MEDANSKY: For online anonymity

Little Fables

With Edward Snowden and Julian Assange still in the headlines, it seems like everybody’s been talking about online privacy. I’m sure the metadata confirms my hunch. But not all of these conversations have been equally productive.

Annelisa Leinbach_Illustrations Editor_Marissa Medansky_1011Earlier this month, when Iowa State University students wanted to form a campus group to discuss virtual security, they faced unexpected barriers. According to the students, administrators took aim at their mission statement: to “discuss, learn and practice techniques to anonymize and protect digital communication.” University leaders were concerned about the group’s interest in Tor, the popular free software used to anonymize online activity. Eventually, administrators relented, and the students founded the organization — but only under conditions they described as restrictive.

Tor was developed at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory over a decade ago. Today, it is among the leading Internet privacy tools available. Iowa State administrators aren’t the only folks concerned about its newfound popularity. Government documents leaked by Snowden reveal that the National Security Agency has attempted to undermine the software’s efficacy, launching what Washington Post reporters described as “increasingly successful attacks to unmask the identities and locations” of Tor users.

It’s fair to assume most Yalies aren’t affected by this controversy. Digital privacy isn’t usually on our minds. We download the latest update to Google Chrome, not specialized browsers built for privacy. Or we worry about which email signature is most professional (“sincerely,” or “best regards”?), not which technology can best encrypt those emails.

It’s easy to assimilate into the rules of our surveillance society. As children of the Internet age, we don’t need Glenn Greenwald to tell us we’re being watched. We know the government has its eyes on our data; we know corporations play fast and loose with our privacy.

Because the default everywhere is surveillance, it is also the case at Yale. Our Acceptable Use Policy allows the University to search student email accounts under numerous loosely enumerated circumstances, such as “essential business functions.” Administrators say this monitoring rarely occurs; for staff members, there have been six cases in five years. Yet Yale is not required to notify us when our communication is searched.

This isn’t shocking to most students. In the News’s report on email monitoring (“University can access student emails,” Nov. 15), over 75 percent of students interviewed said they were “unsurprised” the University could access our communication. Perhaps growing up on Facebook conditioned us to believe that our online speech was by default shareable and open to the public. And if our standard platforms of communication are always being monitored, perhaps it’s time to find new ways to speak more freely.

No meaningful debate on privacy can be premised on the assumption that anonymous speech is illegitimate. In fact, what we need are more and better platforms for anonymous speech.

It’s unfortunate that anonymity has a reputation problem. Some concerns are warranted. Anonymity can derail discourse, as even the most casual Internet users learn. Some online commenters, hidden behind their pseudonyms, share heinous worldviews (and creative insults) they wouldn’t otherwise post. But allow me to paraphrase Voltaire and defend their right to mock on — and their ability to do so from an account named “YaleGirl1234.”

The ability to speak up anonymously is especially important at Yale, where many students are precociously concerned with their nascent professional appearances. If you’re worried an errant red cup can kill your chances with McKinsey, you’re probably also concerned your criticisms of University policy might lead to reproach — no matter how valuable or well-intentioned those concerns are.

Anonymous space can foster honesty, and communities that are more transparent are better able to identify and rectify problems they encounter. That openness is critical when discussing sensitive issues. Some victims can be silenced by a culture that refuses to accept their stories without a name attached. A nameless space can be a safe space to share experiences of harassment, discrimination, even assault.

Namelessness raises questions of honesty and accountability, and no technology is perfect. But we as a campus certainly would benefit from creative and legitimate opportunities for anonymous communication. And we should seize the example set by students at Iowa State University to promote dialogue on privacy and surveillance, anonymous or otherwise.

Marissa Medansky is a junior in Morse College and a former opinion editor for the News. Contact her at marissa.medansky@yale.edu.

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