Thursday 19 March 2015

Online Anonymity is Here to Stay, According to the UK's Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

“There is widespread agreement that banning online anonymity systems altogether is not seen as an acceptable policy option in the UK.”

The UK Parliament's Palace of Westminster
One line says it all when it comes to the findings of a March 9 research briefing published by the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. “The darknet and online anonymity” closely examines the good versus evil of anonymous internet use—the last bastion of personal security or a cybercrime nexus?—and weighed unequivocally on the side of privacy. The study focused on Tor, a system trafficked by 2.5 million users daily that protects the identity of journalists, drug dealers, law enforcement, and individuals alike. 

Throughout the report, researchers’ support of online anonymity came down to practicality:

  • We have the technology needed to secure the data of whistleblowers, journalists, and those with information about the Mafia. We can read the news when our governments choose to censor it and remain unseen to our cyberstalkers. Why wouldn’t we?
  • Online anonymity cuts the middleman out of illegal activity, making us safer and criminals fewer: “It has been argued that online drug markets like Silk Road transfer parts of the drug dealing business from the streets to the internet and may shorten the supply chain from drug producers to consumers. Some say this can reduce the number of drug-related crimes like robbery and shoplifting, and thus lower the social and economic costs of drug misuse." 
  • And finally, try as David Cameron might, we simply cannot undo technological advances: “Computer experts argue that any legislative attempt to preclude THS [Tor Hidden Services, i.e. hidden websites] from being available in the UK over Tor would be technologically infeasible.”

The report concludes with a reminder and perhaps a warning: people want the user-friendly privacy that companies are increasingly striving to provide; if people feel their privacy is threatened, they will turn increasingly to methods of protecting their anonymity, such as Tor and VPNs (as we are currently witnessing in Australia).

Although “The darknet and online anonymity” is a report and not law, parliamentary research briefings such as last week’s tend to be heeded by the powers that be. Let’s hope that this one is heard.

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