Anonymity is becoming a thing of the past, study says

Laws in Canada and other countries are increasingly helping technology force people to identify themselves where they never had to before, a new study has found.
The study found that governments are increasingly choosing laws that require people identify themselves, aided by new technologies such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, which allow tracking of individual people and items. ((Eckehard Schulz/Associated Press))
Laws in Canada and other countries are increasingly helping technology force people to identify themselves where they never had to before, threatening privacy that allows people to function effectively in society, a new study has found.

"What we're starting to see is a move toward making people more and more identifiable," University of Ottawa law professor Ian Kerr said Wednesday.

His comments followed the launch of Lessons from the Identity Trail: Anonymity, Privacy and Identity in a Networked Society, a book summing up the study's findings, at a public reading in downtown Ottawa hosted jointly with the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

Kerr led the study with University of Ottawa criminology professor Valerie Steeves. They collaborated with 35 other researchers in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands and Italy.

The researchers reported that governments are choosing laws that require people to identify themselves and are lowering judicial thresholds defining when identity information must be disclosed to law enforcement officials. That is allowing the wider use of new technologies capable of making people identifiable, including smartcards, security cameras, GPS, tracking cookies and DNA sequencing.

Consequently, governments and corporations are able to do things like:

  • Embrace technologies such as radio frequency identification tags that can be used to track people and merchandise to analyze behaviour.
  • Boost video surveillance in public places.
  • Pressure companies such as internet service providers to collect and maintain records of identification information about their customers.

While Canada, the U.K., the Netherlands and Italy all have national laws protecting privacy – that is, laws that allow citizens to control access to their personal data – such legal protection does not exist for anonymity, Kerr said.

"Canada is quite similar [to other countries] with respect to anonymity. Namely, it's shrinking here just as it is there."

Anonymity can protect privacy: researcher

University of Ottawa professors Valerie Steeves and Ian Kerr said anonymity helps protect privacy and privacy allows peoples to function effectively in different roles in society. ((Emily Chung/CBC))
That is an issue, Kerr said in an interview, because anonymity is one method people can use to protect their privacy.

"I can stop people from collecting information or sharing it or using it if they don't know it's me."

While that isn't always a good thing, anonymity may allow people to express their political views in countries that limit free expression or to talk about sensitive topics without fear of social reprisals, Kerr said.

"There are examples where it is of value, and … if the whole thing goes out the window, there's a real concern there."

For example, Kerr added, in the past when the internet was largely anonymous, people with AIDS could speak online with others who had the disease without fear that they would be identified and stigmatized.

Steeves said Canada's existing privacy laws have done little to help Canada deal with other legal means that erode anonymity, such as anti-terrorism laws and regulations that allow companies such as Facebook to keep people's personal data for long periods by wording their user agreements a certain way.

"Privacy allows us to play different social roles in different contexts," she added. For example, keeping her private life from her students is essential to allowing her to be an effective professor, she said.

For that reason, individual privacy needs to be balanced against the desires of business and government to be able to collect and analyze information for their own benefit.

"Technologies are being rolled out … that need to be more critically analyzed if we're going to get that mix right," Steeves said.

The researchers are releasing the book online in three installments over the next month under a Creative Commons licence, which allows the authors to share their work in a way that traditional copyright does not, but maintains certain conditions on the sharing.