Privacy vs Transparency: What Does the Future Hold?

In the left corner, sporting the title belt with 600 million users, is Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. In the right corner, hosting the world’s largest English-language image forum and 7 million users, is Christopher “Moot” Poole of 4Chan.

So why the heavy weight bout? The future of your online privacy may depend on it.

On one side there is Zuckerberg advocating for a single online identity, on the other there is Poole lobbying for anonymity.

Transparency vs Privcay infographic by namesake.com - click to see full graphic

Click here to see the full infographic.

It’s worth noting both site owners have a vested interest in their argument. Facebook errs toward the side of transparency, although it’s worth mentioning it is a shift from their earlier policies. 4Chan is all about anonymity, requiring little more than a valid e-mail address to get connected.

Zuckerberg’s theory is if your online activities are transparent you can be held accountable for your actions – much like in ‘real world’ society. On the surface it seems fine and dandy, but there are some inherent risks with sharing your personal information with just anyone.

Back in 2009 a group of MIT students made headlines for their “Gaydar” project. Essentially the software crawled Facebook user’s ‘friend list’ to determine whether they were homo or heterosexual. While the software was never released to the public, the experiment identified 10 out of 10 men to be gay even when their Facebook profile made no mention of it.

[Editor's note: the original 'Project Gaydar' article is available on Boston.com if you fancy a pay-wall.]

Pleaserobme.com garnered media attention in 2010 after collecting status updates from Twitter and Foursquare that showed when a person was away from home. Facebook didn’t roll out their own location-based service, Facebook Places, until later that same year, but the risks are largely the same – and location-based updates aren’t the only potentially revealing posts.

“That happened to Beny Rubinstein last year when a hacker compromised his friend’s Facebook page and falsely asked his Facebook friends for help. Rubinstein wired the hacker more than $1,100, thinking his real friend was in trouble in a foreign country.

Others say internet users may not realize how much information they’re giving up just by browsing the Web.”

- The Internet and the ‘End of Privacy’ John D. Sutter, CNN.com

On the other hand, it may have been an anonymous person from 4Chan that swindled Rubinstein. The problem with anonymity is, well, it’s hard to hold someone accountable for their actions when you don’t know who they are.

The darker side 4Chan has had it’s fair share of trouble with child pornography and other illegal activity, although those issues aren’t limited to that site alone. But just because the users are anonymous doesn’t mean they don’t have morals. Earlier this year 4Chan worked with the FBI after a user threatened to shoot up a local community college with an AK-47. There are even reports of users tricking, tracking, and eventually reporting “Pedobears,” as pedophiles are known on 4Chan, to authorities for prosecution.

Anonymity does have its perks, say, if you were trying to overthrow an oppressive regime in the middle east, needed to blow the whistle on corporate conduct that could jepeordize your career, or talk candidly about social issues.

But at what point does the community decide an institution has become “oppressive,” for example? Notable hacktivist attacks have originated from the site’s users, the most well-known of which was the leaderless group of digital activists calling themselves Anonymous. Since forming in 2006 Anonymous has taken part in numerous cyberattacks, the most widely reported of which centered around Wikileaks revealing classified government documents.

At the end of the day, thankfully, we don’t live in an absolute world. We can log off our identity ridden profile on Facebook and log-in anonymously to 4Chan as fast as your browser can take you. The big question is where do we go from here? If Facebook’s recent decline in North American traffic is any indication some internet goers may be growing tired of cyber stalking, 4Chan still has a long way to go before it can rival Facebook’s 600 million-strong user base.

Then again, 4Chan isn’t alone. Similar sites such as Reddit.com and the infamous ‘Deep Web’ represent a much larger cross-section of privacy-minded surfers.

So what do you say? Are you pro transparency or pro anonymity? (privacy freaks feel free to comment on the post on 4Chan) [insert link]

*According to the Wikipedia entry, Project Chanology was in response to censorship by the Church of Scientology and is not an attack on Scientologists’ religious views.

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