What Is Anonymity? Can We Really Achieve It?

What Is Anonymity?

The anonymity of an act is the absence of identification of the person who is performing it. The concept of namelessness, though technically correct, doesn’t capture what’s most at stake in situations of anonymity, according to some writers. This means that the individual should not be able to be identified, tracked or reached.

A person’s anonymity can be seen as a method or way of achieving other values, such as privacy or liberty. Anonymity tools used by criminals and malicious users on the dark web in recent years have drastically altered law enforcement’s ability to use conventional surveillance techniques.

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Example of Anonymity

A good example of anonymity not only being protected but also enforced by law is the right to vote in free elections. Traditionally, anonymity is accepted in many situations, such as conversations between strangers or purchases in a shop. Additionally, there are a number of situations where a person might choose to conceal their identity. Benefactors often prefer not to be acknowledged when they perform acts of charity anonymously.

If someone feels threatened, anonymity might help to alleviate that threat. Those who witness a crime are often hesitant to report it publicly for fear of retribution. It is possible for criminals to conceal their participation in a crime by going anonymous.

Through the passing of time or by a destructive event, the loss of identifying information can lead to anonymity unintentionally. However, it may be illegal for one to remain anonymous in certain situations. In the United States, 24 states have laws requiring suspects to identify themselves to law enforcement officers when requested.

Levels of Anonymity

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There are varying levels of anonymity to illustrate the extent of one’s online privacy. Here’s a look at each level:

Level 0:  No Identification of the User

It is normal to have issues with a PC when using it; however, there are some applications that can assist.

Level 1: Anonymous Identification

In this case, the system identifies the user, but not as an individual or by a pen name, thus they aren’t “addressable.” Typically a user logs on anonymously (with a password), and the system records their activities. A museum visitor platform, for example, could tailor its interactions with the user according to the log.

Level 2: Pen Name Identification

A user may be identified by some username within the system, but no person-level identification is made. Pen names and passwords are used to access the site. It is possible to use more than one pseudonym. This type of user (under a pseudonym) may receive messages.


This mode is also used for bulletin boards; some game-playing systems operate over networks similar to the internet.

Level 3: Latent Identification

Users are referred to here as persons in the system. Using pseudonyms is up to each individual. Each set of pseudonyms is distinct, meaning different people cannot use the same pseudonym. The computer knows how specific users use it, whereas distinct users cannot determine each other directly. Electronic bulletin board discussion forums and computer-assisted instruction (CAl) use this mode.

Level 4: Usual Identification

Within the system, internet users are identified by their username and associated password. Logging on with this username and using the correct password is required. Multiuser systems typically work this way today.

Anonymity as Seen Under International Law

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There has been limited international recognition of online privacy so far. Since the beginning of the internet, privacy and anonymity have been linked together:

A report on encryption and anonymity for the digital age was published by the Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur in May 2015. In his report, the Special Rapporteur found that securing an internet that is free and open today is a prerequisite for the enjoyment of freedom of expression, which is why governments must protect it. Because encryption and anonymity are vital to the meaningful exercise of the right to free expression and opinion in the digital age, they must be strongly protected and promoted.

It was highlighted in the Special Rapporteur that anonymous speech was imperative to human rights activists, journalists and protestors. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, any attempt to ban or intercept anonymous communication during protests would be an unjustified restriction of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Additionally, human rights defenders and journalists should be protected by laws and regulations that enable them to use secure communication technologies and that provide them with support in using them.

Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur explained that restrictions on encryption and anonymity must meet international law’s three-part test for restrictions on the right to freedom of expression. He recommended a regular legislative process, rather than a fast-track, be followed when adopting draft laws and policies pertaining to encryption or anonymity. Moreover, he stressed that due process should be guaranteed to every individual who is subject to limitations on their use of encryption or anonymity by establishing strong procedural safeguards and judicial oversight.

Anonymity and the United States Supreme Court

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, First Amendment protection for anonymity must be balanced with competing interests, including those related to political activity, campaign finance and internet access.

Supreme Court Cases in Which Anonymous Free Speech Has Been Protected

Anonymity has been a fundamental principle in American society since its founding. A number of Federalist Papers authors wrote under assumed names, including the pseudonym Publius, and revolutionary pamphleteers often operated under assumed names to avoid prosecution.

Civil rights activists were protected by numerous decisions affirming their right to anonymous speech and association. The Supreme Court decision of McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, for example, established anonymous political campaign communications as protected under the first amendment.

However, in the case of internet users, it is still protected in the same way unless it is affecting the national cause. This is what gives Americans the right to anonymity. But if you go against the state in a national security matter, the state can take the legal route.

Refer to this explainer for more analysis on the state of internet privacy in the U.S.

Internet Presents New Issues with Anonymous Speech

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The rise of internet-based fundraising and political communication has prompted additional anonymity concerns, especially with anonymous speech. People who engage in political discourse on the internet often post under pseudonyms, confident their identity will remain a secret. Re-mailing services can render an e-mailer untraceable if they want to remain anonymous. Some are located offshore.

Internet posters willing to take extra precautions may not care what federal or state disclosure laws require if anonymous communication can be achieved outside the U.S. In addition, such activity is exempt from other laws, like those that protect intellectual property and punish libel and defamation.

Important first amendment Supreme Court cases such as McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission and Gitlow v. New York don’t directly apply to discourse and speech that happens in the digital world exclusively. So, the legal and political systems have some catching up to do in modernizing first amendment protections and ensuring citizens have a right to anonymous communications.

No Anonymity on the Internet Is Possible

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As your physical body in the real world, your online information footprint is a reflection of your identity. It may be possible to identify you even when there is no explicit identifier attached to your information footprint, like seeing where you post from or which language you use.

Using the internet anonymously is almost impossible. Due to internet protocols, your internet service provider (ISP) and sometimes the website or service you’re using can receive information about your device’s setup. You are always transmitting your IP address, and your browser sends information about its settings to the server when you’re browsing the web. An individual can be identified by combining these details.


The phrase “private browsing” or “incognito” is often misused by internet browsers. In reality, the sites and services you access can still identify you through your IP address, browser configuration and history (via cookies), as well as track your online activities. Even if you use a tool like an anonymization proxy to hide your IP address and timestamp, uniquely identifiable information is still exposed, such as your browser configuration, cookies or the information you supply as part of a query-by-example request.

Also, data mining and inference techniques can be used to refine anonymized user profiles via language models, speaker identification, facial recognition, location correlation and other retrieval methods that can be used to match anonymized users to their actual identities. But it doesn’t always require such specialized techniques; if there is even a single link between an online identity and your real self, somebody (or some bot) can submit a query using a single identifier (such as a name, phone number or email address) to a commercial data broker like Data.com or the now-acquired Rapleaf.com. Data brokers aggregate data from many sources and can provide a full personal profile, including home address, income level, job description, etc.

No More Tyranny of Social Media

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Studies have found that young people are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the narcissistic culture that dominates social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Platforms such as these promote people presenting idealized versions of themselves by nature of their design. In addition to being emotionally draining, using camera filters and other image enhancement tools is a lot of work, and it can also provide you the power of free speech.

Compared to the unrealistic images of other people, young people are increasingly feeling anxiety and inadequacy caused by social platforms. With these pressures in mind, it’s no wonder that young people are increasingly turning to anonymous forms of interaction that free them from needing to present a perfect avatar.

Young people engage in anonymity apps as an alternative modality of interaction, expression and connection they consider to be more authentic.

There are several ways to do this. Many people find that anonymity allows them to be honest about the problems they face and get help for issues that are often stigmatized, such as anxiety, depression, self-harm, addiction and body dysmorphia. There can be a cathartic effect from it, and it can be comforting at times, too.

Others are able to pronounce their harsh opinions on social issues anonymously without fear of retribution if they contradict the opinions of their peers. Social media’s idealized self-presentation can include supporting certain views because they are fashionable among certain groups of people instead of because they are so strongly held.

An Anonymity Ban Would Be Shortsighted

There are good and bad aspects to anonymity, and neither is always the case. There is no doubt that cyberbullying is a serious issue that must be dealt with. It is, however, subjective to determine what content can be shared or said on the internet.

Efforts to ban anonymity outright are shortsighted, however. Anonymity is often associated with negative associations without addressing its positive potential.

The real need is education. Education about social media consumption must be stepped up for young people. A curriculum at a school, college or university should, and can, do much more in this regard.

Furthermore, app developers and online service providers should be aware of the potentially negative aspects of their offerings. It should be top of the agenda for Silicon Valley companies to take security seriously, especially when they are targeting young people and allowing them to express themselves freely.

Ways One Cannot Stay Anonymous Online

The ‘Privacy’ Mode Is Not Very Private

Broken padlock on computer keyboard as a concept for no real privacy in digital world

In many web browsers, such as Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari, you can browse the internet “incognito” or “privately.” This level of privacy is limited to your computer only. Safari promises that using its Private Browsing mode, your browsing history is private, despite the fact that websites can still identify your computer by its IP address, a unique number assigned by your ISP. In addition, your ISP (or your employer, if you use a work computer) may also keep your browsing history, which “Private Browsing” cannot conceal or delete. Chrome warns that these basic privacy modes generally do not hide your browsing from your employer, ISP or the websites you visit.

The best way to hide your IP address and maintain your online anonymity is to use a virtual private network (VPN), regardless of whether you’ve enabled private browsing or incognito mode on your web browser. There are many VPNs on the market today—here’s our list of the top five services.

Commercial Trackers Are Blocked by Cookie Blocking, but the Gaps Persist

To make it more difficult for companies/organizations to track them while they browse the internet, some people block their browsers from accepting HTTP cookies—small pieces of data sent from websites and stored in your browser. Your browser can also delete the cookies it picks up during a private session to remove your traces.

Check out this explainer to learn more about how cookies track your behavior.

But even if you disable or delete cookies that track your activities, you still leave companies with plenty of opportunities to keep tabs on your online activities. Your IP address is still logged by websites if you block cookies. You can pinpoint your location by logging into your Facebook, Google or Yahoo account from any location in the world, no matter where you access the internet. Regardless of what your ISP company is, it will still have access to your visit history.

Furthermore, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, even with cookies blocked, browsers still transmit enough information unencrypted to give the user a unique “fingerprint” that enables organizations to follow the user through different websites. Some argue there is no certainty that any organization is using this information to track people. But the Electronic Frontier Foundation warns that Google has reportedly been looking into tracking users without allowing cookies.

Tor and Encrypted Browsing Tools Promote Anonymous Communication

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Various cryptographic systems have been developed that can mask browsing habits both from the websites one visits and their ISP in order to overcome these gaps in internet privacy. The Tor Browser is a free tool that encrypts the original data being transferred to and from your browser through a chain of relays so that no one can track which website you’re visiting or what device you’re using. You will also prevent tracking via browser “fingerprints.”

Despite this, research from 2014 found that the National Security Agency and other intelligence bodies can mark and track users’ IP addresses when they search for privacy-related applications like Tor (even though they cannot monitor your online activities). The digital equivalent of “laying low” is to adopt privacy-preserving tools and methods for anonymous surfing. Until privacy applications like Tor become widely adopted, consumers may face increased scrutiny, undermining their attempts at staying anonymous online.


Using a VPN is the best way to prevent your IP address (which exposes your location and other data) from being leaked or exposed, especially if you’re connected to an unsecured public WiFi network like that of a library, airport or coffee shop.

Behavioral Giveaways Beyond Encryption

Even though Tor and other privacy-oriented technologies may protect you from revealing most of your personal details while browsing the internet, your online behaviors can reveal your true identity. If you think of the web as a public place to meet, then privacy technologies are like masquerade masks—people won’t be able to recognize you when they see you. Some details, though, like your walking style or speech, may be enough to alert a savvy observer.

Using stylometry, computer scientists are proving that anonymous posters in online forums can be identified based on their unique writing style. One 2015 study by a Drexel University research team matched the writing styles in underground forums with unique identities and could identify about 80% of the authors of leaked conversations and contributions. Adding stylistic analysis to internet forums from law enforcement and government surveillance agencies may be an effective way to uncover anonymous posters (the study needed a minimum of 5,000 words for analysis).

Even something as simple as posting a photo may be enough to give away precise details about yourself. A famous example of this occurred when Vice published a photo of John McAfee standing beside a news reporter. The person who took the photo didn’t turn off the geotagging feature on their smartphone, thus exposing McAfee’s location. He was arrested shortly after that.


Although there are a number of powerful tools to conceal your identity online, it can be difficult to achieve complete anonymity. Even if you use a few techniques to hide your IP address or block cookies, your web activity leaves traces, and those digital traces could reveal your location, name, address and other vital details. You should be cautious about how you behave in the digital world based on your personal desire for privacy, but protecting your data is impossible without first understanding what information you’re giving away.

Overall, anonymity is a plus point in the life of a person who wants to stay hidden online, and there are plenty of ways to do that in today’s technology-driven society.

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