Posts tagged anonymity

To Strongbox or Not to Strongbox

Last week we noted that the New Yorker launched Strongbox, an online system meant to preserve the anonymity of leakers submitting sensitive material to the magazine.

Strongbox is based on the work of Aaron Swartz and Kevin Poulsen and, as Amy Davidson noted when announcing its implementation, “Even we won’t be able to figure out where files sent to us come from. If anyone asks us, we won’t be able to tell them.”

Which is a good thing given recent news about the Justice Department’s surveilling of journalists and news organizations.

But can it be be a newsroom boon?

Writing at CSO Online, John P. Mello argues that while Strongbox “provides strong protection of the identity of a source, it removes an important element in the process: authentication.”

Here’s what he means:

A system where anonymous leakers are dropping documents into a folder has advantages when government investigators start probing a story’s sources, but it also creates tremendous disadvantages. “The government can’t come after you to find out who gave you the document because you have no way of knowing,” [Northeastern University assistant journalism professor Dan] Kennedy said.

"That gives more protection to the source, but it makes it harder to vet the document because you don’t know who gave it to you," he said…

…”All sources, anonymous or not, have to be evaluated. That’s impossible to do without context. “Knowing your source’s motivations helps contextualize the information,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director for the Pew Research Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"A solution that prevents the news organization from knowing the identity of a confidential source has value, but it’s not an ideal solution because it is important to know the identity of the source to weigh the information," he told CSO.

"Information supplied by a confidential source needs to be evaluated, weighed and understood in the same way that information of somebody speaking on the record does," he added.

FJP: A tool is a tool. While Mello illustrates important drawbacks, if the alternative is no documents to work with then you work with the tools available. It’s just important to know going in what their limitations are.

Images: Independent Twitter posts via Nicholas Thomson and Kevin Anderson.

Whether you want to share sensitive protest footage without exposing the faces of the activists involved, or share the winning point in your 8-year-old’s basketball game without broadcasting the children’s faces to the world, our face blurring technology is a first step towards providing visual anonymity for video on YouTube.

Slate. YouTube Now Lets You Blur Faces in Videos. Will It Help Keep Human Rights Activists Safe?

Related: The Guardian and Witness.org released ObscuraCam earlier this year to accomplish much the same thing.

Gawker lets us name ourselves again - the return of screen names with numbers (but more importantly: anonymity)
Gawker has implemented a new comment system that doesn’t ask you to link your Facebook, LinkedIn, Airbnb and Pinterest profiles before you comment. You can now pretend it’s 2004, and you’re ready for heated discussions about whatever it was you were into then.
Here’s how they’ll keep it civil:

Each contributor — whether anonymous or not — will now be given the power to moderate the conversation they spark. Interesting questions might warrant a response; corroborating responses can be accepted; and harassers can be dismissed. Give the source the ability to tell us what they know, then let the reader determine whether they’ve satisfied the critics, just as one would in judging a panel debate or a courtroom cross-examination.

And here’s how it’s worked today — not too bad.
But Gawker isn’t the only site doing this, and the other one isn’t just Reddit. 4chan  founder Christopher Poole has long claimed that his site, which, among other descriptions, has been called “[the] web’s most bewildering — and influential — subculture,” thrives on its users’ anonymity. Think content, not creator.

Gawker lets us name ourselves again - the return of screen names with numbers (but more importantly: anonymity)

Gawker has implemented a new comment system that doesn’t ask you to link your Facebook, LinkedIn, Airbnb and Pinterest profiles before you comment. You can now pretend it’s 2004, and you’re ready for heated discussions about whatever it was you were into then.

Here’s how they’ll keep it civil:

Each contributor — whether anonymous or not — will now be given the power to moderate the conversation they spark. Interesting questions might warrant a response; corroborating responses can be accepted; and harassers can be dismissed. Give the source the ability to tell us what they know, then let the reader determine whether they’ve satisfied the critics, just as one would in judging a panel debate or a courtroom cross-examination.

And here’s how it’s worked today — not too bad.

But Gawker isn’t the only site doing this, and the other one isn’t just Reddit. 4chan  founder Christopher Poole has long claimed that his site, which, among other descriptions, has been called “[the] web’s most bewildering — and influential — subculture,” thrives on its users’ anonymity. Think content, not creator.

Recent events from the political and violent (protests in the Middle East and North Africa, and now riots in England) to the innocuous (the launch of Google+) have people talking very seriously about the role anonymity, pseudonymity and identity in general play in contemporary culture.
From OWNI, Rise and Fall of the Pseudonym:

Carmela Ciuraru explains that in the mid-19th century this curious phenomenon of pseudonymity reached its highest level, and as in the mid 16th century, it was customary for a text to be published anonymously. It is interesting that the decline of the nickname in the 20th century coincided with the rise of television and film. People had access to the lives of others, it became more difficult to preserve private life - and perhaps even undesirable. In contemporary culture, no information is too personal to be shared (or reappropriated). Reality TV has increased our appetite to “know” famous people, and the authors themselves are not immune against the pressures of self-promotion and personal revelations. We live in an age where, as the biographer Nigel Hamilton wrote, ”the identity of an individual has become the focus of much discussion.”

Image: Masque by 13Moya via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Recent events from the political and violent (protests in the Middle East and North Africa, and now riots in England) to the innocuous (the launch of Google+) have people talking very seriously about the role anonymity, pseudonymity and identity in general play in contemporary culture.

From OWNI, Rise and Fall of the Pseudonym:

Carmela Ciuraru explains that in the mid-19th century this curious phenomenon of pseudonymity reached its highest level, and as in the mid 16th century, it was customary for a text to be published anonymously. It is interesting that the decline of the nickname in the 20th century coincided with the rise of television and film. People had access to the lives of others, it became more difficult to preserve private life - and perhaps even undesirable. In contemporary culture, no information is too personal to be shared (or reappropriated). Reality TV has increased our appetite to “know” famous people, and the authors themselves are not immune against the pressures of self-promotion and personal revelations. We live in an age where, as the biographer Nigel Hamilton wrote, ”the identity of an individual has become the focus of much discussion.”

Image: Masque by 13Moya via Flickr/Creative Commons.

What Google’s “Real Names” Policy Teaches the Newsroom

Google’s caught a lot of heat over its G+ real name policy. Part of it’s simply the arbitrary nature of the real name enforcement: many people using their real names — and well known nicknames — have been kicked off Plus. 

But there’s a much deeper and more important conversation taking place that has to do with identity, privacy and the right to anonymity.

Danah Boyd, a researcher with Microsoft and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center, considers real name policies an abuse of power:

I’m really really glad to see seriously privileged people take up the issue, because while they are the least likely to actually be harmed by “real names” policies, they have the authority to be able to speak truth to power. And across the web, I’m seeing people highlight that this issue has more depth to it than fun names (and is a whole lot more complicated than boiling it down to being about anonymity, as Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg foolishly did).

What’s at stake is people’s right to protect themselves, their right to actually maintain a form of control that gives them safety. If companies like Facebook and Google are actually committed to the safety of its users, they need to take these complaints seriously. Not everyone is safer by giving out their real name. Quite the opposite; many people are far LESS safe when they are identifiable. And those who are least safe are often those who are most vulnerable.

News sites are continuously grappling with how to elevate the tone of reader comments. One chosen way is to make people use their real names in order to comment on stories. For example, some sites require you to swipe your credit card for a nominal one-time fee (say, a dollar) in order to prove you’re you.

Site’s that have done this (or found other ways to implement “real name” systems) generally report that while the overall number of comments goes down, the quality of discussion improves. That is, there’s less of an impulse to lob rhetorical bombs when people know exactly who you are.

But apply what Boyd writes here to the newspaper rather than the social network and we have the same dynamic. Namely, the paper dictating who can comment and participate, and ignoring the very real reasons why some in a community would need to anonymously contribute to a conversation about sensitive issues.

If news sites want to clean up comment sections, create a civil culture within them by having moderators, reporters and editors set the tone by actively participating in them. Otherwise, your crazies with an axe to grind will continue to ruin the roost.

Mapping Google’s Transparency Report
Every six months Google releases a report outlining how many times governments either ask it to remove content uploaded to its various services (eg., YouTube), or request data about specific Google users (eg., you).
Shown here is an overview for the United States.
Via Google:

Like other technology and communications companies, Google regularly receives requests from government agencies and federal courts around the world to remove content from our services and hand over user data. Our Government Requests tool discloses the number of requests we receive from each government in six-month periods with certain limitations.
Some content removals are requested due to allegations of defamation, while others are due to allegations that the content violates local laws prohibiting hate speech or pornography. Laws surrounding these issues vary by geographic region, and the requests reflect the legal context of a given jurisdiction.

The report does not provide specifics on whose data is being requested or what content is being asked to be removed.

Mapping Google’s Transparency Report

Every six months Google releases a report outlining how many times governments either ask it to remove content uploaded to its various services (eg., YouTube), or request data about specific Google users (eg., you).

Shown here is an overview for the United States.

Via Google:

Like other technology and communications companies, Google regularly receives requests from government agencies and federal courts around the world to remove content from our services and hand over user data. Our Government Requests tool discloses the number of requests we receive from each government in six-month periods with certain limitations.

Some content removals are requested due to allegations of defamation, while others are due to allegations that the content violates local laws prohibiting hate speech or pornography. Laws surrounding these issues vary by geographic region, and the requests reflect the legal context of a given jurisdiction.

The report does not provide specifics on whose data is being requested or what content is being asked to be removed.

But Facebook, which celebrates its seventh birthday Friday and has more than a half-billion users worldwide, is not eagerly embracing its role as the insurrectionists’ instrument of choice. Its strategy contrasts with rivals Google and Twitter, which actively helped opposition leaders communicate after the Egyptian government shut down Internet access.

The Silicon Valley giant, whether it likes it or not, has been thrust like never before into a sensitive global political moment that pits the company’s need for an open Internet against concerns that autocratic regimes could limit use of the site or shut it down altogether.

The pursuit of less-bad comments

Clay Shirky has some thoughts on conversations and comments online.

"…bad discourse isn’t a behavior problem," he says, "it’s a design problem."

Fine, fine, but does he have applicable ideas? Sort of.

That provides some options for turning the jerk dial down. One is to make identity valuable: Stack Overflow won’t let new users post until they have exhibited enough other behaviors—visiting the site, responding in helpful ways to other posts—to earn the karma for full participation. Another approach is to partition public platforms, thus reducing the incentive to publicly act out. Twitter does this by segmenting its audience: I can rant all I like, but only to the users I can persuade to follow me. Yet another approach is to enlist users in defensive filtering. Amazon sometimes refuses to publish a post, but most of its policing is done by customers who flag offensive reviews and elevate those they find helpful.

[Washington] Post readers constantly complain about the excessive use of anonymous sources in the newspaper. But the problem is even worse online.

Staff-written news blogs are replete with violations of The Post’s long-established and laudable standards governing confidential sources. These unnamed sources often are cited without providing readers with even a hint of their reliability or why they were granted anonymity.

In the first two weeks of December alone, Post news blogs included more than 20 unnamed sources without any explanation of their quality or why they warranted confidentiality. Many blogs referred only to “sources” or “those close to” a subject or situation.

Andrew Alexander, Ombudsman, Washington Post on the paper’s use of anonymous sources.