understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
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Stephanie Perrin
Director, Integrity Policy and Risk Management, Integrity Branch, Service Canada

e-mail: forge(a)ca.inter.net

ANON interviews Ms. Stephanie Perrin
April, 2004

ANON: What were you doing at Zero knowledge, and how does that experience lead to this project?

STEPHANIE PERRIN: One of my main roles was to explain our anonymizing technology to policy-makers and law-enforcement, who, logically enough, felt threatened by it. I spoke to the G8 Cybercrime committee, Interpol and government agencies. I went to privacy conferences and explained Canada's privacy laws and how they interfaced with technology. The technology itself did not sell, and part of the reason for that was the lack of understanding of how privacy and anonymity are under threat.

ANON: What is standing in the way of people understanding the importance of privacy?

STEPHANIE PERRIN: I liken this lack of understanding of privacy and anonymity to the environment. For years environmentalists have been telling us about how we contribute to environmental pollution, and how that pollution is literally killing us and a host of other animals. We have been made aware of the perils, but have not addressed them. If we have done little to address environmental damage over the past few decades, it does not surprise me that we are slow to react to threats to privacy when information technology is brand new and when it is more difficult to see the damages. There is a limit to how much change human beings can absorb.
The hidden nature of the damage is another reason why we are not quick to address infringements of privacy. The private sector considers this a victimless issue with no harm and no damage. It was not until we had statistics on identity theft that people started to take notice.

ANON: As the research coordinator, how easy or difficult has your work been in combining research from the different disciplines?

STEPHANIE PERRIN: This is a challenging project because of the different disciplines and the different avenues of mobilizing knowledge, and the reward structures in academia. If you are a behavioral scientist, publishing in a technical journal with Steve Mann does not get you points. Neither does publishing in newspapers as opposed to a refereed journal. But it is important to get information out to the public so newspapers and magazines are a vital method of dissemination if we are ever going to affect public consciousness. There are also language differences amongst the different disciplines.

I think it is interesting that the students on the project understand this and are jumping in to cross fertilize. One of our doctoral candidates is bringing a literature review to the first meeting, another is writing a paper for beginners on the finer points of cryptography. We wonder whether this “disciplinary gap” is partly a generational thing, so we will be interested to see what the students make of the problem.

ANON: Having worked in the public and private sector, how effectively do you think these sectors communicate on the topics of anonymity and privacy? How can this dialogue be improved? What role does the anonymity project play in this regard?

STEPHANIE PERRIN: Different things drive the public and private sector. The private sector says "show us the market and we will build it." There appears to be no demand for privacy, that is why camera phones have taken off, but privacy friendly technologies have not. Members of the government want to raise public awareness about privacy and anonymity but lack the budget. Privacy Commissioners lack the mandate and funds to raise awareness. The private sector has no motivation to raise public awareness. If someone were to develop and market a privacy-enhanced phone though, they would have an incentive to raise awareness on these issues. In the meantime…we are locked in a push-pull quagmire.

ANON: How can the Access To Information user’s guide that you are working on with CIPPIC, EPIC and IPC (Ontario) be used by citizens and everyday people interested in privacy advocacy?

STEPHANIE PERRIN: The ATI user guide speaks to the fundamental problem that people do not know their rights. We can provide useful tools and inspiration to people to understand what information they can get from government and what is happening to their own information.

ANON: How will the privacy landscape change or how has it changed with the coming into force of PIPEDA?

STEPHANIE PERRIN: PIPEDA provides comprehensive rights over your information at the federal level. It provides an incentive to provincial governments to pass legislation to protect privacy. Because of jurisdictional matters, the federal legislation does not cover the labour market, the NGO sector and other areas under provincial jurisdiction. PIPEDA places Canada in a league of countries which have data protection legislation. Being able to request and see information will create a much greater understanding of how information flows in this country, and indeed around the world.

ANON: Will this legislation have an affect on the particular issues surrounding anonymity, identity and authentication in a networked society? What about the war on terror?

STEPHANIE PERRIN: There isn't a data protection law on the planet that protects a citizen against national security concerns. After 9/11, information collected at Walmart is turned over to Homeland Security. A lot of people say, it does not affect me so I don’t care. You know the line, “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”. This ignores the issues of accuracy in databases, identity theft, or willful and vicious disinformation. The fact is that many databases which are being mined for predictive profiles are just plain not accurate. Most people don’t care, but they will when they get mistaken for a terrorist. It’s just like when people ignore allergy issues until they have a child who is allergic to peanuts. All of a sudden you care whether the airline is serving peanuts to the person sitting beside them on an airplane.
The problem is finding out what is happening. If I am denied entry to the United States, I know enough to go try to find out what is wrong. If I do not get a car loan, I know enough to check my credit rating. But if I pay a high price for insurance, do I know enough to check the databanks? If I keep failing to get past first base on job applications, so I know enough to ask for my Choicepoint file? These are the kinds of insights we hope to put into the Access Guide, because the person on the street has no clue generally about what could be wrong.
Once people understand what is going on, and what the potential for harm is, we expect they will understand what we are talking about when we talk about the right to be anonymous, but I expect it to take quite a while, not to mention a lot of hard work.

Learn more about Stephanie Perrin

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