Ramblings on Anonymity
2021 December 20
A while back, I decided that I wanted to stop using my name on the web. I wanted to become nameless, existing online only as an anonymous entity.
I also want to continue to create things and release them to the world. These two goals are misaligned under capitalism, where attribution is necessary for building reputation and generally for being paid for labor.
Further complicating this is the fact that some people already know who I am (and I might want to share my work with them), and some people need to know who I am. (For example, I've been applying for grad school, and I want to be able to point to some of the things I've done as examples of my work.)
It's also complicated because some things require the use of a name. When I commit code with Git, for example, it associates the commit with a selected username and email address. I can make these up, but then I'm creating a pseudonym, which is different from my ideal of being nameless.
Licensing and copyright are complicated. I want to be able to create things and release them to the world so that other people can use them, but I'd rather not put my name on them. (Even if I do put a name on something, I often would prefer people not draw attention to me by giving me credit if they use it.)
This will be a fairly disorganized post where I just ramble about some thoughts and practices related to anonymity.
There are basically two ways to license things that I think are useful: strong copyleft/share-alike free licenses and public domain-equivalent licenses. Why would I license something under a non-copyleft proprietary license when I could instead relinquish ownership of it entirely? I see no reason to own software except to enforce copyleft.
Basically then, I either license something GPL (for code) or CC BY-SA (for creative works), or I dedicate it to the public domain.
I feel fine with anonymous public domain dedications. You don't need to know who made something in the public domain because you're not required to provide attribution.
But the GNU and Creative Commons licenses require attribution.
What I've been doing with those is either listing "Anonymous" as the author or simply leaving the author bit blank in the license declaration. Neither of these is a great option, and I don't imagine they would actually give me much legal power to enforce the copyleft/share-alike conditions (not that as an individual I'd have much luck enforcing these licenses anyway...).
This is one of the major reasons I'm interested in the concept (but not generally execution) of anonymous money: In general, people should be able to create things and sell or receive donations for them anonymously, if they wish.
(The other major reason is because existing payment processing platforms can simply shut off service to legitimate users like sex workers and WikiLeaks.)
Of course, we have pseudonymous cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin which might fit one's threat model, but due to the energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and hardware waste associated with the proof-of-waste algorithms used by the cryptocurrencies people actually use, cryptocurrency use tends to be wildly unethical.
I don't have a good answer for this one. I'm keeping an eye on Oxen as a cryptocurrency that might actually be reasonable, but unless Oxen becomes popular enough that people actually use it, it's not exactly a practical solution.
I want to be contactable on XMPP and Matrix (and email, I guess). This is obviously incompatible with my goal of not having a name or identity online.
I also have, for example, several email addresses, many of which contain names I use in meatspace. With people I know AFK, I primarily use an email address with a name in it, but obviously I don't want to list this on my site.
I ended up using something that didn't look like a name and wasn't easily pronounceable. It's still an identifier, but I can live with it.
(Of course, "negative zero" is also an identity. But that feels different to me. It doesn't identify me as a person.)
I'm fortunate enough that anonymity is something I want, not something I need. My adversaries aren't OSINT experts or government agencies with backdoors into major tech companies or even mass surveillance companies like Google. (Since Google can read nearly every email I send or receive, I'd have a hard time keeping my website a secret if I ever wanted to mention it to anyone I know.)
I just want to keep random people who come across my site from knowing who I am.
I'm sure it's not that hard for a motivated person to figure out some things about me. As some examples...
- While my whois records contain some company's information rather than mine, you could bribe or compel my domain registrar to tell you what it knows about me.
- While my server uses a VPN, so I don't actually publish my home IP address in DNS records, this is done to get around a networking restriction imposed by my ISP, not for privacy. It probably leaks my home IP address in various ways. In particular, I have not set up outgoing connections to use the VPN, so if you federate with my server on Matrix/XMPP, you can probably figure out approximately where I live.
- You could bribe or compel my VPS provider to give up information about me.
- You could compromise my server and see what users are registered on the system.
- You could probably find old versions of some things I've published on this site that I never got around to deleting from other sites and see what personal information is available through those.
I'm not thrilled about these, but it's not the end of the world. My main goal here is to performatively refuse to name myself on my site.
Some people want attribution for their work. Some don't. I understand the importance to some people of providing sources, but it's also important not to identify someone who desires anonymity. Generally, communication is the best policy.
I worry about anonymity being a privilege of the wealthy. Who can afford to do things anonymously? Generally, only the people with enough free time to be doing something else and getting paid for it. I hope that in the future, we have better ways of funding anonymous projects.