Anonymity is the new black, transparency is the new sexy!

Here is a true paradoxe we were dying to consider through the Black Monthly section. First, because it drifts through the greatest social problematics of our time. May we even say, the greatest absurdities of our young century! Anonymity as a human right, transparency as a sine qua non condition for social life and close surveillance to rule them all. It seems today that the established order has pushed back the boundaries of anonymity further away, turning man into a product resulting from a constrained but inevitable globalization. It is now up to each one of us to step forward for our own privacy, as if it was no more an innate right but rather something we have to stand for and actively defend. Because, surely, “if you’re not doing anything illegal, you’ve got nothing to hide!” Right? A hell of a rhetoric which we've probably all heard at least once! After all, if everything's fine in your pants, what's the problem with being stripped naked?

Since the 2000s and the advent of social networks and the rise of mass surveillance, anonymity and privacy have been the subject of numerous debates. It is truly incredible to realize that the Internet, the tool of democratisation, liberation and emancipation that the 90’s had promised us, has become, within twenty years, the greatest privacy advocates' nightmare (which were ironically the first ones that believed in its promises).

Anonymat... © mamasuco, 2017

How does the blockchain get into this mess? Right in the middle of it, of course, and following the alternatives already in place to counter the rise of a new kind of totalitarianism: VPN, Proxy, Tor and we are! But the blockchain comes with a new value, which most anti-anonymity advocates will pretend not to see: transparency! It contributes to the debate with pure technology, where human considerations have obviously been lost. If anonymity is so complicated, or even dangerous as some would say, let’s compute trust! Even better, let’s create a substitute to trust!

Because in fact, blockchain is not a machine for creating trust, but rather a mechanism to dispense with trust. And replace it with calculation, which is by far the least unpleasant option compared to the states' response: mass indiscriminate surveillance.

In recent years, the main debates have gradually focused on the limits of privacy and its interests. Does privacy matters? We won’t start this paper by listing why it does. We will start halfway into the thinking process and leave these considerations to those who still wish to discuss them. Our starting axiom will be that privacy matters, period.

Instead, we will focus on making tangible the very paradoxical articulation between anonymity and transparency through this central notion of trust.

Part One : The paradoxical ideal of transparency

A transparent object has no secrets for anyone. To be transparent is to show oneself, to appear in its entirety. Autonomous, immutable, transparent : these qualities of blockchain technology bring it close to a divine and glorious body. At the same time, these qualities are the requirements of our time; blockchain appears as a kind of response to the political and social dead-ends of our epoch. The blockchain is in the spirit of the times.

However,  it is this very ideal of transparency which is criticised. If transparency does not allow secrecy, then it also conflicts with the requirement of anonymity or even cryptography. Let’s consider two examples : secret ballot and military secrecy. The first requires, not transparency, but privacy, in order for the rules of a democracy to work. On the contrary, military secrecy, like business secrecy, is a hotly debated issue: many citizens are calling for more transparency. Hence the whistleblowers, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. So, is there a good and a bad transparency? Or should we redefine what exactly is meant by transparency?

Frank Braun, one of the figures of crypto-anarchism, openly criticized this aspect of the blockchain during an interview given to Blocs and Usbek and Rica. According to  him, the following two qualities, transparency and immutability, pave the way for what he calls technological totalitarianism:

In other words, blockchains are public and cannot be modified. If there is no cryptographic layer that anonymizes transactions (as in Monero or Zcash), everyone can see who the recipients and senders are. In addition, this information is permanent. There are several projects that want to put identifiers "in the blockchain". This means that every human being can always be identified.

[Translating from French]

The ideal of transparency becomes, for him, a technological nightmare; blockchain register  would, in his vision, be a kind of open book where everyone can be monitored. But even worse: Braun sees smarts contracts as a form of control by algorithms.This would deprives human beings of their freedom to  choose. In his vision, “this is the very definition of dehumanizing technology”.

This is, in fact, the risk of what Antoinette Rouvroy calls algorithmic governmentality, i.e. the way in which algorithms impose their decision-making methods on users. As an example, consider the case of data profiling. But Braun does not define what a smart contract is, namely a self-executing contract in which the terms of  agreement between buyer and seller are directly recorded in lines of code. The code and the agreements it contains are distributed over a decentralized network of blockchains. Unlike a legal contract, smart contracts do not require any trusted third parties.

To say that a smart contract opens up to algorithmic governmentality is false: the mode of governance is primarily set by the users; then, in a second instance, technology ensures the smooth running of the interaction. Moreover, since the blockchain is decentralized, no central server will collect data for profiling or others purposes.

On the other hand, Braun is worried about identification blockchains - such as BrightID, which we interviewed for this section. At this stage, in an attempt to approach a more refined definition of transparency, we should make the notion of identity more complex. On Web 2.0, the objective of firms is to reduce the gap between virtual identity and physical identity. There must be coincidence, permeability between the two. However, what the blockchain means by transparency is actually different: there is transparency only in the transaction process. Two identities, one personal or physical, the other virtual, can remain radically separate from each other. Anyone can encrypt their physical identity; or even display a personal identity, a person, a persona, which is, in Latin, a mask. The user's identity is finally only a hypostasis of his physical being. Thus, on the blockchain, transparency can coincide with a new form of anonymity.

Anything to say?

Anything to say is an artwork signed by Italian sculptor Davide Dormino and was inaugurated in 2015 on the Alexanderplatz in Berlin. It features Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning standing on chairs in a claiming posture. It includes a fourth, empty chair meant as a platform for public speaking. This artwork is for Davide Dormino, an ode to the courage of those whistleblowers who have fought to defend freedom of expression and access to information in the world. The work of art now travels from city to city in order to raise awareness on the risks and challenges of civil disobedience in our hyper-connected and hyper-monitored society.

A lot of people say they are traitors, but I want to celebrate these living heroes. My work is a monument to the future.

about Anything to say? Davide Dormino

Anything to say? Davide Dormino, 2015,

Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are key figures in the struggle against state secrets, mass surveillance and for freedom in the age of Internet. They also symbolise a  change in the form of  revolts and emancipations. In his book, Art of revolt, Geoffroy de Lagasnerie explains how those whistleblowers lead us to question the mechanisms of the democratic space and how it is still possible, or not, to reconsider it. He also questions how those three figures show a brand new different way of resisting, not in a plural form, groups and factions, but in a very solitary way.

“Besides the questions of migration, escape, belonging, I'm conducting a reflection on the political subject and the public sphere, and wonder what does it mean to act politically in an anonymous way. Spontaneously, we associate practice of anonymity to denunciation, to “a lack of courage”. For me, it's exactly the opposite. We have to use anonymity to analyse the implicit injunctions weighing on politics and on the censorship they exercise. […] If we remain committed to public interventions, to “call for courage”, we lose - at least, we are significantly reducing - the opportunity to be aware of such crimes, and therefore, to make a change. On the contrary, if it is possible to act without appearing, without revealing in person, then, new political subjects will spring up. The traditional, conventional and ritualized political landscape contributes to the disappearance of speeches and discourses. Anonymity is a way to expand protesting energies by opening the policy contestation floor to those who were excluded from it, or who were willfully excluding themselves from it.”

interview de Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, les Inrockuptibles, janvier 2015

Part Two : Adam Stallard interview about BrightID

Hello Adam, and thank for according us this interview! Please tell us about your project BrightID: what is it about and how does it work?

Adam: BrightID is a network of unique humans. Any application interested in keeping out fake users can use it.  It uses a decentralized, anonymous graph of people and records cryptographic connections made to each other.  We've created an algorithm to analyze the graph and make determinations about which vertices in the graph represent unique humans.  The connection data is shared in a standard way, but server node operators can apply different graph analysis techniques for verification besides the one we provide as a reference.

Is there different ways/methods to prove unique humanness? What other projects were source of inspiration for BrightID?

Adam: I felt the need to create BrightID because there was no way to prove that someone is a unique human in a digital environment.  It takes its inspiration from social networks and webs of trust.

What is the degree of fiability of this protocol? What problem does this technology encounters?

Adam: BrightID works today as long as users are well-connected to the rest of the graph. Part of the challenge will be finding ways to allow users everywhere to be verified quickly. We are researching ways to use pre-trusted "seed" nodes to accomplish this.

What were the dominants interests of your team for unique humanness? Is Universal Basic Income part of those principal interests, and if so, what kind of Universal Basic Income would you like to promote?

Adam: The dominant interests for me started out as a mix of governance and resource distribution. Here's an outline for a proposal to hold land for the benefit of humanity: Since then, I've become aware of a greater depth of possibilities for BrightID--new kinds of governance, such as the RadicalXChange ideas, and new kinds of applications for communicating, socializing, and interacting that benefit from being free of fake and duplicate accounts.

Do you think that unique humanness could become an alternative to high security and control state? If so, do you think those technologies could get interested states and governments for votes, social contribution…?

Adam: I view digital unique identity as a way to move away from states having a monopoly on identity verification. But yes, an existing network of unique humans could be very interesting to existing governments for voting and statistics.

What do you think about relationship between civic tech and blockchain? What would be the dominant benefits for civic tech for using blockchain technology?

Adam: Breakthroughs that allow people to vote conveniently from their own devices while keeping out fake accounts will open entire realms of voting that are much more rewarding and engaging.

What is your opinion about biometric ID?

Adam: The most important consideration in identification is who is doing the identifying. We need to open that up to allow more people to participate in identification. People are good at identifying a small set of people that they are close to; we have been doing this for millennia. BrightID leverages this innate human skill. If biometrics enhance our ability to identify each other, that's fine, but I'd like it to be done by the same set of close people. Having agents that barely know you being tasked with collecting biometrics creates potential problems with corruption and data breaches.

About scalability, do you hope/think future will be about universal ID, world citizenship? Do you think we could have a chance to see this happen? ^^

Adam: It has to be a global system to succeed.  The dream is that applications will be able to reach all of humanity, because there is a network that represents humanity.  I imagine that, unfortunately, certain oppressive groups, including governments will be able to block BrightID in certain areas, but having a well-known global benefit can help to change people's hearts.  When enough benefits based on BrightID start to stack up, people will demand them everywhere and find a way to get rid of groups that are keeping those benefits from them.

What do you answer to people who think that hiding identity shouldn’t be permitted and is the best way today for bad actions to happen?

Adam: BrightID is neutral about radical transparency. At a minimum, BrightID doesn't want to do anything to stand in the way of users of online systems who want to remain anonymous, and therefore doesn't require users to submit any personal information other than anonymous connections to other people in the graph used for verification. We certainly want to avoid the problem of collecting data and not telling users how it's being used.

Part three : Blockchain and pseudonymity

What matter who’s speaking, someone said, what matter who’s speaking, Samuel Beckett wrote in The Unnamable (1953). In this sentence, he insists on the paradoxical nature of the narrative voice: the one who speaks tends to disappear, without really disappearing. Foucault uses this quotation in a famous essay, What is an author?, published in 1969 in order to introduce the idea of the author’s disappearance.

Let’s note the term: disappear.  Its definition is the very opposite of transparency, which consists rather in appearing. In this text, Foucault cultivates  a feature of contemporary writing by which the author would disappear. He develops a genealogy of what he calls the author-function ; according to him,  writing “was a gesture charged with risks long before it became a possession caught in a circuit of property values”. The emergence of copyright in the 17th century onwards not only led to ownership of a work by its author, but above all to the control of its production (and possibly censorship) through the affixing of the name assigned to it. To sum up, to name the author is to control him.

One might think this subject is far from the blockchain. Yet, Foucault does speak of anonymity (lost) as an ethical foundation (of writing).This is why in 1980, he presented himself for an interview as the masked philosopher, preferring an anonymity that would allow him to develop his thought more freely. The preliminary question is: why Foucault poses anonymity as a requirement?

Anonymity is the condition of a person whose name or identity is unknown; in a narrower meaning, it is the condition of a person who is not famous. Why would someone seek anonymity? Most of the time, the answer we hear is:to commit a crime or an offence without being held responsible for it. However, the relationship between crime and anonymity is only a cause and not a nature. More broadly, anonymity is a way to withdraw from one's identity, that is, from an identity correlated with society, the family, the state, a religion, a company. Usually, the search for anonymity is triggered by two concerns: surveillance of the state or  profiling by a firm.

Michel Foucault would have loved crypto, © Gwenaël Le Bihan, 2016

Foucault wrote: “the 'author-function' is tied to the legal and institutional systems that circumscribe, determine, and articulate the realm of discourses”. That is, author-function makes  speech traceable. However, let us ask ourselves: isn’t actually traceability one of the features of the blockchain? More generally, aren’t   blockchain’s characteristics contrary to the requirement of anonymity?

The blockchain was created with Bitcoin in 2008 by Satoshi Nakamoto. Since its outset, the blockchain is linked to anonymity since no one knows, except the inventor himself, who is Satoshi. If we look at Bitcoin's white paper, there is only one instance of the term anonymity / anonymous. Let us quote the whole passage because it is so meaningful:

The traditional banking model achieves a level of privacy by limiting access to information to the parties involved and the trusted third party. The necessity to announce all transactions publicly precludes this method, but privacy can still be maintained by breaking the flow of information in another place: by keeping public keys anonymous.

Bitcoin wants to move away from the centralized and confidential model of banks. In short, transactions must be transparent, and therefore public. On the surface, transparency obliterates any possibilities of privacy. But Bitcoin maintains privacy by leaving public keys anonymous. If you make a transaction on Bitcoin, your Bitcoin address and this transaction is recorded, public, immutable and forgery-proof. But this address is anonymous: it is not necessarily correlated to your person. Bitcoin succeeds in combining the opposites: transparency  and anonymity.

So, in a way, blockchain-based technology aims first and foremost at transparency but seeks to preserve, not anonymity, but a certain privacy. We need to draw a distinction between anonymity and privacy. Being anonymous is a decision, most often a political one, to be external to an object (a computer network, for example, or a state). This is a way to hedge from something, to hide from something - to disappear. Privacy is a right, a permission to hide personal matters or relationships inside an ecosystem. Anonymity is the right you take. Privacy is the right that is granted.

We cannot decide and say that the blockchain is aimed at either privacy or anonymity. The blockchain ecosystem is not monolithic and there are varying degrees between these two notions. At both extremes, we would find identification blockchains, which give less privacy to users; then encryption programs like ZK DAI. One option to resolve the terminological issue between privacy and anonymity would be to use a more appropriate term: pseudonymity.

Pseudonymity is a condition of masked identity. The writer Romain Kacew has taken two pseudonyms in his life: Romain Gary and Emil Ajar (which both won the Goncourt Prize). Just as Lenin was actually named Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. Pseudonymity is a precise distinction from anonymity; it can be separated into public pseudonyms, non-public pseudonyms and unlinkable pseudonyms. That is, the pseudonym may be known or unknown to the public, known or unknown to systems (for example, a server, a company, a network). On the blockchain, users are either non-public pseudonyms or unlinkable pseudonyms.

The fact is, with regard to the blockchain, we should talk about pseudonymity since the address is both public and anonymous. This address - for example Ethereum or Bitcoin - is a pseudonym. No one is nameless  in the blockchain. There are only masks, persona. Just like that masked philosopher who hid Michel Foucault. A transparent but veiled place, the blockchain is counter-intuitive; perhaps it corresponds, finally, to what Foucault called heteropia : "something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted". It remains to make a heterotopology of the blockchain ecosystem.

To conclude : about pseudocide

In the last few years has emerged a social phenomenon that we could not expect, without taking a closer look, to attract that many people : pseudocide. It is the art of faking your own death, to erase all trace of your life/identity in order to be reborn elsewhere. This phenomenon of self-disappearance is certainly not a surprise in our guilt-ridden and jammed generation, but still raises many questions about the meaning and ways of disappearing within our hyper-connected societies. Indeed, if “vanishing” is not a recent feature, it’s in the difficulty of erasing their virtual identity since the invention of the internet, that the methods and motivations have become increasingly complex. In Japan, they are called “the Evaporated People” and reach 100,000 every year. In France, the Ministry of the Interior counts 40,000 a year.

A flourishing literature and even cinematographic culture seems to have developed over the past fifteen years, with How to disappear in America, by Seth Price, Petite éloge de la fuite hors du monde by Rémi Oudghiri or the novel The Big Picture by Douglas Kennedy.

  • Aragon Black

Aragon Black

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