook: Why the end of the line is my destination, not the city”

[5] Wikipedia, ‟Small world network”

[6] Wikipedia, ‟Six degrees of freedom: friends of friends phenomena”

[7] Flickr, ‟Highschool set”

[8] Flickr, ‟Facebook: Why the end of the line is my destination, not the city”

[9] EFF, ‟Facebook’s New Privacy Changes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”

[10] Flickr, ‟Iz killd miselfz on fuzzbook und livded to tel da tail”

[11] Flickr, ‟Roach Motels ( announces shutdown)”


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