An anonymous seat at the table

An anonymous seat at the table

To tackle the worlds most complex problems, we need to make sure there are anonymous seats at the table for the most vulnerable

Blake Kohler
Blake Kohler
Co-Founder / CEO
An anonymous seat at the table

This article was originally published on Linkedin!

I updated my phone to the newest software release a few weeks ago and got a prompt letting me know that it would actively help me keep my identity private when browsing the web. It even offered to create one-off emails to use when creating accounts or signing up for newsletters, so my email isn't as exposed to the world as it had been previously.

While it is a bit rich for one of the three companies that know nearly everything about me to become the champions of my privacy online, I can't say that I didn't appreciate the new features. It was refreshing to see steps in the right direction in a world that seems to be completely lacking in any form of privacy.

No privacy for you

Nearly immediately after updating my phone, I received an email from one of the services we use to send email newsletters. This email explained how their organization was responding to the new privacy features and how they plan to allow users of their product to track who is opening and interacting with their emails. So much for my newfound privacy.

And truthfully, I wasn't that sad to see it go. I consciously choose to "give away" my privacy in exchange for the utility that comes from the tools that I utilize nearly daily. So what if Amazon knows what I'm likely to order before I do as long as it can get me that new part for my magic bullet tomorrow. I'm not concerned that Apple knows where I am at all times as long as I can share that location with others when I need to. Does it bother me that Google knows everything I've ever searched? Not as much as the fact that it knows every word I've misspelled as I've ever typed into its search bar.

The truth is I don't care about privacy because I don't have much to keep private. The stakes for me are very low. This lack of stakes for my loss of privacy is primarily because I'm an immensely privileged person. I live in the most prosperous country in the world; I have significant economic and social advantages. It is probably fair to say that I am one of the least vulnerable people on the planet - so I have no problems sharing my daily life with the world, or at least with Apple, Google and Amazon.

The dangers of a lack of privacy

I do wonder: How would my opinion change if I were vulnerable? How would I feel about someone knowing my search activity If I lived in a country or worked for a company where my benign internet activity could lead to negative consequences such as prosecution or termination?

How would I feel If I were a victim of abuse in the workplace and knew my boss or others could read all my correspondence about the potential abuse? Would I be more reluctant to come forward? What about if I was in the position to be a whistleblower on an important issue but knew that would mean identifying myself and possibly facing ridicule and abuse from colleagues?

If I knew they would see the critique came from me, would I be willing to critique my lawyer on the job they are doing If they've been appointed to defend me? Would I honestly fill out a survey about my stay at a homeless shelter If I knew that the person reading the results had the power to revoke my access to that shelter?

The higher the stakes, the more uncomfortable it becomes to have my privacy violated.

Privacy has its flaws 

Anonymity is not the panacea for everything that ails society. There are significant dangers to anonymity. Trolling, bullying, and all manner of inappropriate behaviors hide behind a wall of deidentification.

An entirely secret society would fundamentally break because being a part of a community is chiefly about sharing a bit of ourselves with the collective whole for everyone to prosper. If you have no natural way to know your neighbor, then it's nearly impossible to be neighborly.

The place for anonymity 

For years organizations have attempted to forgo anonymity by instead using confidentiality. They've promised to keep your data secret from everyone but you and, of course, them.

But increasingly, we've seen how any stored data will eventually come to light no matter how confidential the information is. Data breaches, bad actors, and simple mistakes can lead to our dirty laundry being aired for all to see.

Despite its flaws, the ability to remain anonymous is essential for allowing the most vulnerable among us the space and confidence to have their voices heard without the fear of retribution.

To tackle the world's most complex problems, we need everyone at the table, especially those who would feel incredibly vulnerable. As such, we need to continue developing tools, solutions, and procedures that allow for true anonymity and ensure they are then when people most need them.