Anonymous Democracy

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
11 October, 2016
Editorial: 37
Fecha de publicación original: 17 septiembre, 1996

Date of publication: 17/09/1996. Editorial 037.

What you do at night, is revealed in the morning

Helsingius has shut down his computer. And, in doing so, he has extinguished one of the most well-known bastions of freedom in the Internet: the possibility of sending anonymous e-mail. The Finn Johan Helsingius was director of one of the oldest services on the net for protecting user identity, what is known in cyberspace argot as a “remailer”. If one sent a message to Helsingius‘ computer, he stripped it of identifying data, added a coded address and sent it to the person or discussion group specified by the sender. At the end of August, a Finnish court forced him to reveal the name of one of his users who had sent unpublished writings belonging to the Church of Scientology to dozens of newsgroups. This organisation, founded by the science-fiction writer L.Ron Hubbard, asked the Finnish courts to find out who the anonymous publisher was. Helsingius, given the way things were beginning to look, decided to close his service down. “If I can’t maintain the anonymity of my users, it’s not worth carrying on.”

Fortunately, the Finnish computer is not the only one dedicated to camouflaging e-mail. One of the most popular is Mixmaster., which allows a number of computer operators to link their “remailers” together. On sending a message, it passes through a “chain” of systems that strips it off its identifying data and buries the sender’s address deeper and deeper into a digital pit, until it is practically impossible to identify the original sender. These services, like the programs for masking the identity of “web wanderers”, attempt to halt growing intervention by secret services, all kinds of police, software developers, Internet service providers, advertising companies etc., who are constantly collecting private information for their respective ends thanks to the open nature of the Internet. Net technology makes a massive invasion of privacy easy in a way that was unthinkable in the days of sealed envelopes and filing cabinets. Government and other information gatherers are not wasting time. It is becoming easier and easier to follow the trail of a message on the Internet and even extract a considerable volume of personal data during an innocent visit to a web. On the other hand,people who would prefer to remain anonymous or to hand over information only to certain organisations for use in a particular way, are finding it more and more difficult to do so.

The argument put forward by those who would like to maintain the present state of affairs is that lurking behind anonymity are criminals, paedophiles, pimps, terrorists etc. Phil Zimmerman, the engineer who invented the programme Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), which encrypts messages on the Internet, claims that, on the contrary, his invention has allowed human rights activists to operate in countries with repressive regimes. If they weren’t able to mask their identities, their lives would be greatly endangered. However, that is a reason that favours the democratic cause even in democratic countries, something that is not too popular amongst their politicians.

The less we know about our neighbours, the more democratic the society, said the German commissioner in charge of protecting the personal data of individuals contained in automated archives some years back. Who knows what comfortable country house this good man has been sent to by State Security paranoia! Those in power now want to know all about their citizens and the sooner the better. And Internet suits them to a T, despite the intrinsic difficulties of keeping an eye on such an ocean of digital messages.
The situation is made worse to a large extent by the careless attitude of users, who either don’t know much about the medium at their disposal or are unaware of their rights (and obligations) within it. The Helsingius case is only the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of companies are distributing e-mail addresses among their employees without establishing the threshold of the workers’ rights to privacy, nor just how far companies can go in the management of e-mail. This is a shared responsibility in which the criteria of security, so cherished by the authorities, will have to pass through the filter of the rights of the individual.

This very week, the Cyber-Rights working group of the US based organisation Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), published Electronic Privacy Guidelines to orientate the protection of civil and individual rights in the use of e-mail. The document –as is the case in all similar material published by civil rights organisations in other countries– was published in English. Cases such as the Finnish one, as well as the agreement among G-7 countries and the EU to control the marketing of e-mail encryption software, are crying out to be brought into the Spanish arena in order to channel this urgent debate here. The undeniable democratic possibilities of the Internet will not spring up like poppies in a field. They need the collective care of the gardeners that use the Net, to protect it above all from the greedy and furtive poachers who proliferate like weeds in cyberspace.

Translation: Bridget King.