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Posted by on Aug 30, 2017

Anonymity in Mobile Messaging: Criminalization, Luxury, Permission, and Persistent Presentation of Self

Clearly a favorite subject of mine, I am returning yet again to the subject of surveillance and privacy in the digital and attempting, clumsily, to link that to development work and my work at the Centre for Research in Digital Education. Just yesterday, James Lamb and I were using Telegram to pilot our mLearning idea for the upcoming Bremm17 Conference in Bremen. I have been circling this subject a bit in my own way in these posts, but basically I am trying to explore the role of anonymity in education and how it can be a positive principle for digital education. I am curious to identify and advance models for education in eras of mass surveillance and how these might ethically be expressed in different contexts. So I have discussed a bit this from a few different perspectives as best illustrated in thee posts: 

  • Surveillance and the Turkish example; discusses curbs on messaging apps overall, but specifically in the Turkish context where even the download of a particular application could lead to imprisonment
  • Chatbots and Mobile Learning: a brief discussion on how chatbots, particularly in Telegram, can generate some good mobile learning scenarios
  • Urban subversive as pedagogical position: this is a paper I published in Continuum that speaks to what I see are appropriate pedagogical responses to heightened surveillance at work throughout the world. It is clumsy, no doubt, but it represents the beginnings of what I suspect will be a lifelong effort.

As recent news stories suggest, applications like Telegram and Signal pose some perceived or real threat to the capacity of national governments’ to monitor their citizenry. Indonesia and Russia have made threats to ban Telegram outright; it has been blocked completely in China and traffic blocked in Bahrain; it is popular in Iran for a host of reasons, the least of which not being the government’s response to the Arab Spring, but the government has woken up to it there. Clearly the CIA and others have presumably cracked Telegram. Be safe people.

It should be noted that Telegram has its issues on the security front, with some claiming that Telegram’s security model is undermined by its use of a custom-designed encryption protocol that has not been proven reliable and secure, and by not enabling secure conversations by default. Probably best to migrate to Signal at this point, but I still place Telegram above most other mobile messaging services.

However, the choice of service isn’t the point, but rather the larger themes at play. The first and probably most important is the criminalisation of anonymity that we see taking place in the digital. Anonymity online has always been in a fraught tension but in some senses the surveillance technology just caught up. We see Turkey’s crackdown on academics and the role of ICT there. We see increased solutionism in regards to IDs, CCTVs, and an overall extension of the surveillance apparatus in most countries. We see increased calls for governments demanding and bribing for backdoors and loopholes into secure ICT systems. Some have pushed back and questioned the capacity of such moves to do anything except weaken encryption for all.

But the larger fundamental question here is simpler. If I want to remain anonymous, am I allowed to be so? If I do something that isn’t illegal, do I have the right to anonymity? If you think this is strictly a personal technology issue, as it shedding your mobile phone would purge you of this need, then I urge you to walk down the street and note how many times your visage is being captured and note how many of these you willingly contribute. Is your presence alone enough to justify the surveillance? These sound like basic questions but they are at the core of what matters here.

But we know anonymity is available for some. It has become a trapping of great wealth, or the privy of governments or tech firms. It exists, but not for most. This is evidenced on both ends of the spectrum. From the uber-rich’s doomsday scenarios to the often shoddy conceptualization of privacy in ICT4D projects. Anonymity is a luxurious commodity to be obtained rather than bestowed at birth. Only some of us are allowed it.

Anonymity is at odds in some respect with the zeitgeist of our time, the persistent presentation of self. But there are alternative narratives to explore here, as I hope do in my research, rather than mere complete disengagement from ICT or social media. There are pedagogical, methodological, and theoretical explorations of ideas around submerging, staying hidden, concealment. There are positions of subversion, of mischief, of deceit, the “implied deviancy of the secret“. All need to be critically explored and potentially reclaimed as positive principles in the years ahead. For research, for teaching, for engaged citizenship. All potentially have value in the shifting context in which we operate in digital education.

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