Anonymity And Urban Life, Ctd

by Conor Friedersdorf

One common response to my inquiry – Does the Internet age portend the end of cities as a place where anonymity is an option? – is that lots of people go through life offline, and that people can choose to avoid tools like Facebook and Twitter. Though there is truth in both of these criticisms, I'd like to challenge them, though I concede that anonymity can be preserved by someone who takes extraordinary measures to do so.

For the rest of us, a few examples that better get at the near future I envision:

– Over the Thanksgiving Holiday, I met a guy in his early thirties who was one of the few people in his friend group who wasn't on Facebook. Initially, this merely meant that his presence on the site was limited to being tagged in photographs taken at group dinners or during flag football games or other gatherings. Eventually, his friends created a Facebook page on his behalf. I am not sure whether this is because they tired of having to contact him separately to facilitate party invitations or to rope him in on conversations, or it was due to a simple rebellion against his eccentricty. Perhaps he could have the page removed if he wishes. In any case, he faces substantial social pressure to be on Facebook, and even if he continues to opt out, his photographs and references to him will continue to appear on the site, sometimes publicly.

– Some readers may be aware of Hollaback!, a movement that encourages women to take pictures of men who harass them on the street:

Street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against. Comments from “You’d look good on me” to groping, flashing and assault are a daily, global reality for women and LGBTQ individuals. But it is rarely reported, and it’s culturally accepted as ‘the price you pay’ for being a woman or for being gay. At Hollaback!, we don’t buy it.

We believe that everyone has a right to feel safe and confident without being objectified. Sexual harassment is a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment that makes gender-based violence OK. There exists a clear legal framework to reproach sexual harassment and abuse in the home and at work, but when it comes to the streetsall bets are off. This gap isn’t because street harassment hurts any less, it’s because there hasn’t been a solution. Until now. The explosion of mobile technology has given us an unprecedented opportunity to end street harassmentand with it, the opportunity to take on one of the final new frontiers for women’s rights around the word.

This is, by my lights, an example of one way that ending or radically decreasing urban anonymity would improve society.

– In California awhile back, a woman was caught cheating on her husband when a red light camera snapped her photograph in a car with another guy and automatically mailed the ticket to the address where the vehicle was registered.

– A reader writes:

The implications of the ubiquity of people’s online virtual identities, and their ready discoverability, is already recognized as a major problem in the witness protection program. It used to be if some mobster testified against his crew, you could give him a new name and social security number and drop him in Hawaii or North Dakota, and that was the end of it. Now, however, people are expected to have these “data trails” that cover their entire life: credit histories, social media accounts, photos, cell phone activities, and so on. Anyone who is, say, 35 and doesn’t have these things stands our like a digital sore thumb. But how are you supposed to create a “past” for this new identity? Major issue. Similar problems apply to creating fake identities for potential undercover operatives, whether domestic or international.

People in witness protection are an extreme case. The everyday corrolary is that when everyone is on Facebook, not being on it begins to seem suspicious. A perfectly upstanding person who merely wants to protect their privacy might avoid social networks with the best of intentions. Then one day they'll meet someone in a bar or at the airport, and exchange phone numbers in hopes of meeting up for a future date. "Or just friend me on Facebook." "Oh, I'm not online." "Really? Nowhere? Why?" "Oh, I just like to guard my privacy." Tell me part of you wouldn't wonder (if you were from a generation and socio-economic subculture where Facebook is as common as it is for these hypothetical people) if something was amiss. The choice to abstain from social networks is nevertheless there. But it grows ever more budernsome as ever fewer people exercise it.

– And perhaps costly. When last in New York City, I wandered into a bar in the Weswt Village that encouraged patrons to check in on Foursquare upon entering. We're not far from the day when discounts are given to people who interact with a brick and mortar business by finding it on Yelp or recommending it on Twitter. The Internet economy is increasingly driven by selling our privacy to middle men who pass it along to marketers.

– Finally, facial recognition seems like the real game-changer. Imagine a New York City politician who wants to run against a war or the construction of a mosque at Ground Zero or some other event that brought people out into the streets to protest. She gathers up a bunch of news photographs and cell phone images posted to Flickr. It's run through software that matches it with other tagged and untagged photos online. The identities of various attendees are determined with a reasonably degree of accuracy. And they're targeted for campaign advertisements, or solicited for donations. (Obviously, darker scenarios can be conjured too – although who needs Big Brother when people check in on Foursquare upon arriving at a riot!)