Post No.: 0669
Anonymity is a criminal’s best friend. They want opacity, secrecy and privacy regarding what they do. Anonymity reduces the chances of being identified and caught, and thus plays into the cost-benefit calculation of whether to attempt a crime or not and whether crime pays. That’s why criminals frequently wear balaclavas, steal when their actions are obscured from view, hide behind the banking secrecy of certain countries, use encryption to make their online activities anonymous, use pseudonyms or aliases, etc..
We behave better when we know, or think, we’re being watched. We’re so sensitive to reputations that even just a poster of a pair of eyes next to an honesty box will reduce the sense of anonymity and raise the probability that we’ll put in the correct payment we owe. Cues or primes of being watched enhance honesty, kindness and cooperation.
According to the evidence, people do generally behave better overall the more they remember, believe or feel like they’re being monitored, whether they really are or not. Thus even a dummy camera is a deterrent; unless people know it’s fake. Post No.: 0477 mentioned how gods can be deterrents too; if they’re believed. Criminals and cheats don’t want to be identified – so engage and make sure they sense they’re being observed, and make sure they know it won’t be easy for them if they’re thinking about stealing from you.
Criminals mightn’t just hide their true identities but pretend to be someone else e.g. by faking IDs, identity theft, or spoofing telephone numbers, websites or email addresses, to fool and snare their victims.
Anonymity is supposed to encourage us to tell the truth in surveys. Yet anonymity reduces inhibitions and leads to a lack of accountability thus people can feel even safer to lie.
The financial privacy facilitated by tax havens hides plenty of corruption and crime. Many fraudsters, criminals, corporations, politicians and wealthy individuals stash their money in these places to take advantage of the secrecy, in the same way that non-transparent governments can behave corruptly behind our backs. The Nazis secreted much of their ill-gotten gains in banks in neutral Switzerland.
Opacity can lead to anonymity and a lack of accountability for one’s actions, thus in almost any public-interest context – a lack of transparency is corrosive for society. (And whatever any of the major international banks do is in the public interest because they directly and indirectly affect us all in critical ways. The banks saying, “Don’t regulate us in ways we don’t like or we’ll go to Switzerland” shows how much they can threaten governments to do as they demand.)
Victims of cryptocurrency scams complain about how easy it is for thieves to get away because their real identities are hard to trace – but that’s part of the reason why criminals prefer cryptocurrencies. The addresses of crypto wallets aren’t anonymous but the real-life people those addresses link to are hard to trace. (Some cryptocurrency exchanges make identification easier than others, and law enforcement is making progress, but ransomware attackers and scammers usually demand the hardest-to-trace cryptocurrencies.) Cryptocurrencies are designed to avoid government or Big Bank centralisation or interference too, yet when people dabbling with them get swindled, they want the authorities to do something about it(!)
Money laundering, in principle, works somewhat similarly to ‘onion routers’ for preserving anonymity – by passing the proceeds of crimes through many hands until the trail back to the true source is hopefully obscured and untraceable. ‘Onion routers’ offer anonymity to communications users, like people who browse the web, because a message is sent not from A to Z, but from A to B, B to C… Y to Z, with every ‘node’ only knowing the location of the immediately preceding and following ‘nodes’ rather than the ultimate sender and ultimate destination. (There are ways to work out these though e.g. through timing analyses – one can infer that if an amount of data that’s been sent from one location to another, is then very shortly followed by a set of data of the exact same size being sent to another location, etc., then they’re probably all related to a particular message being sent along a chain.)
The dark web is another way for criminals to exploit anonymity. This consists of many deliberately hidden and unsearchable websites and services, where both owners and users can communicate and conduct business without revealing identifying information like their locations. Why are so many people so keen on hiding what they’re up to? Are they selling cat baskets? Not likely. Much of this dark web harbours child pornography, contract killing services and narcotics merchants. (Some experts claim that anything on the dark web can fundamentally be traced though; although it takes time and resources, and determined criminals can be constantly moving targets.)
If, in a world where anonymity is rife, we can always claim that another hacker hijacked our account or computer to do things in our name, or an agent from another state or a non-state actor conducted an international cyber attack – then it’ll cast doubt over who’s truly culpable and afford deniability.
When anonymously plagiarising or stealing something that constitutes what’s considered a ‘minor’ infringement, like stealing copyrighted digital music, images or essays – most people beg for forgiveness if they get caught rather than ask for permission from the start. Not everyone is equally corruptible. Some are more opportunistic than others in their calculus. But for enough people to make it a problem – what bothers them isn’t the morality to do only what’s right but their fear of getting caught when doing what they know is wrong. The perception of an individual/organisation’s public reputation matters far more than their actual honesty or integrity, hence why the PR industry is so active. (Large tech firms in an environment of feeble external regulations tend to also seek forgiveness later rather than permission first because they virtually know that the vast majority of their users will still carry on using their products almost whatever they do!)
There can be moral or innocent reasons for seeking anonymity though, like when protecting activists who are trying to promote a social good, whistleblowers or their sources when speaking against their unscrupulous employers, journalists or dissidents when divulging evidence against oppressive states, and undercover crime fighters when trying to infiltrate criminal or terrorist organisations. There are some ethical purposes for being fur-tive on the web like ‘white hat’ hacking or cyber-attack penetration testing. Our personal privacy and keeping our own sensitive information private is important too, even if we’re not doing anything nefarious and have nothing illegal or immoral to hide. Meow.
Some national secrets are also important for national security. But how far should agents or authorities be allowed to go to serve our personal protection and national interests, including in the name of national security? Spies routinely conceal their true identities when they conduct undercover espionage and other clandestine operations. (It appears that whether we idolise or deplore spies depends on whose side they’re acting on!)
So anonymity can also be utilised to help fight crime too. A pretty clever game theory strategy is to get drug dealers who are involved in turf wars to anonymously tip-off each other to the police. This sets up a classic prisoner’s dilemma situation – a drugs gang will benefit from having its competition taken out by the police, and it plays on the mind of each gang because some other gang might tip them off hence it’s best to implicate them first! This type of strategy isn’t without risk though. In counter-insurgency missions in foreign lands, we might try to get the local tribe leaders to anonymously tip-off where the insurgents are supposedly hiding – but they might end up merely pointing out where their rival tribes are so that they get eliminated for free!
And it’s not to say that deceptions aren’t sometimes carried out in plain sight e.g. we might apply a weird logic of ‘if her intentions to do something incriminating were serious then she wouldn’t have been stupid enough to constantly talk aloud about it on camera’ or ‘he’s only claiming to have done those outrageous things to exaggerate his ‘bad boy’ image’ – but narcissistic psychopaths do like to brag in the open. They want to get away with things yet simultaneously show off. Their charm draws you in to trust that they’re not really going to hurt anyone, yet their ego makes you feel like you need to tiptoe around them.
Whenever crimes are committed brazenly in the open, like fraudsters on social media, it means that the perpetrators don’t fear being caught and/or punished – either because of weak laws, weak enforcement and/or how strongly or easily they can conceal their true identities.
Effective identity checks may however require allowing firms to process lots of our highly sensitive data so that they can verify us; which presents its own significant cyber-security risks. Corporate data breaches/losses are so common that, like DIY accidents, most incidents barely make the news anymore. Despite regulations, some firms will first attempt to keep any data breaches quiet to protect their public reputations too.
Many illegal or immoral acts that people wouldn’t do in public are done in private, in secret or anonymously – things they simply don’t want to be caught and identified doing. Liberty requires trust, but can we trust each other if we’re not being watched? We need to, say, find and follow those who stalk women in order to protect women. We need to track potential terrorists to protect innocent civilians. But then the authorities who use surveillance to search for potential perpetrators of any kind need to be overseen too because they, as humans themselves, cannot be trusted to always behave in accordance to the law either, or the laws may themselves become too close to creating an overreaching surveillance state.
At least under an adequate framework of laws and enforcement, the vast majority of people can be trusted to at least not commit any serious crimes. But we potentially only need one actor with nefarious intent to inflict more harm than a thousand good actors can overcome. It’s far easier to destroy things than to create order due to the second law of thermodynamics e.g. it takes many people many years to build a skyscraper but only a couple of hours to turn one into rubble, or it takes a community decades to raise a child or a team to save a life but only a split-second to end one. Hence why we must stay vigilant.
End-to-end encryption protects innocent users against criminals, but also protects criminals against law enforcement. Installing a ‘backdoor’ for the authorities to access private data would assist in criminal investigations and thus help tackle the latter, but would also introduce inherent problems for the former.
So governments want companies to give them backdoors to encrypted products. (It also helps when intelligence is shared interdepartmentally and in international policing efforts.) It’s annoying that ‘bad guys’ only have to win once while ‘good guys’ have to win every time to keep citizens completely safe. There are likely going to be more grave global cyber attacks – a few states, or even individuals, can now deal incredible damage against so many in this highly online-connected world. And with ransomware, there’s plenty for criminals to gain from creating viruses, worms and committing cyber attacks.
This therefore presents the conundrum between serving security versus preserving privacy. Some argue that it’s naïve to think that we can ever genuinely have privacy though. Plus what use is privacy if we die? With more state surveillance, the authorities can protect us better. But of course the authorities, in democracies or otherwise, shouldn’t have unlimited powers and must be watched over as much as they wish/need to watch over us.
(You can easily find the real name of the author of this blog by checking out the ‘Policies’ page.)