Understanding anonymity in the digital world
Image: Courtesy: burnerapp.com

Understanding anonymity in the digital world

Mumbai, August 23, 2012

Leading an anonymous life in the real world is not possible. By anonymous, I mean nameless, not ordinary. It`s a choice you may exercise in the digital world, though.

What set me thinking on the subject of anonymity was a smartphone application that my website reported on last week. 
Named Burner, it has been developed by a US-based company - Ad Hoc Labs Inc. Using Burner, you can, at the push of a button, create “alias” phone numbers on your cell phone. For now, you can only do so on an iPhone because Burner works only on that.
Yes, you heard right. On your single iPhone, with a single GSM connection, you can have any number of temporary phone numbers you want, which can then be used and discarded at will.
From the time the report appeared, I have had callers, known and unknown (though not anonymous) asking me about this App. All of which set me thinking....why would so many people want to get hold of an “alias” telephone number?
Before I go further, let me offer a quick explanation about Burner, without making it sound like I am its chief Public Relations Officer. You need to download Burner on your iPhone to get started. It is not a free app, though.
Once you have done that, depending on the amount of credit you have in your account, you can start creating your “alias” numbers. A payment of the minimum, $1.99, will get you enough credit to create one, temporary telephone number. You need to re-direct calls or sms from the fake number(s) to your cell phone number. You can then use the temporary number(s) for whatever it is you wish to do. Once done, you can “burn” (destroy) the number. All that your contacts or friends will get to hear when they re-dial the temporary number at a later stage is a recorded voice that probably says, “This telephone number does not exist”.
There! You’ve lived your anonymous moment. Burner may be a new app but the technology of getting temporary or alias numbers has been around for years. One such service is iNumbr, again based in the USA and founded by fellow Indian and telecom veteran Ritesh Kumar in 2006. Ritesh is now its adviser. You need to sign up first for iNumbr and then subscribe to one of its many plans. Burner, though, has only made getting such temporary numbers easier.
Which brings me back to the subject up for discussion – is anonymity a boon or bane in digital life? Remaining anonymous is something that has been the topic of many an online debate for years now. If you do a simple web search, you will get results like, “How anonymity is used on the Net?” or “Tips on remaining anonymous on the Internet”...and stuff like that. So the topic per se is not new.
Yet, despite the Internet being over 40 years old now (depending on which birth date you follow) it continues to be a raging issue.
Without doubt, anonymity is a perk available only to life in the digital world. It`s been like that since the birth of the Internet, it remains so even today. Concealing your identity can be used as a positive attribute or misused. More often than not, as my decades’ long experience with the Internet shows, it is the latter. (Or else, you would not receive over half the number of spam emails you receive every day, right?)
But let us not forget that it is this very anonymity that has led to the downfall of unpopular governments in the recent past; moulded, even changed world opinion about a person or an issue, and has often rushed to the aid of free speech, a fast-disappearing right of free people around the world.
On the flip side, anonymity is misused for stealing real life identities, running sex sites and services, stealing credit cards details, and other such criminal activities....money laundering, even terrorism.
So – good or bad?
The answer, if you were to ask me, is this: Anonymity in the digital world by itself is not something that should be viewed as 100% harmful. But when that very online anonymity starts interfering with people’s lives in the real world, it needs to be tackled with an iron hand. 
Example: If Burner is used to post an alias number on an online business listings site, where’s the harm in that? But if the same App is used to send out seedy sms to a girl you know, that`s the time when anonymity turns rancid.
Of course, there are shades of grey in between. Yet, with the advent of social networking in the last few years, anonymity is being met head on. Many of you may have already noticed by now that many networks and Internet services frown upon the use of aliases or a.k.a. names. Some of the big Internet players even go to the extent of re-confirming your real life identity before granting you complete and clear access.
Before signing off, let me be a wet blanket for all those out there who aim to use Apps like Burner or services like iNumbr for nefarious activities. There is no real anonymity in the digital world. Anonymity is almost, always confused with the concealment of one’s identity.
You can opt to remain faceless on the Web or on your smartphone, but do not forget, you are tethered to devices that are logging in your every move. Your ISP address, for one. Do you know that your ISP provider can block off mail servers if they are used to send out spam mails?
Even if you mask your ISP address (yes, there are software that allow you to do that), it is very easy to trace back the original ISP address for someone who is determined enough and technologically savy enough to do so. In a perverse way, digital life affords no anonymity at all, your digital footprints give you away.
Many of the Apps these days that you download on your mobile phones are quietly monitoring your activity behind your back and sending feedback to developers, using cookies. This may be illegal or unethical but the point is, it`s been done.
I recently read someplace that there exists such a telecom software with some of the world’s well-known spy agencies that allows them to remotely switch on your mobile phone’s microphone, even if the phone is in the sleep mode in your pocket, and record every word of what you say to your colleagues or friends or whosoever.
There are ways and means to trace, re-trace and locate almost everybody in the digital world. Maybe, sometimes, it is not possible to do so for an ordinary person, but any self-respecting web administrator or web master or hacker can do so with some help from technology. Yes, the very technology that helped you go incognito online, in the first place!
So remember this – you are never truly anonymous on the Internet.
I leave you with this sobering thought.

Previous columns by Sorab Ghaswalla

Sorab Ghaswalla, is a journalist with near three decades of experience, and has worked in some well-known Indian and international print and television media organizations such as  The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times, The Indian Express, United News of India (UNI), The Gulf Today and India TV.
He has founded a Knowledge Services firm called New Age Content Services LLP, that leverages on the inherent strengths of the digital world. He also edits the website, www.whatsnewonthenet.com.
You can write to him at newagecontent@gmail.com
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