Do you really think you are anonymous?

There is some debating going on in the Identity community about anonymity. See here, here, here and here. Today I came across this post from Eric Norlin which I found very enlightening for me. More specifically this paragraph really got my attention:

Every transaction in the real-world involves not only explicit identification (ATM cards, credit cards, driver’s licenses, or the proxy of cash), but also implicit identification. By implicit identification, I mean the subtle body language and sociological clues that all persons engaged in transactions use (both consciously and subconsciously.) There is not a waitress or convenience store clerk on the planet that will not begin “identifying” the ability of a customer to live up the implicit social contract of commerce based upon their attributes (appearance, cleanliness, socially accepted standards of behavior, etc). This is not the real-world as we’d like it to be. This is the real-world as it is.

At first, I believed you could easily be anonymous in the real world. Imagine, if you walk across town, you never have to identify yourself. Isn’t that a perfect example of anonymity? Turns out it isn’t! Even when you do not identify yourself (using some kind of id card for instance), people can see you, remember you. Next time you walk by, they might even recognize you. You are not anonymous anymore. They might not have much information about you, but they will still be able to identify you as “that guy that passes by around noon each friday”. As long as you cannot prevent one encounter on the street to be linked or correlated with a previous encounter, you are not anynomous.

Eric’s asks the right question:

All of that nasty, real-world talk aside — the question now becomes: Should the online world reflect the real-world, or not?

My first answer would be: no. In some cases (actually, in a lot of cases) I would prefer a level of anonymity that is stronger compared to what I would normally get in the real world. I believe we can achieve this with the right technology. But keep in mind that it will not be easy, as explained by Ben Laurie:

That’s why you need to have anonymity as your bottom layer, on which you build whatever level of privacy you can sustain; remember that until physical onion routing becomes commonplace you give the game away as soon as you order physical goods online, and there are many other ways to make yourself linkable.

Thanks to Infocard and similar technologies, we can achieve some level of anonymity, but as soon as we have to enter our home address to get the physical goods, all anonymity is lost.

Anonymity and privacy are interesting subjects and, in my personal opinion, are part of the foundation of any Internet meta identity system.