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The importance of being anonymous - Digital Threat Digest

PGI’s Digital Investigations Team brings you the Digital Threat Digest, SOCMINT and OSINT insights into disinformation, influence operations, and online harms.

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Recently, I’ve been reading about Worldcoin, an initiative co-founded by OpenAI chief executive Sam Altman. It seeks to create a global digital identity register called ‘World ID’ based on biometric data. This information is gathered via silver orbs which scan a person’s eye to create a unique cryptographic pattern for that individual. Worldcoin’s mission is to integrate World ID into web3 applications, social media platforms and a future universal basic income programme. The scheme has already faced privacy complaints and accusations that it exploits people in the developing world. However, I won’t dwell on these issues but instead address its implications for anonymity on social media.

The argument against anonymity is that it fundamentally undermines online trust and safety. The ability to hide behind an avatar allows individuals to abuse other users without repercussions. The same is true for fraud and social engineering, through cyber crooks’ use of unattributable burner accounts. It also makes it easier to run influence operations by creating fake accounts or running bot farms. A digital identity system like World ID would anchor the internet to the real world, making it far easier to hold people accountable for their words and actions online.

In the UK, we’ve had previous discussions about removing social media users’ right to anonymity. These came following racist abuse against English football players during the 2020 Euros, and after the murder of David Amess MP, which started discussions about the online attacks faced by politicians. The reason this idea was never developed in the past is that there are many cases where anonymity is absolutely necessary. It allows freedom of speech in contexts where it may be unsafe to do so in the real world, such as citizens in authoritarian states or whistle-blowers. It gives individuals who may be unsure about their sexual or gender identity an opportunity to experiment, before they feel comfortable enough to come out.

A digital ID system for the internet provides a simplistic technological fix, but it avoids the challenging work of making social media platforms genuinely safe. Proper safety hinges on on tried-and-true measures such as adequate community safeguards, education on how to behave responsibly and safely online, and algorithms designed to guide users away from extreme content. These may not be as slick as cryptography and shiny balls, but they ensure the user is still given the choice whether or not to reveal themselves online.

More about Protection Group International's Digital Investigations

Our Digital Investigations Analysts combine modern exploitative technology with deep human analytical expertise that covers the social media platforms themselves and the behaviours and the intents of those who use them. Our experienced analyst team have a deep understanding of how various threat groups use social media and follow a three-pronged approach focused on content, behaviour and infrastructure to assess and substantiate threat landscapes.

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