Quakerism, Truth, and Digital Security......


In this "new digital age" a lot of life remains the same as it always was, and some of it has changed..... How we apply the truth testimony in dealing with individual people remains as clear as it ever was, but how it is applied when interacting with strangers whom we have never met (and probably never will meet) is largely a new question. (But not totally a new question, we have not seen a difficulty in people using nicknames, or an author using a nom-de-plume. Nor do we feel uncomfortable in instructing our children to not give information to strangers on the telephone.)

The issue that was raised by telephones, and enlarges with commercial data-gathering, is the question of how much information do we need to provide someone that we are interacting with for that interaction to be truthful (at least on our part). When we answer the telephone we do not usually feel a need to mention that we just got out of the shower in order to have a truthful conversation, nor - much of the time - do we feel a need to say who we are before we know who the other person is. All that we feel we need to do to be truthful in these circumstances is to actually be truthful in what we do say.

A large number of organizations are utilizing the information gathering abilities inherent in bar-codes, large databases and a number of other systems to better focus their sales attempts (whether it is to increase pizza sales or to persuade voters). These are perfectly legal actions that often have their origin in the legitimate attempt to provide quality services at the lowest possible price. However, between the information that you might include on a warranty coupon, a phone directory, a subscription form and a discount card: it is possible for someone whom you have never met to have a lot of information about you. Information that, in many cases, they do not even care about.

Someone who wants me to buy a product doesn't need to know who my parents are, and often doesn't need to know where I live. One commonplace example are the grocery stores that have adopted "discount cards". When the card is used the store is able to correlate what the cash register records as sold with whom the purchaser was. For identifying the preferences of individual customers so that the store can better fill their individual needs this works rather well. But that purchase information can also be correlated with other information gathered from other sources.

Similarly whenever computer mediated communications (such as the web-browser that you are using to read this, or email, or NetMeeting software) are used a significant amount of information about the interaction and the participants is available to interested third parties. This fits quite closely with the "Global Village" metaphor that has been used for the online world. But, just as when in a real village, when one speaks of issues that simply are not everyones' business one makes sure that no one is listening. One still speaks truthfully "behind closed doors", and if publicly confronted with what was said one does not evade the truth. But truthfulness has never required of us that we tell all people everything about ourselves.

Software technology is quickly getting to the point where verifiable anonymity should be practical. Using such a system a store might know that customer "Woodrow Wilson" purchased eggs on Tuesday, and that customer "Zaphod Beeblebrox" purchased floor wax later that same day - but not be able to easily find out that "Woodrow" and "Zaphod" are actually a married couple living at 411 Smith St., two blocks from the store. Similarly with a verifiable anonymity system you would be able to be sure that the "Zaphod Beeblebrox" that you are corresponding with is the same person, by that name, that you corresponded with last year, and not another person by the same name. But, unless Zaphod decided to tell you or you met in person, you would not be able to find Zaphods' telephone number, address, or credit rating. Nor - if you were using the same system - would Zaphod be able to easily find out more than you decide to share.

I am currently of the opinion that using a system of verifiable anonymity - once it becomes available - is potentially consistent with the truth testimony, particularly if the pseudonyms used are ones (such as "Zaphod Beeblebrox" or "Woodrow Wilson") that look like pseudonyms. (Perhaps using the word pseudonym as the surname in such cases would be appropriate - in the long run we might make it appear to be the largest surname in history!)

The hyperlinks below contain more information about the issues of privacy, security and anonymity. Please peruse them with an open eye, considering all sides of the question. Discuss what you learn with your friends, decide what approaches to the issue you currently think would be appropriate and then discuss the issues with the appropriate people in your meeting. The issues of privacy, anonymity and information security are increasingly important to Friends, and to the World. A clear discernment on our part as to how the truth testimony applies to these issues can be a major contribution by us to how humanity deals productively with the changes allowed by digital information.

The Electronic Frontiers Foundation has been involved in a variety of efforts to promote freedom and community on the net. They have done a variety of work on Security and Privacy.

These are some papers, "Privacy on the Internet", "Privacy and Anonymity", "Privacy and Anonymity in Cyberspace", "Identity, Privacy and Anonymity on the Internet" and "Privacy and Anonymity on the Internet" that are worth reading.

An Altavista Search Result for the topic "Verifiable Anonymity" Look around, see what you can find!

These Links are from work that was done by a class at the "UNC School of Information and Library Science". This page is concerned with issues of Anonymity and Privacy , and this one is more focused on Privacy, Anonymity, and Security on the Internet. This Link is to a brief overview of why we are concerned with Anonymity & Privacy in the brave new digital age. This last last Link discusses (Im)perfect Anonymity, an important reminder that no technique is perfect, even if it is "good enough".

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To email me directly: Christopher Gwyn