This cuts close to the heart because I truly believe this Web anonymity thing actually helps criminals more than it protects honest citizens. Microsoft has released a white paper that lays out the problem and asks for feedback on a solution (asking our opinion first at the very least should be applauded).
However, Microsoft clearly isn’t the most trusted of vendors, and I wonder if the central message won’t get lost under what may become a big wave of conspiracy theories because Microsoft is involved.
In short, with the amount of successful phishing and identity theft going on, I truly doubt honest people are anonymous anymore anyway, at least not where it counts. I also believe that the only beneficiaries of anonymity (or more accurately the ability to be who you are not) are those who prey on us, our kids and our parents.
We’ll also bring up my product of the week — the first truly good looking Linksys router.
Anonymity Is a Joke
I spend a lot of my time reviewing data theft problems both personally and as they appear in the media. Through no fault of my own, a number of my ex-employers have sent me notices that they have somehow managed to lose information that could result in my identity being stolen, and I now have pre-paid identity theft insurance for years. This does not give me a high degree of personal comfort.
We know Web sites track our activity, and while we can go to great lengths to block this tracking, not all of us do that. We will often voluntarily join sites like Facebook or MySpace, which provide this information widely with — and sometimes without — our permission.
E-mail addresses are commonly swiped so that people can pretend they are us when preying on our own friends, relatives and children.
Now you can go and make anonymous comments on Web sites, but how credible are you really when you do that? If we are worried about the government finding out what we think, does anyone really think it can’t in a post-9/11 world?
In short, I think the anonymity boat sailed a long time ago. There is some good debate on the reasons for anonymity — I just think it has come long after that ship has sailed.
The problem Microsoft is actually focused on is not folks who post anonymously, it is the folks who pretend to be someone they are not. In short, it isn’t our already-lost anonymity that is the target, it is the folks who lie about who they are.
How Anonymity Is Used Against Us
This is not a new problem. A few years ago, my father-in-law got a call (and you know what is coming) telling him he won a new Cadillac and US$200,000 cash. All he had to do was pay the $20,000 tax. Needless to say he was much poorer for the experience, and for a number of years still thought that if he just sent in the final $5,000 or so dollars the car and money would be forthcoming. This was by folks pretending to be legitimate in an environment where he couldn’t tell they were not.
This was all done on the phone but is more commonly done on the Web. We are all aging, and with age comes increasing infirmity. What was particularly sad in my father-in-law’s case was he really wanted the money for his kids and grandkids, but the result clearly was just the opposite.
It is simply too easy to prey on the elderly, and right now we are in the position to better protect our future selves than we will be when we start to become infirm.
For kids, however, there is another danger. Children prey on other children, and worse yet, adults prey on children, all hiding behind secret identities. One of the worst stories I’d ever heard was that of an adult mother tricking a young girl into committing suicide by pretending she was a fictional boyfriend.
Personally, I think that mother should be charged with manslaughter, but the real point is, had the young girl been able to determine the identity of the mother, she would still be alive and the mother committing the crime would be the only one being punished.
Kids have a hard enough time growing up as it is, and it is expected that we adults will act to protect them, but in the Web world we clearly don’t do all we can.
There are few things I can think of that are more valuable than taking care of someone who took care of you when you were growing up, taking care of someone that is growing up, or making sure you are taken care of when you can no longer take care of yourself.
If you still think this isn’t your problem, go to the Family Watchdog site and put in your address to see how many sex offenders live close to you. Now try the address of someone else you know. Trust me, this isn’t someone else’s problem — this is everyone’s problem.
What Microsoft is doing in this white paper is laying out the problem and asking for suggestions on how to fix it.
Their point is that you should know what is running on your PC, what your PC is connecting to, that the person or entity you are communicating with is who they say they are, and that we need to take the concentric circles off of our and our loved ones’ backs.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t retain any anonymity that you currently have (which I still think isn’t much). It means that when folks choose to be identified, we ought to be able to verify their identities.
The foundation is that you should have the right to the information you need to protect yourself. The problem is, how do you do that? I think the question needs to be asked, but I’ll be vastly more interested in the answer.
Product of the Week: The Surprisingly Attractive Linksys Router
After thinking about his week’s subject I was thinking the product of the week should be something that allows you to move to where the Internet doesn’t actually work and where it is perfectly legal to shoot folks who steal any of your things.
Since I couldn’t find anything close to that, and we are stuck with the Internet, I chose the new Linksys Ultra Range Plus Gigabit Router as my product of the week.
The reason I did is largely because it is damned good-looking. Linksys products have always worked very well, but you’d have to be near-blind to call them attractive. This latest offering changes that, and it uses the silver and high-gloss design elements to make it something you’d be proud of rather than something you’d typically hide. This is actually kind of important because a wireless router needs to be in the open to work right and not buried under a bunch of other crap.
I’m a big fan of companies making products that you can be proud of, and because Cisco’s Linksys division did that with this router, it is my product of the week.
Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.