What If No One Was Anonymous Online?

VOICE OVER: Chris Masson WRITTEN BY: Sean Harris
Online anonymity. Personal privacy. Data protection. The dark web, data leaks and hacking scandals. The buzzwords and talking points about how we live our lives on the internet are mounting up and up. But, what if the online world was opened up entirely? What if everyone online knew everything about everyone else, with our statistics available at the click of a mouse, or the swipe of a tablet? If no one was anonymous online, how different would the world be?

Special thanks to Ted Mann for assisting with this video!

What If No One Was Anonymous Online?

Online anonymity. Personal privacy. Data protection. The dark web, data leaks and hacking scandals. The buzzwords and talking points about how we live our lives on the internet are mounting up and up. And most of us have an opinion on what’s right, wrong, and what the ideal user experience should be.

For many, personal privacy is what’s important. After all, we should be able to browse websites without unseen data harvesters converting what we look at into custom-built advertising. And, we should be free to use social media to connect only with the friends and followers we choose, without our profiles being snooped upon by people we’ve never met. However, international news stories like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and various high-profile hacking breaches in recent years, seem to prove just how precarious the situation has become.

So, what if online anonymity wasn’t even a thing to worry ourselves with? What if everyone knew who everyone was all of the time? It perhaps feels a little like a twenty-first century, screen-centred dystopia, but how would our lives change?

The move would arguably create a surprisingly ‘secure network’, the like of which still only really exists as an underground concept. Right now, no matter how honest and open internet users claim to be, the various profiles we create for ourselves are exactly that; creations. They can be as close or as far from our real-world selves as we want them to be, manipulated to suit a purpose. In the simplest case of social media, studies have shown how Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like are driven by our desire to show our ‘best selves’ – often at the expense of our ‘real selves’. While there isn’t usually a malicious reason for doing this, the trend has been linked with the development of various mental health issues including depression and anxiety.

If no one was anonymous online, then our profiles would be based upon more than just usernames and avatars, instead containing concrete links between ‘online you’ and ‘real you’ – most likely through biometrics. Now, the ultimate optimist could argue that this would be a good thing. That it’d give everyone a clear identity, therefore removing all suspicion from our online activities, establishing trust and encouraging the formation of genuine communities via the network. If even those unseen ‘higher powers’ were traceable – the governments, data firms and intelligence agencies reportedly deciding which news stories we should (and shouldn’t) read, and which adverts we should (and shouldn’t) see – then the world, and the internet, would be a better place, right?

Well, yes and no. Complete transparency is perhaps an ideal, but it’s an unrealistic one that’s a) almost completely impossible to maintain, and b) more likely not that beneficial, anyway.

The most obvious issues surround how exactly such a network would be policed – if it’s policed at all. If all the information about ourselves is contained within one ‘super profile’, and that profile is accessible to anyone we meet in the real world, or willingly connect with online, then it needs to be safe, secure and always authentic. The search for complete and incorruptible authenticity is key, with ‘authenticity’ replacing ‘anonymity’ as the thing that everyday users would crave most of all. Even a slight misrepresentation or glitch within your profile could be the difference between you getting the job you want, or just missing out on it – for example.

The inevitable bridge between your online and real-world presence (the idea that every bit of digital data would directly impact real life) creates the biggest headache of all – practically, ethically and psychologically. It’d be a level up from what we currently have, and a gigantic leap away from life before the internet – when even anonymity wasn’t such a pressing concern.

Where now users worry that their transactions, interactions and conversations are tracked by tech companies, governments or sophisticated hackers waiting to pounce, before the internet you had only your ‘paper trail’ to keep tabs on. Bank statements through the post, receipts at the checkout, actual cash carried around in actual wallets. Phone tapping was a fear for some, but for the most part, if someone was following you – they were literally following you.

By indiscriminately linking online profiles to real-world people (turning everything they’ve done, or will do into observable data), we’d have unprecedented insight into even the most inconsequential comings and goings of everyday life. That optimist from earlier might claim that it all amounts to a single, strong and permanent ID for everyone, which would make life a lot easier to live. But, the counter-arguments are many, ranging from ‘it’s intrusive’ to ‘it’s outright dangerous’.

Removing anonymity wouldn’t only separate the ‘bad’ from the ‘good’. It wouldn’t only expose hackers, black market dealers, and criminals… But would also create problems for innocent people.

On a small scale, you wouldn’t be able to suck at an online game without everyone knowing what your name is; you wouldn’t be able to search for another job without your current boss knowing all about you; you wouldn’t be able to buy underwear, without anyone who was interested knowing what it looked like. Surprise parties would be very difficult to keep secret, and first dates (or any first-time conversations) would become fairly formulaic – with both parties able to ‘do their homework’ and conclusively ‘research’ their partner beforehand. It all starts to get a bit strange and uncomfortable.

On a more serious note, it’d be impossible to anonymously vote, to make an anonymous donation to a good cause, to create forums where oppressed people can speak out, write literature under a pseudonym, or participate in anonymous polls. Everything you do, and every opinion you voice, becomes part of your public profile – which clearly brings increased pressure, beyond anything we’ve seen before.

The question rests on personal data, and how public of private it is. Indeed, the sheer volume of personal data that we know (or suspect) exists about every one of us, is usually what drives the desire to be anonymous. Because, clearly, for the past three decades, we’re no longer recording only our bank details, home addresses and mother’s maiden names. But, much, much more.

To a certain degree, the blurring between online profiles and actual people has already happened. We use fingerprint recognition to access smart phones, use ATMs, and pass through borders… And, thanks to our growing reliance on wearables, we carry data stores on our wrists, telling us everything from how fast our heart beats to how deeply we sleep at night. Governments are able to track our physical movements through biological identifiers; Fitness apps can predict health problems within a matter of minutes. The step toward linking it all together, and removing any remaining semblance of anonymity, seems a fairly small one.

We need only look at the advancements made with virtual reality for an idea of what’s possible, though. Take Microsoft HoloLens, the souped-up smartglasses that allow users to chop, change and alter exactly what they see in front of them. Combine tech like this with a complete removal of online anonymity, and suddenly everyone’s walking the street with their vital statistics on view to anyone who glances their way. Develop the devices down from futuristic-looking frames into tiny contact lenses, and there’d be no discernible way of knowing who was (or wasn’t) checking you out.

And so, the dystopia sets in. The thought of our personal information suddenly becoming available is naturally worrying. With details ranging from what car we drive to which websites we visit, to what we ate for breakfast two days ago all presenting themselves to anyone we connect with.

In theory, it’s an ultimate ‘freedom’, as we’re all given a 24/7 platform to be exactly as we want to be, plus open insight into everyone else’s ideas, beliefs and preferences. As long as everybody is transparent online – including world leaders, law-makers and high-ranking influencers – then we’re all just as secure, insecure, vulnerable or invulnerable as each other. We’d also effectively ‘own’ all of our own data, simply because no-one else would – and there’d be no third parties with hidden agendas, directing us to ‘look at this website’, ‘click this link’ or ‘like this video’. The internet would open up, leaving us all to make personal decisions about where to go.

In practice, though, it’s impossible to see past the problems that such a seismic shift could cause. Yes, the removal of anonymity would allow for informed, efficient links to be forged for things like business, education, relationships and sport… But, it’d take away ability to fulfil the human need to compartmentalise ourselves – to share some of our lives with some people, and some of it with others. Our employer needs to know our professional background, but they don’t need to know what we’ve been binge-watching recently. Keeping certain details to ourselves is all part of what makes us interesting – not to mention the basic need to exist without living under the watchful eyes of everybody else. It suggests ‘freedom of speech’, but where’s the freedom not to speak?? Where’s the right to privacy? It would amount to some scary form of mass control – taking away even our ‘freedom of thought’, and pushing us all towards conforming to safe and centralised ideas and behaviours.

In the long run, after a couple of generations of complete online transparency, we may come to accept it. But, failing that, the perhaps more likely outcome sees a movement away from living online entirely – either retreating to an older way of doing things, or finding another method, with at least some opportunities for genuine privacy and quiet. Depending upon who you speak to, online anonymity is either an essential requirement for a fair and equal service; or it provides an unwanted veil for fraudulent and criminal activity. Whatever the case, take it away, and the life of every user is transformed – on the internet, and in the real-world. For better or for worse? What do you think?