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A fine line for anonymity

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I presented to the Financial Services Club meeting in Scotland last night and was asked an intriguing question at the end about anonymity.  What are the issues around protection of privacy and, by contrast, the requirements to protect anonymity?  If I am buying pornography, drugs or weapons online, am I doing this legally or illegally?  Buying pornography is not an issue but what if it’s paedophile pornography?  Buying drugs like Viagra may be no issue but what if it’s crack meth?  Equally, I can buy guns online in some countries without issue, but what if it’s for arming a terrorist organisation?

These questions are pretty fundamental, and my answer was that it’s all about getting the right legal framework to work with the new business models.  When any new technology appears, the first concern is how it can be used for illegal activities.  Eventually, the legal structures catch up with the new technologies and lock them down.  By way of example:

When newspapers first appeared in the 17th century, “the rapid growth of newspapers represented a huge improvement of information sources for the literate peoples of Europe. But it also increased the authorities’ worry that unlimited access to information would be harmful to society and public morals, particularly in times of war or internal crisis.”  Many early radio stations were started by newspapers worried radio might replace their newspapers.  Cable TV, video and even subtitles have all been advanced considerably thanks to the pornography industry.  Equally, when the internet first appeared in the 1990s, people were concerned it could be used for illegal activities and, in fact, most technological advances are made by organised criminal activities that then require organised police activities to follow them.

In an interesting debate about such things by the Canadian Department of Justice, it was pointed out that “in the early to mid-19th Century the impact of the railway, steamship and telegraph was far more revolutionary than the Internet or mass air travel today. Indeed, virtually every kind of crime now conducted through modern electronic communications technology had some equivalent in the telegraph age – which saw everything from insider trading to price fixing to financial fraud conducted by and through the telegraph, while telegraph companies faced problems of breaches of security by hackers threatening, in particular, telegraphic money transfers.”

In fact, “the real pioneers in using things like communication technology are the police and other agencies of the state” as evidenced by the fact “that even with money laundering, where modern technology should be most evident, old-fashioned methods like physical currency smuggling still predominate.”

This does not mean that technological advances can be ignored by lawmakers but, as things are recorded electronically, it becomes easier to track and trace who is sending what to whom.  Perhaps this is best evidenced by the ability to track and trace terrorists using social media.  For example, news media tell us that terror groups are increasingly using social media to gain a wider online following, share operational and tactical information, and link to their extremist websites.  The police advise that they could lose the war on terror if social media companies don’t co-operate .  And yet Anonymous, XRSOne and other groups are able to identify exactly which accounts on Twitter and other social media belong to ISIS and are actively being used.

So the bottom-line is that yes, there should be protection of privacy for individuals.  If Google, Facebook, Twitter and my bank are all digitally watching me, what role should they have in sharing my activities with censors and government authorities?  This is going to be a big question for the future, and one that’s not easy to answer.  There are now millions of digital footprints out there, and accessing those digital footprints for illegal activities is an area of a fine line between intrusion and acceptability.  For example, this recent headline: “Google scans everyone's email for child porn, and it just got a man arrested” should make you feel comforted, and yet this headline: “Your porn browsing history could be made available for everyone to search” might make you feel less comfortable?

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Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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