This drive for pseudonymity won’t stop at the porous borders of the online world. Recently, Kate Klonick, a professor at St. John’s University Law School, gave her students an assignment that was the reverse of Reidenberg’s: Instead of seeing what they could learn about a known person, Klonick’s students were to observe nearby strangers during spring break and see how many they could ID.
Their results were successful in a way that was shocking but not surprising; a few snippets of overheard conversation, or a glance at something such as a luggage tag, were enough to seed a successful search.
As that kind of surveillance grows, catalyzed by free-range viral videos recorded wherever an embarrassing incident unfolds, coupled with a contest to name the bad actors and where they work, the demand for pseudonymity will require more than non-revealing Twitter handles.
As yesterday’s locks are supplemented by today’s networked home-security cams, companies will market tools for us to secure the manifold ways in which our identities could leak. Nico Sell (which may or may not be her real name) has led the way: She’s a digital-security researcher who has worked hard to never be publicly photographed without wearing sunglasses.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have designed special glasses to confuse facial recognition without requiring shades, and the artist Adam Harvey has pioneered an open tool kit of new fashions for the same purpose. Next up will be shoe inserts to stymie gait detection, and the commandeering of Auto-Tune to prevent voice recognition.
With its new morning routines of adjusting one’s voice disguiser, gait blocker, and special glasses, Pseudoworld has a lot of clear drawbacks. It requires personal vigilance to avoid identification, with lingering problems if one’s mask should slip. It portends daily social interactions that tilt more toward the configuration of a confessional booth—or a 4chan message board—than an exchange of pleasantries with a store clerk bearing a name tag, or an earnest discussion thread on Facebook with each participant’s home town, relatives, educational history, and favorite book voluntarily one click away.
In Pseudoworld, lots of data mining is still available to companies and governments. Anonymized data from Fitbits and iPhones can still be used to determine well ahead of time if, say, Cleveland is particularly restless one evening—and its people seem to be assembling in protest.
Pseudoworld will happen if the legal frameworks for protecting privacy aren’t updated. In the absence of public protection, and the presence of bandits, we’ll procure what private help we can afford to protect ourselves—and companies will cater to our paranoia. It’s the apotheosis of the internet-as-Wild-West cliché, one that goes at least as far back as internet-as-information-superhighway.
But let’s consider Pseudoworld’s near opposite.
What if the law were tightened up with more accountability for bad actors in an attempt to make us feel more comfortable sharing? Or perhaps Pseudoworld never worked, as the hydraulic pressure of disclosure overcame all the strategies of resistance? We could end up in Transcriptworld.
Here, Facebook’s real-name requirement will have become near universalized. Those who can’t or won’t identify themselves will be excluded. But identification, unlike pseudonymity, won’t be technically burdensome. It will be built into everything we do. An Uber or Lyft ride will record the ID of the driver and the passengers through a fingerprint or facial recognition (thanks, Apple!), along with the exact route they take and at what time.
All other cars will too, especially self-driving ones, with such sensible biometrics as those we use to unlock our smartphones today. Indeed, identification will be belt-and-suspender: Even if the car doesn’t record who and where you are, your phone will, and you’re not giving up your phone.
In Transcriptworld, high-profile privacy cases such as United States v. Jones, in which the police were required to get a warrant in order to place a tracking device on a vehicle, will be quaint, because vehicles will already have multiple tracking devices, and acquiring that information will be as easy as sending a business-records demand to the relevant companies, such as Apple, Tesla, and Verizon—or smaller and sketchier startups such as Clearview AI, designed solely to transact in data.
Doxxing someone in Transcriptworld will be even easier than it is today—Google’s database is hardly shrinking—but here, anyone in the country who engages in it, or harassment based upon it, will face swift and sure punishment in a newly energized legal system, especially because the bad actors’ own anonymity is so hard to maintain. (For those outside the country, it will be a different story.) And short of law enforcement, Transcriptworld will allow private platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to enforce permanent low visibility, or outright bans, for those said to be violating their terms of service, wherever they may be in the world. It’d be as easy as an airline banning an unruly (and vaping counts as unruly) passenger for life—and far less costly to the company.
To get to Transcriptworld from our current time, most alternatives of anonymity simply need to be removed for most transactions, online and offline. That could happen, as with the move to Pseudoworld, through commercial decisions as much as through government action: If identification can be made even easier, storefronts and social-media platforms might decide to try to help themselves to it through facial recognition and other involuntary tools, or require it before serving anyone, especially if identifiable data collection is part of their business model. Already we see a move in physical retail spaces toward the rejection of cash as more and more people have credit cards.
Most people won’t even notice a difference from today, where, in the absence of hard-to-deploy countermeasures, they’re already this traceable.Transcriptworld might then sound like an incremental change to what we have today—indeed, from what we had in 1999—except more bad actors are held to account. So isn’t it obviously more desirable than the constant, exhausting shadowboxing of Pseudoworld?
The Transcriptworld that’s emerging is a decoy, a scrim placed over the complex machinery that slices and dices personal data to multiple ends, invisible to us. It looks nothing like the world of 1999 where we “already” had zero privacy.
Surfing a website or using an app may feel like a solitary experience, but as a duck may coast serenely across a pond while invisibly paddling madly underneath, as soon as you press something—indeed, merely hover over it—more computing power is available to instantly scrutinize that single act than NASA spent sending Apollo 11 to the moon. Data from one place can be used to inform another. A car-insurance company discovers that “writing in short concrete sentences, using lists, and arranging to meet friends at a set time and place, rather than just ‘tonight’” is linked to better driving, and it can price rates accordingly, by cross-referencing applicants with their social-media accounts.
In the meantime, a playful quiz may be later used to try to hone specific political messages for your particular personality. Inferences can be made not only about you as a person, but about your state of mind at any given moment. Someone who’s recently quit drinking can be offered a drink—or, more subtly, shown a compelling drama whose noble characters just so happen to be hard drinking. Emotionally vulnerable because you lost your job and just had a fight with your spouse? It might be the perfect—or, for you, worst—time to offer you a scammy higher-education degree program, or a car you can’t afford, financed by a payday loan to make you think you can.
Read: Why surveillance is the climate change of the internet.
To be sure, all this can happen in Pseudoworld, too. So what’s really different? Well, background checks for sensitive jobs will include scrutiny of public and private behaviors, including seemingly quotidian ones such as liking tweets about alcohol or using four-letter words. The list of sensitive positions will grow. And, as a counterpart to Pseudoworld citizens’ development of identity-hiding technologies, people in Transcriptworld will seek advice and tools to help shape their behavior so that what’s associated with their identities suits their later job applications and dating prospects. The best companies—and governments—in the system will be a step ahead of people earnestly but still clumsily presenting themselves as different than they are.
Thus Transcriptworld may appear normal, but it’s really the Truman Show, a highly realistic but still completely tailored video game where nothing happens by chance. It’s a hall of mirrors whose horizons and features are digitally generated and honed for each person, in which even what constitutes “normal” is defined by the system: both in the type of world— violent or peaceful, pessimistic or hopeful—that’s presented, and in the ways that people will rapidly adjust to try to avoid the penalties of the system’s definition of negative behavior.
Transcriptworld is a lousy place even assuming, as we have so far, that government’s primary role there is to make sure that people don’t doxx and harass one another. And when government doesn’t embrace the rule of law, Transcriptworld provides the soil—fertilized by commercial data processing—in which to grow the authoritarian nightmares we’ve come to call Orwellian.
There have to be better alternatives than these. To find them, we must overcome the learned helplessness about the state of our privacy—a helplessness often abetted by technology leaders moving fast and breaking things. Privacy defenders have perhaps inadvertently encouraged the same sense of inevitability by speaking in generic apocalyptic terms. But this fight is not simply about keeping particular facts about people out of the public eye. Privacy now is as much about freedom, the freedom to maintain a boundary between ourselves and those who want to shape us.
We’ll need a combination of old-fashioned political pressure to situate and vindicate privacy rights in law, limiting data collection and use, and the forging of new technical tools to make compliance with that law easier. Restrictions on collection and use of data can bring up short the current race to the bottom, and a follow-on slide toward the paranoia of Pseudoworld.
It should not only be that the lucky few can manage to buy and practice their way into a semblance of even the reduced privacy we enjoy today. Functional anonymity is as valuable in commerce as in speech. The burden shouldn’t be borne by those on whom these technologies are deployed. It must be shared by those who want to know all about us, and who would further subtly shape us according to their own imperatives.