When it comes to discussing the importance of anonymity people will say things like, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to fear.” There’s an assumption that only people engaging in nefarious activities would want their identity to be protected.
In fact, there are many good reasons to care about anonymity, especially online. Being unable to keep your identity private when necessary can cause serious problems.
Here are some reasons that you might choose to remain anonymous on the internet, and why online anonymity is important. Plus we’ll some tips on how to protect your anonymity online.
1. Identity Protection
Sometimes you just don’t want anyone to know who you really are. Even if you aren’t involved in anything illegal or questionable. There’s a level of social safety that comes with anonymity. And that can be really important for introverts in online communities.
But more than that, imagine if you were a celebrity of global recognition. It can be tiresome to have paparazzi everywhere and no room for being alone. You’d be surprised how many well-known figures use sites like Reddit and 4chan in secret.
As President Barack Obama shared in his interview with Jerry Seinfeld:
Jerry Seinfeld: What is it that you really want to do that they won’t let you do?
Barack Obama: I would love to just be taking a walk and then I run into you and you’re sitting on a bench. And suddenly I say, “Hey Jerry, how’re you doing?” You say, “I’m doing pretty good, what’re you doing?” I say, “Nothing. Just a Saturday morning.”
Anonymity isn’t something that you think about as being valuable—but it is.
What Happens When Identity Isn’t Protected Online
South Korea is a good example of this. All residents of South Korea have something called a resident registration number (RRN). This is unique to each person and is used as an identifier. This number is usually required to register online accounts (e.g. games, websites, etc).
In theory, this makes a lot of sense because it ensures that each person can only create a single account per service. In practice, however, there are some big potential issues that could arise when things don’t go according to plan.
For example, in 2006, hundreds of thousands of RRNs were leaked from various consumer databases. Then cybercrimianals used these RRNs to create false accounts in a game called Lineage as part of a money laundering operation. The worst part is that these RRNs weren’t stolen by hackers. Instead, they were sold by company employees with database access.
Having your credit card numbers compromised would be bad enough. But at least credit card issues can be rectified and numbers can be changed without too much hassle. RRNs are not so easily changed, unfortunately, and one hiccup could be ruinous.
2. Personal Harassment
Online anonymity also plays an important role in freedom of expression. One of the most amazing things about the internet is that it can give voices to those who are actively being silenced. This allows them to speak without fear of repercussion.
In 2011, authorities arrested Mohammed al-Maskati, an outspoken political activist in Bahrain. He was only released after signing an agreement to never again mention Bahrain in any form of media.
In this instance, al-Maskati’s choice to use his real name was intentional. He does not regret that choice despite the consequences he faced. However, for many others who are silenced in this way, anonymity is the only way to be heard while remaining safe.
But don’t think that this is only an issue in third-world countries. In fact, online harassment has been a huge topic of discussion right here in domestic America over the past few years, and that discussion won’t be dying down any time soon.
What Does Online Harassment Look Like?
Online harassment can manifest in many ways, including but not limited to:
- Doxing: When someone releases your personal information on the internet. This often results in invasive pranks, stalkers, and even death threats.
- Swatting: When someone calls 911 and reports that you are dangerous. This resulting in police officers busting down your door and arresting you. The police have even shot people who were “swatted” by someone online.
- Revenge Porn: When someone releases intimate photos or videos of you on the internet without your knowledge. At best, it’s a violation of privacy. At worst, it can obliterate your reputation, your future, and even your sanity.
But the safety to speak one’s mind freely is also important in scenarios that aren’t as “serious” as the ones above.
For example, some might say the world would be a better place if we were all held accountable for the online reviews we submit for products and services. But the opposite is also true: without fear of repercussion, we can be 100 percent truthful if we have something negative to say
Or consider the case of someone who lives in a dangerous neighborhood. They read a news article about yet another fatal shooting. Then they want to share their opinion in the comments. But they fear that the gang will find out and call for punishment. Anonymity allows for that.
Whistleblowing is an extreme version of this. This is where anonymously-released details and evidence can be used to keep people accountable for their words and actions. Without any anonymity, the revelation of high-stakes secrets would always come with dangerous consequences.
3. Sensitive Issues
There’s one other major category of people who benefit from anonymity: those who need more information on a given topic but don’t want to be caught seeking out that information. Most people actually fall into this group without realizing it.
One common example is someone who’s struggling with their sexuality, hasn’t gone public with that struggle, but has many unvoiced questions and concerns. This person can ask all of their questions in an online community without revealing their identity and risking premature exposure.
Medical questions are another sensitive area. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of young girls who got pregnant or contracted an STI and want to seek out medical advice without their parents finding out. The guy who’s having weird bowel movements may also want answers while remaining anonymous.
The list goes on: people who struggle with mental health issues, people who are cheating in relationships, people who need divorce advice, those caught up in legal issues and don’t want to incriminate themselves, etc.
We’ve all been in situations where we’ve taken our online anonymity for granted. We’ll find ourselves in many more of those same situations as the years go by. How would you feel if every single question of yours was tied to your real-life identity?
This is one reason why Reddit is so popular as a hub for online communities. You don’t even have to provide an email address to create an account, which allows people to make “throwaway” accounts and ask or provide information without risking their identities.
How to Protect Your Anonymity Online
If you’re worried about your anonymity online, there are some practical steps you can take to protect it:
Use a VPN
A VPN is one of the best investments you can make to protect yourself online. It works by encrypting the data you send over the internet. This stops other people from being able to see what you do online. There are hundreds of VPN providers you can choose from.
But avoid free VPNs as these companies often make money by selling off user data. Instead, check our list of the best VPN services.
Browse With Tor
If you want to browse the internet with as much anonymity as possible, you should try the Tor browser. Unlike most browsers like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, Tor uses a process called onion routing.
This is where data is passed through multiple nodes in an encrypted format. This means you can still visit websites as usual (though they may load a bit slower) but it’s extremely difficult for anyone to track you online. If you chose to try this, check out our tips for using the Tor browser safely.
Don’t use Social Accounts to Log into Other Sites
Many sites let you use your Facebook or Google account to create a new login, which is very convenient. You don’t need to create a new username or remember a new password. However, linking your accounts from multiple sites together in this way is a big threat to your anonymity.
This is especially the case if you use your real name for your Facebook or Google accounts. Instead, you should create a new account for each site you want to use. If you’re worried about forgetting your passwords, you can use a password manager.
Why Online Anonymity Is Important
Online anonymity isn’t just for those who are up to no good. It’s important for all of us. Whether we’re avoiding cybercriminals, protecting ourselves from harassment, or dealing with a sensitive personal issue, we all benefit from being able to stay anonymous online.
We’ve shared some tips for protecting your anonymity online. But there are many more tools and services available to help you with this. To learn more, see our list of free guides to understand digital security and protect your privacy.
Read the full article: 3 Undeniable Reasons Why You Need Online Anonymity