The era of Internet anonymity is over

Credit: flickr/Mike Licht, NotionsCapitol.com

A famous New Yorker cartoon once declared, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." But sometimes those dogs bite. Time to put them on a leash.

One of the most appealing things about the Internet is that it seems to offer blanket anonymity. Very few sites or services require you to use your real name; the Net lets you assume multiple personalities, create a new version of yourself each time you log on, and exist apart from your physical self in real life. (Like most men, I am taller, younger, and wealthier on the Net.)

It also provides a layer of safety when revealing your identity could prove dangerous -- say, for political dissidents or victims of spousal abuse.

But anonymity is also one of the awful things about the Internet. That's because most of the problems people encounter on the Net begin with a false identity.

Someone poses as a former government minister who has miraculously selected you (via email!) to help him spirit millions of dollars out of his country. A message that says it's from your bank is really an attempt to fool you into giving up your password. Someone on Facebook claiming to be an old friend is stranded overseas and badly in need of cash -- quick. A person pretending to be a work colleague calls your friends and fools them into giving up private information about you.

The Nigerian 414 scammer, the financial phisher, the Facebook flim-flam artist, and the hacker/pretexter all have one thing in common: They used a fake identity to cause you harm. They appropriated the trust you'd normally place in that identity and used it against you. (Though being greedy or naive doesn't help.)

Of course, the Internet is not truly anonymous -- as Anonymous themselves are now discovering. You can be traced via your IP address and the information you provided when you paid for Internet access. It's just not easy, and in most cases not worth the effort.

So despite the hamfisted way Google has been handling the issue of real names on Google+, you have to at least give them props for realizing that securing members' identities is key to keeping its network free from scammers. That's something eBay, Craigslist, and MySpace (among others) realized too late.

The recent AirBnB nightmare is a classic example of how trusting a stranger using a false identity can have horrific consequences. A woman known only as E. J. allowed someone using a fake name and presumably a stolen credit card number to rent her San Francisco apartment for one week via AirBnB. Her place got thoroughly and viciously trashed, valuables and key personal documents were taken, her identity was stolen, and her life was turned upside down by the experience.

In this case, E. J. had placed her trust in AirBnB, which is designed to use the concepts of social networking and reputation to ensure that everyone who uses it is on the up and up. But AirBnB doesn't require its users to provide any kind of documentation proving they are who they claim to be. Now the service is facing a PR nightmare from which it is desperately trying to recover (though I still think E. J. is suffering more).

Services like Tru.ly and Trufina have attempted to blend the concepts of identity and anonymity by becoming trusted third parties in transactions between strangers; essentially verifying that you are who you say you are, and Joe or Jane Unknown are who they say they are. Yet none of these services have yet to catch on in any meaningful way.

Many people hate the idea of giving up anonymity. They like the freedom. They like having multiple identities and not having the things they say online come back to haunt them in another context. But we are rapidly entering an era where broad anonymity is something we can no longer afford.

I think over the next five years we're going to see a lot of services relying on government issued IDs, cell phone numbers, and other verifiable third-party sources before any transactions are conducted. Anonymity will become the exception (see political dissidents, above) and not the rule.

Even if you don't like it.

TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan operates under multiple names online; can you guess which ones? Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech.

What’s wrong? The new clean desk test
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies