Anonymity From The Front Line
Life, Death, Privacy & The Internet
Author’s Note: A recent proliferation in claims of anonymity provided in using various messaging apps raises the need to discuss the gravity of making such claims when human life is potentially at stake.
Anonymity from an ontological perspective, and issues revolving around information ethics, are themes I explore in my work as an artist/ontologist. Indeed, my portraits (kevinabosch.com) of the famous and not so famous are explorations into matters of identity and existence.
It had been percolating to the surface for many years, this concept I had become obsessed with, an elegant and discreet communication platform with so little friction or noise as to seem implausible. In 2007 I started a list of “rules” this platform would have to adhere to, which included:
- Users would not have to use a login/password to send a message
- No cookies issued under any circumstances
- IP addresses would be tossed and therefore not connected to any message sent on the platform
- Messages on the platform would not be stored indefinitely (mostly because I didn’t want to pay to store them)
The goal of such a platform would be to afford the user the opportunity to communicate discreetly and truly anonymously.
I am not of the school of thought that if you have nothing to hide, then you shouldn’t be concerned with maintaining your anonymity. Rather, I believe anonymity requires protection, and can even become an issue of human rights.
Thousands of people across the globe lose their lives every year simply because the words they speak or the words they write were attributed to them. Many never sought attribution, yet in their attempts to remain anonymous they were nonetheless, frequently through digital clues, discovered. These deaths often come in the form of State-sanctioned murder.
I have been a supporter of Amnesty International (www.amnesty.org) for years and have met many who have lost friends and family at the hands of governments who choose to silence voices opposing their agendas.
In November of 2013, I launched Kwikdesk (www.kwikdesk.com), a communication platform that strictly adheres to a privacy-protecting philosophy and employs technology not just to obfuscate, but to truly anonymize its users’ identities.
In the first week KwikDesk saw users flock to the site, but as we intentionally have no analytics on activity other than the number of unique users and the number of page views, we had no idea what was being communicated.
Soon, we would start to see people posting URL’s for various search strings (i.e. https://www.kwikdesk.com/#confession) on other sites like Twitter and Facebook, so we could see that our barebones platform was being used for freeform, asynchronous, topical discussion. The individual messages which we call Kwiks, are not linked to a URL so they cannot be crawled by bots. In interviews with the press I encouraged people to use KwikDesk in another way: for discreet messaging.
You can only search KwikDesk for #hashtags, so unless you know or stumble upon a #hashtag which has already been submitted to KwikDesk, your search results will be empty. You can only submit text to KwikDesk by including a #hashtag, which means that if you submit a message followed by a complicated #hashtag like “ #4ac14f6b60dd99439b7b061b440eb70f”, you essentially have a private anonymous message which can only be retrieved by searching for the same #hashtag. Two or more people who know the complicated #hashtag have a “secure line” of communication, that is unless someone gives up the #hashtag. In this sense, KwikDesk works as an anonymous “dead drop”, waiting for someone to retrieve the message. When messages are created, they are marked to “self-destruct” in either 24 hours or 10 days at the user’s discretion.
While the barebones platform has gained considerable traction in its short existence, we are now also developing a suite of anonymous social tools powered by the KwikDesk platform, and are partnering with other developers working with our API.
In late November 2013 KwikDesk launched a Chinese version of the site (cn.kwikdesk.com) with Wuerkaixi, student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests in China. Wuer, whom I met through Amnesty International, is a longtime campaigner for human rights and has helped us reach a Chinese population which includes 591 million netizens. (WIRED 11/27/2013)
Anonymity is touted by many, but I’d advise taking a close look at the terms of service of some of these trendy players in the messaging space. How can you guarantee anonymity, and therefore potentially a user’s safety, when you are throwing cookies at them, running geolocation, and even pixel tracking?!
After a decade of allowing our personal data to be exploited in ways we may sometimes appreciate, but more often do not, or would not if we were aware of its extent, isn’t it time to build a comprehensive social-media experience upon true anonymity and with an entirely user-defined level of attribution ?
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— Kevin Abosch