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In Search of J. Doe: Anonymity in a Post-9/11 Society
In one possible vision of the future, if devices can locate us at any given moment and link our identity to personal information in matters of seconds without our knowing it, what will become of anonymity? Would that be a good or bad outcome?
On Tuesday 4 May, AAAS, the Woodrow Wilson Center and the American Bar Association Section of Science and Technology Law will sponsor a forum to discuss whether living anonymously is possible in a post-9/11 society. One of the scheduled speakers is "Mr. Xxxxxxx," a man attempting to live anonymously in modern society.
"AAAS has been examining anonymity and other issues raised by the growth of the Internet for several years, as part of its efforts to promote responsible conduct and use of science and technology," said Al Teich, director of the AAAS's science and public policy programs. "We are all stakeholders on this issue."
"Given advances in information technologyfrom cell phones with digital cameras to geographic positioning systemsanonymity will be threatened in three critical dimensions: personal, spatial, and behavioral," said David Rejeski, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Foresight and Governance Project. "That means that it will become increasingly possible for someone to know who we are, where we are, and what we are doing."
Though conceptually distinct from privacy, anonymity is often tossed into the same bin. And current public debate pits security and privacy as rivals.
"For a society that wants to encourage participation among all its citizens and their diverse views, anonymity offers the security that some need in order to become involved," said Mark S. Frankel, director of AAAS's scientific freedom, responsibility and law program. "Whistleblowers, human rights advocates in repressive regimes, and informants in law enforcement may require anonymity."
If privacy refers to separating one's affairs from society, Frankel explained, anonymity is about interaction within the society. And, though the "right to be left alone" may be crucial to personal well-being, a robust society includes civic participation and debate. Anonymity can encourage people to speak out or take action without fear of adverse repercussions. But, others could use anonymity to escape responsibility for conduct that causes harm.
"Privacy is a deeply felt human need," said David Brin, author of the award-winning novel The Postman, who will be a panelist on 4 May. "Anonymity is a way to avoid accountability for one's actions. They are not the same thing. In fact, we'll have more genuine privacy if we can always spot and know those trying to violate it."
Policymakers currently are deciding on the technology of the digital world for years to comecreating an immediate and compelling need to examine the role of anonymity, Frankel said. At the same time, technologies are being designed to track, associate, authenticate, and recall personal data on a massive scale, with the potential to encompass both physical and virtual acts.
"If policy restricts privacy or anonymity, scientific research could be adversely affected, if people become reluctant to participate in studies if they believe that those beyond the research team could identify them in a way that links them to sensitive information," said Frankel.
Panelists will explore different perspectives on anonymity and its practical implications. Why has it endured? What are its social benefits and costs? What, if any, special protections does anonymity deserve? "Security and anonymity are dual obligations, not rivals in a zero-sum game," said Kim Taipale, executive director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology Policy, another scheduled panelist at this 4 May event.
The final talk will be from a Mr. Xxxxxxx, an anonymous lifestyler who comes from a diverse financial background. As a man attempting to live anonymously in society, Xxxxxxx adopted a pseudonym because of the concern that his public statements on a listserv and elsewhere in cyberspace might be taken out of context and prejudice clients.
The event will take place on 4 May, from 8:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. (ET). More information can be found on: www.foresightandgovernance.org/projects/anonymity. The conference will be held in the Woodrow Wilson Center's 5th floor Conference Room, located in the Ronald Reagan Building at 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.
Reporters planning to cover the event should contact Carol Hoy at email@example.com or (202) 326-6434. The event is free and open to the public, but space is limited. The general public should RSVP online at www.foresightandgovernance.org/projects/anonymity.
29 April 2004
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