War on terror will wipe out web privacy

Internet privacy
Could online anonymity soon be a thing of the past?

Like most sensible people, I spluttered with disbelief when I read the Home Office wanted to stop people buying pay-as-you-go phones without providing ID last year.

We're told it's to fight terrorists and organised criminals, two groups who are perfectly capable of making ID documents – and even more capable of nicking law-abiding people's phones.

Even if the government could stop baddies getting their hands on mobiles, they'll just use something else. Email, perhaps, or instant messaging, or Skype, or Twitter, or forums, or chat rooms – all of which, by a strange coincidence, we've recently been told are being used in real or imagined terrorist plots.

So if the government really wanted to make the criminals' lives more difficult, they wouldn't worry about anonymous mobiles. They'd worry about the internet.

Oh God. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? And is the government thinking what I'm thinking?

Getting rid of online anonymity wouldn't actually be that hard to do. Simply pass a law that requires everybody who goes online to get a unique identifier, and to use that identifier whenever they interact with the internet – when they email, or comment, or shop.

A second bit of data – a security question, perhaps, or your postcode – could be used to validate it, and of course using somebody else's ID would become an offence.

You'd need to provide your ID when you used your broadband connection, or set up a webmail account, or commented on a blog, or joined a public Wi-Fi hotspot, or used a cybercafe: no ID, no access.

The thing is, such a law would seem perfectly reasonable to a lot of people. Retailers would like it, because it would help reduce fraud and chargebacks. Forum owners would like it, because it would get rid of libel lawyer-attracting people with grudges.

Pressure groups would like it, because sneaky marketers would no longer be able to target children and pretend they thought all their site visitors were grown-ups.

And you and I might like it, because it could arguably reduce spam, eliminate malicious blog comments from anonymous trolls and do something about the problem of corporate astroturfing.

Never mind that such a scheme makes Google's data hoards look like a Post-It note, or the risk of abuse by bureaucrats making money on the side, or the likelihood of everybody's IDs being lost on a train, or the chilling effects on political activists and corporate whistleblowers alike, or the incredible opportunities for ID theft, or the fact that if a criminal or terrorist is determined enough, they'll find a way around it.

If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Who needs online anonymity if you're not a stalker, or a terrorist, or a gangster, or a fraudster, or some other enemy of society?

Sounds far-fetched? We have to tell the government when we buy a new TV. Pass the tinfoil! I'm going to need a bigger hat!


First published in .net, Issue 186

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Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.