How much privacy do we really have online and how important is internet anonymity? Author Cole Stryker’s new book, Hacking the Future: Privacy, Identity, and Anonymity on the Web, explores the benefits of the internet’s anonymous culture, the difference between privacy and secrecy, and how and why activists are seeking to give every online user a “driver’s license” for web use.
He’s also released two books in two years, which is insane. We talked to Cole over Gchat about privacy and anonymity on the web, and those who threaten the internet’s freedom.
Thought Catalog: You put out books faster than any living human. What’s that about? (Terrible first question, but I always wonder that about you.)
Cole Stryker: It’s not by choice. The stuff I’ve been writing about these last few years is pretty timely, so my publisher established some tight deadlines in order to get this commentary out there while it still matters, though I think that this latest book covers a topic that’s going to be an ongoing conversation throughout the decade. I didn’t have a day job for the two years in which I wrote two books, and I dialed way back on freelance work so I could focus exclusively on book stuff. I spent those years in a cheap Harlem apartment waaaay uptown, which was luxurious in a way since it enabled me to be a full-time writer.
TC: Do you worry about writing so fast or is that just the way it goes with these topics?
Cole: I’m terrified of it. Today I got an advance notice of a very flattering review and it was such a tremendous relief. After a year of pouring my heart into this project that no one else has seen, I fall into a paranoia that it’s absolute sh-t that is going to be received as a sloppy, thoughtless cash grab meant to capitalize on some trendy subject. But yeah, the internet moves fast. Sometimes you have to sacrifice thoroughness for timeliness and hope that you struck a balance in the right places so it feels like a fitting document of the zeitgeist.
TC: You mentioned before choosing this topic because it’s a little less immediate. Why’d you choose to focus on internet privacy for your second book (besides that first reason)?
Cole: The rise of Anonymous, which I documented in last year’s book, has brought a lot of really misguided ideas about the nature of identity on the web. For instance, I was the target of some low-level trolling/harassment when I released the book last year [Epic Win For Anonymous]. I was surprised to find that many of my friends and family would immediately react to the news with a comment proposing that anonymity on the internet should be made illegal. Even really innocent stuff like name-calling…a shocking amount of people think that you shouldn’t be allowed to say mean things online without owning those comments with your exposed identity.
So I felt like we needed a simple manifesto that attempts to explain why anonymity is important, with a focus on online anonymity. The more I researched the more I became convinced that freedom of speech is under constant threat from various corporate and government interest groups who hope to make the internet a “safer” place by doing away with anonymous expression online.
TC: What’s the most surprising instance of this?
Cole: The most shocking stuff is obviously happening abroad, in places like the Middle East and China. But even in more democratic places like India, government officials have held meetings with web companies like Google to ask how they can prevent citizens from criticizing government officials online. South Korea passed a law a few years back that required users to essentially “log in” to the internet (for any sites with over 100,000 daily visitors) using real names and addresses. Not only did it prove ineffective at curbing anti-social speech, a foreign hacker compromised their system and stole 35 million names, addresses, and sometimes even credit card numbers. Here in the US, there are still calls for a “driver’s license for the internet” every once in a while.
TC: That would never happen, right?
Cole: Luckily here in the US we have a pretty rich tradition of anonymous speech and legal protections to preserve it, but that doesn’t stop activists, politicians and businessmen from trying to gradually clamp down on it. Again, it’s something that I feel requires eternal vigilance to fight.
TC: Did you always feel that way or just after researching the new book?
Cole: I grew up in a tiny farm town, so the internet was always hugely important to me as a place to express myself in a way that i never could have irl, and find others who were doing likewise. so preserving the free, open internet has always been a passive interest. but it wasn’t until the rise of social media that I felt any of that was under threat. Over the last few years public discourse has shifted to proprietary platforms, and I’ve felt a creeping unease with this development.
TC: What do these activists ultimately want?
Cole: There are two kinds of people who want to get rid of anonymity: Genuinely well-meaning people who want a safer internet free of child pornography, cyberbullying/terrorism, hacking etc. These are the people who write newspaper op-eds and appear on Good Morning America to talk about how someone wrote “lol ur gay” on their kid’s Facebook wall. The more insidious party are the ones who have an economic interest in enforcing a persistent identity across the Internet. This is all under the guise of safety, of course, but when you dig deeper, it’s hard to not come to the conclusion that there is a lot of money to be made in selling personal information to advertisers, and that all this talk about making the internet a safer place is all bullshit designed to divert attention away from the creeping privacy intrusions we’re seeing.
TC: What are some of the ones already in place? Maybe that we wouldn’t think about?
Cole: This is probably the creepiest thing I’ve read lately. Ostensibly it’s for preventing acts of cyberterrorism. But then there are also the less alarming, but still concerning instances of widespread data-mining that most internet users don’t even realize is happening.
TC: Is there any way to guard against it? Or is it already too late for all of us?
Cole: I don’t think it’s too late. I wouldn’t have written the book if I did. My hope is that the wave of anti-SOPA/PIPA/CISPA/ACTA activism does not peter out and that they team up with Anonymous, Wikileaks, and the EFF, and other somewhat like-minded orgs to keep the public aware of developments in the legal and legislative system, as well as things as small as sneaky TOS updates.
TC: It’s crazy what people just give out to Facebook.
I recognize that privacy concerns might not be the most immediately tangible threat, especially in this global recession, but I fervently believe that the internet’s the best tool we have for expanding liberty, and it’s worth trying to stave off its perversion at the hands of the misguided and the actively evil.
TC: What about for someone who’s like, “I have nothing to hide!” because I think it’s more than just about hiding stuff, right? I mean, it’s freedom of speech and it’s selling info to advertisers. It’s about a bunch of things, right? I feel like people brush it off because they’re like, “Well I’m not looking at kiddie porn so who cares?”
Cole: Yeah, secrecy and privacy are often conflated. Just because I have nothing to hide doesn’t mean I leave my front door wide open while I sleep. There’s a few different problems. One I like to call “tyranny creep” even though it sounds a little silly. All this data that’s being collected is gradually building a permanent profile of me. Even if I trust today’s lawmakers, what about fifty years from now?
Another issue is misinterpretation of data. If I search around on Amazon for fertilizer and industrial cleaners and then someone blows up the Pentagon the next day with a homemade bomb, that data could implicate me in the crime. Obviously that’s an exaggerated hypothetical scenario, but the point is that law enforcement having more data sometimes yields to less accurate conclusions. Another issue is data theft. Those South Koreans trusted their government, but their government was susceptible to an outside attack.
TC: As is ours. Is there anything super simple that people can do to ensure more privacy that they just don’t do? Other than, just like giving away their info willy nilly, which we love to do.
Cole: I’m not even close to being as hardcore as a lot of privacy activists (some would consider my ideas worthless simply because I have a Facebook account), but I don’t use any Facebook connect integrations. I like keeping multiple accounts across the internet and I try to keep them separated as much as possible.
You can buy Cole’s book Hacking The Future: Privacy, Identity, and Anonymity on the Web on Amazon, here.