Online anonymity | Cyber security | Cybercrime | Censorship | Data protection | Digital identity

Image Source: Pete Linforth via Pixabay
Image Source: Pete Linforth via Pixabay

Op-ed

Protecting identities through online anonymity and cyber security

Individuals should have the right to create pseudonyms, use encryption, and access networks allowing private exploration online.

By Bivek Chaudhary |

The ability to be anonymous on the internet has become a highly valued right.

Private information leaks, proliferated hacking, and growing advanced surveillance threaten its foundations as our personal and professional information remains scattered across the digital landscape. Then, exercising the said right becomes ever more precarious.

With personal data multiplying across the web, anonymity and security become intertwined. Corresponding debates include how to maintain privacy, security, and responsible digital citizenship.

Protecting the anonymity of internet users from increasingly sophisticated tracking has become a monumental challenge — policy-wise. This reveals an urgent truth — robust cybersecurity is essential to preserve online anonymity and its benefits for society.

Let’s first know what online anonymity is and how it works

(Online) anonymity allows individuals to explore ideas, connect with others, and express themselves freely without being identified, and without fear of judgement or retaliation in a (digital) space.

The desire for anonymity predates the digital age.

Throughout history, writers, activists, whistleblowers, and others have published under pseudonyms to avoid persecution for their ideas.

The Federalist Papers, critical in the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, were first published anonymously under the name Publius. Hacktivist groups like Anonymous leverage the power of anonymous activists working together towards a common cause. 

In his book The Art of Cyber Law & Cyber Crimes, Dr Newal Chaudhary, a Supreme Court advocate and assistant professor at Nepal Law Campus, has expressed that anonymity allows the internet to be a political tool, not just a commercial space. It allows people to express themselves without fear of reprisal.

Enabling anonymous online participation allows citizens to freely articulate their views and evade intimidation. It fosters vibrant democratic discourse and gives voice to the voiceless, including organising and mobilising around political causes being untracked by the authorities. Such practices have been observed to organise forms of political activism and resistance.

Anonymity provides cover for dissidents, activists, and whistleblowers to share information in the public interest without facing backlash. It also allows ostracised groups to connect without stigma. 

On the other side, some argue that the right to anonymity enables abuses like cyberbullying and misinformation campaigns. Completely unregulated anonymity can give cover to malicious actors, from trolls looking to spread hate to criminals stealing identities and property. These valid concerns have spurred calls for greater transparency and accountability online to completely eliminate anonymity.

However, doing so would deprive vulnerable groups such as whistleblowers, political dissidents, and marginalised communities, among others, of their primary defence mechanism online and stifle the free exchange of ideas. Today, anonymity remains crucial for such and other at-risk groups. 

In Nepal, online anonymity is particularly needed to protect free speech and privacy rights. Authoritarian tendencies often restrict dissenting opinions and minority voices. Critics of powerful actors face threats here. This chilling effect gets amplified online, leading citizens to self-censor for fear of reprisals. Marginalised communities also avoid expressing their identity or views publicly due to prejudice. 

Technologically, online anonymity is increasingly feasible today. Tools like virtual private networks (VPNs), the Tor browser, encrypted messaging apps, and decentralised platforms allow masking one’s identity and evading surveillance during digital activities. However, the adoption of such tools currently remains limited in Nepal.

Online anonymity and Cybersecurity go hand-in-hand

Maintaining true anonymity now requires individuals to take proactive cybersecurity measures to guard their identities.

Anonymity thus relies on robust digital protections against intrusions like data breaches and unauthorised tracking. Far from being in opposition, anonymity and cybersecurity reinforce each other in the face of threats aiming to pierce the veil of privacy.

Securing the channels of anonymous discourse is vital to preserving free expression and a diversity of views online. 

The massive growth of the internet and connected technologies has allowed people to divulge more personal information than ever before often without even realising it.

On social media alone, users hand over their locations, interests, relationships, and more to build out their online presence. The data collected is a goldmine for advertisers and other third parties looking to profit off trading users’ information. Once this data is out there, it can easily be exploited if not properly secured. 

Doxing, or publishing private information to enable harassment, is on the disturbing rise. For activists, journalists, victims of abuse, and other vulnerable groups, a loss of anonymity can put their livelihoods or even lives at risk. 

Governments are also eager to expand surveillance and limit anonymity, arguing the need to combat crime and terrorism online. Terrorist groups like ISIS have been very effective at disseminating propaganda materials and indoctrination content through social media, messaging apps, online forums, and encrypted platforms. Such content aims to radicalise individuals and provide instructions for carrying out attacks.

Terrorists can use encrypted communications tools and the dark web to safely coordinate attacks, share information on making bombs/weapons, and transfer funds anonymously to evade authorities. 

The state-sponsored breaching of anonymity in China, Russia, and elsewhere has left dissidents exposed to arrest, violence, and suppression. Overreach by governments into the privacy of citizens highlights why anonymity and cybersecurity must work in tandem. Strong data protections prevent personal information from being accessed or distributed without informed consent.

Policy addressals worldwide

Online anonymity has always been a critical issue, but the need for comprehensive laws and regulations has grown urgently in recent years.

As more of our lives shift online, the ability to speak, organise, and explore privately on the internet has become a fundamental right. However, sophisticated tracking methods, data breaches, and coercive government policies increasingly put anonymity at risk.

Protecting online anonymity requires proactive steps by both governments and technology companies. 

The United Kingdom has been a leader in enacting forward-thinking cybersecurity and data protection laws. In 2018, the UK passed the Data Protection Act, which incorporated the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This expanded requirements for consent before collecting personal data, individual rights to access data and request deletion, and accountability for companies securing data.

The UK also enacted the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) in 2016 to oversee state surveillance capabilities after the Snowden leaks revealed potential overreach. However, some digital rights advocates argue the IPA still provides excessive monitoring powers to intelligence agencies without sufficient independent oversight.  

In the United States, cybersecurity regulation remains more fragmented. There is no single federal law comprehensively regulating private data collection or requiring algorithmic transparency on online platforms. While sector-specific laws like HIPAA handle health data privacy, most internet users’ data lack strong protections.

Powerful tech companies often take a reactive rather than proactive approach to securing user data from third parties. However, California’s new Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) marks an important step forward in expanding requirements for consent and disclosure around data use. States like Washington have begun following California’s model in giving residents more control over their digital identities.

Complete, unchecked anonymity has downsides – it can enable harassment, radicalisation, and disinformation campaigns. However, abolishing online anonymity altogether would deprive vulnerable groups of their primary defence and chill free speech.

Thoughtful regulations focused on preventing anonymous abuse, rather than eliminating anonymity entirely, present a better solution. Systems promoting accountability without removing privacy preserve online freedoms. 

Authoritarian states or states with authoritarian tendencies often take a more hostile stance toward online anonymity as to expand online surveillance, curb dissent, and exercise social control. China’s Great Firewall censors content and surveils citizens’ internet use while blocking sites and tools designed to circumvent monitoring like the Tor browser.

Similarly, Russia recently passed laws requiring user data of popular apps like TikTok to be stored in Russia, providing authorities backdoor access. Activists warn this endangers opposition groups and anonymous speech online. 

While the specifics vary, these examples highlight the importance of legally protecting anonymity. Individuals should have the right to create pseudonyms, use encryption, and access networks allowing private exploration online. 

Governments must be transparent regarding any surveillance and provide oversight preventing overreach or exploitation of collected data. 

Companies should limit unnecessary data intake, quickly report breaches, and prioritise consent, privacy, and cybersecurity in product designs. 

Multi-stakeholder initiatives bringing together policymakers, tech experts, and civil society groups can help build consensus on privacy-enhancing practices.

In this regard, Nepal has been no different. For instance, the Nepal government has proposed requirements for social media users to register with real identities. But such moves would only discourage free expression and normalise state invasion of privacy. 

Instead, Nepal must embrace online anonymity given its democratic merits by adopting progressive policies that protect online anonymity and expand sophisticated encryption use. But this requires eschewing fears of losing control. Freedoms inevitably carry certain risks. The benefits of online anonymity in fostering vibrant democratic debate and empowering the marginalised outweigh associated concerns. 

Mass surveillance programs that undermine anonymity must be opposed. Global partnerships can enhance Nepal’s technical capacity for ensuring online freedoms. In essence, online anonymity is a gateway for Nepalis to unlock free speech, evade intimidation, build solidarity networks, and access information freely.

Its relevance will only grow as digital adoption rises. With apt policies and public education, Nepal can harness anonymity’s democratic promise while mitigating risks responsibly.

Concluding words

Online anonymity, though never perfect, remains crucial for free speech and empowering vulnerable voices. With growing censorship worldwide, anonymity networks act as liberating counterweights preserving open internet access. Thoughtfully crafted laws and cooperative policies are essential to let anonymity fulfil its vital role in promoting free expression.

Cybersecurity is an indispensable tool for protecting these rights. With vigilance, adaptation, and the right legal framework, the internet can continue facilitating a diversity of ideas from people of all identities and beliefs, as well as a check against excessive corporate and government power in the digital public sphere. But this requires acknowledging anonymity as an essential liberty, not a convenient luxury. 

As tracking methods become more invasive, safeguarding online anonymity is ever more vital. Tech companies must also be held accountable so that they enforce strict cybersecurity standards. Both individual users and policymakers must make cybersecurity a priority in order to ensure everyone benefits from anonymity’s protections equally in the digital public sphere.

Bivek Chaudhary is a B.A.LL.B. student at the Nepal Law Campus in Kathmandu. He shares a keen interest in cybersecurity, cyber law, and cybercrime.

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