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Online Anonymity: A luxury we can no longer afford?

Posted on 08 June 2018 by Liz Fox

The past decade has seen an increased use of virtual private networks, cryptocurrencies, whistleblowing, targeted marketing, trolling and online scams – all made possible by a perceived online anonymity.  The question whether online anonymity should go the way of the dodo has been debated for some time and has again become a hot topic thanks to the influx of emails we have all received due to the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation ("GDPR") and the introduction of the Persons with Significant Control ("PSC") Register.

The pros and cons of online anonymity were debated at the recent 21st Anniversary of the International Fraud Group conference (see video above).  Clearly there are two sides of this debate: those who believe right to privacy and security is paramount and those who believe disclosure to protect against abuse is paramount.  However, there is actually a third angle – that anonymity in the true sense of the word is a misnomer. The real position is that, ultimately, anonymity does not exist, it's just how much time, money and effort is required in order to discover the underlying individual.   It is a divide between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak – with the right resources, both in an economic and expert sense, often the cloak of anonymity can be lifted.

Some would argue that one has a choice whether or not to participate in the online world and therefore voluntarily provide their personal information, however this is misguided.  Whilst it is true that one can choose whether to join Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, one often cannot choose whether to sign up for certain websites. By way of example, lawyers require access to online legal databases for their work.  Applying for jobs is now more often than not an online process. Anyone who travels knows that travel agencies are becoming a thing of the past - now nearly all travel arrangements are made via the Internet.  All of these require the provision of personal data online.  To live in the 21st century requires one to have an online presence. 

In our experience there is no such thing as strict anonymity online. With the right combination of cyber-expertise and technological support all but the most sophisticated fraudsters are ultimately discoverable.

Keep up with the conversation in Fraud. Join our LinkedIn Group: International Fraud Group – IFG.

Online Anonymity:
Is It A  Luxury We Can No Longer Afford?

Gary Miller
Partner, Mishcon de Reya
IFG Co-Founder

The topic that we are going to be debating this evening is on the lips virtually of every fraud investigator, online anonymity. It involves a battle between two significant forces, the right to privacy and security.

Claire Broadbelt
Partner, Mishcon de Reya

Businesses need to approach privacy and their online presence by thinking about worst case scenario. What is it that they really wouldn’t want to wake up to read on the front page of a national newspaper.

The Rt. Hon. Charles Clarke
Former Home Secretary

I don’t think enough is being done to protect people from abusing the power of anonymity. The use of online data has accelerated so fast in different areas which means the issues are far more pressing. There should be much more clarity for every individual about what data was held on them but also who put that data online.

Marc Taverner
EVP Strategic Partnerships

Absolutely blockchain can survive if it’s not anonymous. It loses a little bit of its value if it not anonymous, certainly in certain applications that requires you to be able to identify who you are and attest to the fact that you are who you say you are. At the moment we are seeing a lot of regulatory arbitrage which is where blockchain firms are looking around the world for clarity on regulation so clear regulation would help tremendously accelerate the development.

Paul Sharma
Managing Director, Alvarez & Marsal

The blockchain itself as it becomes more significant will become a major part of the payment system and the payment system itself cannot be wholly outside of the scope of regulation.

Kenn Cukier
Technology Editor, The Economist

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have really sent a chill down the spine of lots of companies and more importantly the public. People are recognising that the internet economy comes with a cost, they are militating now to make sure they can preserve some sort of privacy.

Thomas de la Mare QC
Barrister, Blackstone Chambers

How do I see regulation developing? Well first of all it has to deal with the undoubtedly massive complexity and I think also there has to be more of a campaign of public education, a lot of people act without thinking and that needs to change.

Paul Sharma
Managing Director, Alvarez & Marsal

I think the biggest risk around online anonymity is that it’s a myth. For the vast bulk of us it simply does not exist.

Audrey Byrne
Partner, McCann FitzGerald

Today’s seminar I found really fascinating. The speakers were excellent. If we don’t protect our privacy you know, where are we going with the human race. Really our privacy is everything. So as  member of the IFG I am proud to be a member of that group, an ever expanding group and this years’ event has increased our numbers and we are very excited about our new additions.

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