understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
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Marsha Hanen







Marsha Hanen
President, Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, University of Victoria

e-mail: mhanen(at)chumirethicsfoundation.ca

ANON interviews Dr. Marsha Hanen
April, 2004

ANON: Why are you interested in studying anonymity? Is an interdisciplinary approach especially important to the study of anonymity?

MARSHA HANEN: “My interest in anonymity is both conceptual and ethical. I want to go back to the very beginning and ask about what privacy and anonymity really mean from a philosophical standpoint. I see the philosophical aspects of this project as the bedrock of the project – both the analysis of the underlying concepts and the discussion of the ethical issues around anonymity, privacy and identity. Integration among the different disciplines is important to any interdisciplinary enterprise; otherwise the separate disciplinary work just sits side by side without an attempt to delve in depth into the connections that may be present. I suspect integration is especially important in the area of anonymity, where the consequences of work from a variety of disciplines may have profound effects on the results. It is difficult to understand very much if we treat our ideas as existing inside silos. There is also the matter of consequences – trying to determine who is affected by the new technologies or by the law and what that means. ”

ANON: How does anonymity affect behaviour, in particular the sharing of knowledge amongst individuals?

MARSHA HANEN: It depends on the individual and on the type of knowledge. When sharing very personal information, people, may choose to interact anonymously, in contrast to situations where the information shared is less personal and therefore poses fewer risks to the individual. If we are anonymous, we probably tend to share more information than when we are not. But people have different thresholds of tolerance in relation to how much information about themselves they are comfortable revealing. For example, some people prefer their first, or last, names not be used in casual encounters; some resent being asked for identifying information such as telephone numbers..

ANON: How does anonymity in an online environment compare with anonymity offline? Is the nature and value of anonymity different in each context?

MARSHA HANEN: Again, it depends on the people and the information involved. In an online environment, familiarity with internet use is another variable. I suppose in general we feel we have greater anonymity online than in face to face interaction.

ANON: What is the relationship between your interest in the Anonymity Project and your interest in ethics?

MARSHA HANEN: There are fundamental issues about privacy which connect very closely with some of the work that I do on ethics in the public realm. Most of us would say that no one has the right to disclose our identities without our consent. But what does consent amount to? Informed consent is hard to define, and a lot of “informed” consent is really coerced consent. On the other hand, there is also the issue of accountability. Clearly, if we think accountability is important, there may be times when that impinges on our privacy. For example, we publish the names and salaries of public employees and senior management of public companies. At a certain level, this is a violation of privacy. Is that something we should worry about? What would be lost if we published salaries without the names? Publishing salaries alone would allow people to retain a measure of anonymity, but it may reduce accountability. There are lots of trade-offs of this kind, and the challenge is to figure out where the lines should go.

ANON: What are the ethical implications of ISPs disclosing the identities of their users?

MARSHA HANEN: That is something we generally think is not a good idea. When you register with an ISP, unless someone explicitly tells you that all your information will be disclosed, you assume it is private. Disclosure in that situation seems to be a violation of an ethical principle.

Now suppose that we are in an environment where we know that all of our information is subject to disclosure. This scenario raises different ethical questions. But even in that case, although you may agree to an ISP sharing your identity as a subscriber, it may be because you are given no choice (“agree or you can’t subscribe”), in which case the consent looks more coerced than merely informed..

ANON: The law in this area looks at reasonable expectations of privacy and whether the reasonable expectation can change or if it is a fixed standard. Do you think reasonable expectations can change from an ethical perspective?

MARSHA HANEN: I think reasonable expectations can change depending on circumstances. The critical kinds of ethical questions arise when people have the chance to change their view about whether they will or will not buy in. So if I enter a transaction on the assumption that there will be a reasonable expectation of privacy, then if that expectation changes I should be able to opt out.

ANON: Do governments and public bodies need to build layers of trust into their online presences, or is the “goodwill” value behind these institutions sufficient?

MARSHA HANEN: I think they do need to build all layers of trust and the main reason is that people have so little trust in public bodies and governments. People are quite cynical, and do not believe that governments will do what they say they will do. It’s hard to imagine believing that goodwill by itself is sufficient in the present circumstances.

Trust is very difficult to build. The institution or government has to show that it is trustworthy – merely saying so is not enough. In the area of privacy and anonymity, you show that you are worth trusting by not disclosing information without explicit consent, and making it very clear that you are not going to do so. Many institutions and organizations, in their privacy policies, claim that they only disclose the information that you give them where it is necessary and appropriate. Instead, public bodies and institutions need to make an unequivocal statement about what they will and will not do and stick to it. At the same time, they should provide enough information about their practices so people can opt out if they wish.

Learn more about Marsha Hanen
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