Press Release

History makers,
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Professor Gerald M. Stokes' contribution to Maeil Business Newspaper

Press Releaseㅣ2021-09-27 13:04


Written by Gerald Stokes

There are even more complicated times ahead.

In this ever-expanding age of the internet in which it has become a necessity of life, there is a growing concern about the extent to which individuals’ privacy may be violated. There are certainly many ways privacy can be compromised. As I looked at the range of issues concerning privacy and privacy protection, it led me down a path to the consideration of anonymity in cyberspace. This is becoming another important issue in our highly connected world.

When we think of privacy, probably the most intense invasion of privacy is identity theft. This is a burglary of the most personal kind. People that have experienced feel violated and it takes considerable time and effort to recover. It happens in many ways and in varying degrees. It can range from taking over your identity and stealing your money, to assuming your work identity to steal from your employer. While the users of the internet may bear some responsibility for the theft of their personal data, leaks of personal information held by a third party are increasingly common. This may lead to individual identity theft or any number of other questionable activities. In most of the world, identity theft and the stealing of personal data are crimes – as they should be.

On the other hand, data mining by internet service providers is considered a legitimate business purpose. Providers, like Google, track our use of their browsers, email, news services, and other apps they may provide. They track not only our usage, but the content of that usage. They examine it and sell the results of their examination to advertisers or use it themselves. While these providers may end up knowing more about us than anyone who has stolen our identity, it is considered a fair trade for the free usage of their services.

This data collection is largely information about us. Who we are specifically is less important than our attributes, our gender, our age, what our interests are, how much money we make, where we live and other demographic data. These attributes are connected to an “address” – a place to find us on the internet with ads, offers, or political promotions.

Individuals have evolved strategies to deal with this targeting. One is to use the time-honored tradition of choosing your “username”. Some of us prefer to make these usernames similar to our real name, while others choose more exotic aliases or “handles”. Some people will use different identities for different purposes – social media, email, online shopping – thereby compartmentalizing their identity.  Many people go beyond this approach and create elaborate sets of identities for their various social media accounts. These are rapidly evolving to graphical representations or avatars. These are what I would call a weak protection of “who I am”.

A more complete protection of protecting “who I am” is to become anonymous. This comes in several layers. In literary circles authors sometimes have a “nom de plume”. The American author Samuel Clemens wrote as “Mark Twain”. Authors true identities may or may not be known. For example, here in Korea, who is, or who are, Djuna?

Increasingly, we see individuals, particularly in social media commentary simply becoming their alias, remaining anonymous. Anonymity is an extreme form of privacy. A person’s true identity remains private while their alias becomes a social commentor, a political gadfly, or a cultural critic. Most democracies protect people’s ability to speak – commonly called freedom of speech.  Generally, freedom of speech is a protection against the actions of the government targeting what we say. However, as we well know, freedom of speech does not protect individuals from “prosecution by the public” on social media. Protection of ones’ private self from this onslaught by using an alias, and remaining anonymous, seems certainly prudent in some cases.

On the other hand, the same kind of anonymity can equally protect a bully or a purveyor of false news. Hiding behind their internet identity, individuals feel emboldened to act, believing that they will not be held accountable. This is complicated when one realizes that not all “identities” on the internet are human. The development of bots, artificial users of the internet is becoming commonplace. These can be very simple programs or more sophisticated AI based systems. They are used to amplify and spread messages. These bots never rest and have been used to influence political campaigns and spread false information about individuals, technologies like vaccines or other matters of public interest.

Facebook and other service providers are trying to understand their responsibility for these uses of their platforms. Increasingly around the world governments wonder what, if any regulation might be required. Other governments, or parts of governments, wonder how the same tools might be used to advance their national agenda – either by controlling content within their borders or launching cyber based campaigns in, even against other countries.

As a student of the relationship between technology and society, I have frequently shared ideas in this column that might address the issues I raise. I have suggested another “law” of robotics that requires more responsible human actions and the use of blockchain to ensure data fidelity in the face of fake news. I have no answer for the privacy and anonymity conundrum. A perfectly reasonable desire to protect “who I am” uses anonymity, but that same anonymity can be used as a cover for individuals who approach the world with malicious intent.  

Some aspects of privacy concerns are being addressed. Two factor authentication is helping protect against some forms of identity theft. Similarly, there cases where individuals involved in election tampering have been charged with a crime. However, actions are few and the problem is growing.

More complicated times are indeed ahead …


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