Hiding in the open

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine Nov-Dec 2012

The Internet has become a powerful force for openness and transparency. Widespread Internet access removes barriers to the exchange of information, making it easier to publish, easier to find and easier to access. The notion that information should be freely exchanged is integral to the way the Internet is built, relying as it does on traffic flows at zero cost between the networks that make it up.

We have probably only seen the beginning of the massive cultural impact this many-to-many information flow is having. At a trivial level, what was once said in private, by letter, telephone or email, is now posted on Facebook walls or tweeted, almost as a challenge to the world - why should I need to say this in private? More important is the challenge to power put by the open data movement, which asks: why should this information not be in the public domain? The challenge is even more direct when the technology is used to publish data without permission - Wikileaks is one high profile example. The guiding principle is that information should start free and be kept private only when necessary, rather than the other way round. This notion, that information, knowledge, is free unites a range of campaigners and activists, from the Electronic Freedom Foundation to the ‘hacktivists’ and anarcho-geeks in the ‘Anonymous’ movement.

Therein of course lies a paradox: anonymity is vital for many forms of Internet activism, from people using the net to organise against oppressive regimes, to whistleblowers using Wikileaks. Indeed, the right to anonymity - which is a form of privacy - is itself an important principle for many campaigners, on a level with the idea that information should be open and free.

The peer-to-peer principle that aids the free exchange of data also offers a way to preserve privacy. Tor is a system that allows any Internet user to use resources on the net, secure in the knowledge that the sites they visit and the information they exchange, can’t be traced back to them by anyone monitoring traffic along the way. The free-to-download Tor software (www.torporject.org) creates a chain of encrypted peer-to-peer links to hide not just the content of information but where it comes from or is going to. It’s a vital tool for campaigners and activists for whom anonymity can be a life and death matter. Tor technology also allows the creation of ‘darknets’, where the servers are anonymous as well as the users. This too is a valuable tool for campaigners, and equally for organised crime and child pornographers. Privacy, like technology, has its good and bad sides.