Monday, October 19, 2009

Anonymous and the Secret

It has often been said of secrets that they may be kept provided, through a variety of witty phrasings, that there is only one person aware of the secret. The essence of these clichés is correct; secrets must, themselves, be kept secret. Advances in information technology, however, make it more difficult to hide that there is a secret, and thus more difficult to hide the secret, itself. Every step that makes information more accessible and long-distance mass communication easier makes secrecy less and less tenable. In example, one trying to keep it secret that one is wanted by the law is made considerably more difficult if one's picture and name are printed in newspapers, shown on television, or, most of all, posted on the internet. One does not need to suspect the criminal and perform a background check, rather, one knows already that a criminal has the pictured face, and the criminal may be discovered even if the criminal does nothing remotely suspicious. Similarly, most of the world will remain unaware of the contents of a notebook hidden under one's mattress, and this journal may remain private and house secrets. Only those searching through the house would find the journal. A journal on the internet, however, makes its own existence known by occupying a virtual space adjacent to others. While most wouldn't know of a private journal kept under one's bed unless one mentioned it, the private journal online mentions itself through the web address it uses. Similarly, physical photographs only shown to one's friends offer more secrecy than “private” photographs stored on internet photo albums. An embarrassing photograph in an album at a friend's home can remain a secret from potential employers, while the same photo on the internet may be accessed far more easily by those one wishes to hide it from.

Several examples of this phenomenon come to mind. A girl named Sasha Gomez stole a cell phone she found in a cab. When the phone's original owner logged into her online account, she found pictures of Gomez and her instant messenger username. This information, of course, made finding further information easier. After asking Gomez to return the phone over instant messenger failed, someone created a website explaining what had happened with pictures of Gomez. The website began to spread virally, and soon enough a massive network of individuals had obtained her e-mail, social networking pages, and even home address, and a campaign to make her life miserable grew until she returned the stolen phone. Prior to the internet, even if she had been discovered as the thief, it would have been difficult to discern much of Gomez's identity from nothing more than a face and a nickname.

A similar story concerns a teenage boy who posted a video of him abusing his cat, dusty. In the video, he even used a fake name, seemingly to conceal his identity, however, users of the 4chan message board found his identity, and posted his and his parents' personal information, including both home and work addresses and phone numbers, in public places. The cat was relocated and the young man was charged for animal abuse. A related internet group (of sorts) to the 4chan community, known as Anonymous, hacked into Sarah Palin's e-mail account, leading to a good deal of fallout; Time magazine explained that “After [the] hacks were made public, both private accounts were deleted — an act that could technically constitute destruction of evidence. The Alaska governor could also face charges for conducting official state business using her personal, unarchived e-mail account (a crime); some critics accuse her of skirting freedom-of-information laws in doing so. An Alaska Republican activist is trying to force Palin to release more than 1,100 e-mails she withheld from a public-records request.” The lesson, then, is that secrecy is increasingly impossible in an age of modern information technology.

Some secrets are possible to keep, however, even with today's information technology. Secrets, fundamentally, work like algebra problems, where there is a missing piece that must be found. There are secrets which may never be discovered in the same way that there are equations which it is impossible to fully solve. Just as one cannot solve a problem without being able to find the equation, one cannot find a secret when there is no evidence of that secret (one may keep opinions, thoughts, and beliefs entirely secret simply by not expressing them). This sort of secret has little relation to anyone beyond the person who keeps it, and there's not too much reason for anyone to want to find it. The other type of secret which cannot be discovered is one to which there is no answer, or, rather, no single answer. Try and solve the equation 3 + X + Y = 12. Obviously, one may come to solution very easily, discerning X=4 and Y=5; 3 + 4 + 5 =12. Unfortunately, one may also come to the equally valid solution that X=15 and Y=-6. In fact, the possible solutions are literally infinite. Trying to guess at the secret of a magic trick that may be performed in a limitless number of ways, no matter how easy to guess many of those ways are, is nearly impossible. If one guesses one method, the magician can make one incorrect by using another.

This is demonstrated in the power of groups like the aforementioned Anonymous, who, along with loose affiliates, have been or claimed to be responsible for numerous examples of internet vigilantism and “hacktivism,” along with more commonplace bullying and pranksterism; Anonymous describes itself as “the final boss of the internet,” and takes as one of its many slogans that “none of us are as cruel as all of us,” while another reads “Anonymous is a hydra, constantly moving, constantly changing. Remove one head, and nine replace it.” Its strength is in its collective and amorphous nature, which renders any attempt to determine the identity of anonymous entirely futile. When one boy abuses a cat, one girl steals a phone, or one vice-presidential candidate makes an arguably illegal e-mail account, the secret is easy to find; there is a single correct answer. Finding one identity of Anonymous is meaningless because, as another meme states, “Anonymous has no identity.” Without leaders, formal organization, any clear base of operations, or any set, defined membership, Anonymous really does not have, for any practical purposes, an identity.

-Andrew Doty

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