NSA Reform Bills: Is it Sufficient ?

Throughout time courts have ruled against any form of intrusion into American citizen’s private lives . These federal laws , for instance the FISA law , seek to discourage fishing undertakings, aimless assumptions and unconditional approaches to collect information among the society. As a matter of fact, it can be illegally retrieved evidence set off by warrantless searches and investigations are presumed unacceptable in courts. This is because the law prevents the State to gain from its infringement. Certainly, an infraction of such rights of a single person is already one too many.


In the PBS special Spying on the Home Front, it exposes just how much the government has no time for legally identified processes of investigation and surveillance to allow uncommon entrance to personal communication encompassed by innocent American citizens. The National Security Agency (NSA) has been explicitly constructed to deflect alarming communication with the ambition of catching the terrorists, even before the agency plans to take definite actions. Therefore, the agency at first was subsequent to the principle that investigations need to prevent private correspondences. Be that as it may, in the last few decades and more so after the 9 /11 terror attacks, the NSA, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used their skills and devices to spy on the American people.


The only thing that can be said about laws that give the government so much power and the citizens so little is that the Patriot Act gave the government permission to set up the framework of a police state. The Patriot Act, established a little over a month after 9/11, reduces civil liberties that were protected by the Constitution. The NSA can even access call records in the cell phone company Verizon, it was made so that the customers didn’t even know that they were even being spied on. Except that Verizon is not the only the information has been put into what is called “metadata”, making so that there is no need for a warrant. It also gains access through internet sites such as Google, Apple, and Facebook through an Internet-search program known as PRISM; without gaining permission not only through the people but also the companies. John Earnest a deputy of the press security states that “Collecting millions of phone records of ordinary citizens allows law enforcement to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other possible terrorists.”


In the summer of 2013, the spying agency claimed they foiled a little over fifty terrorist plots. But how much of that was due to looking through citizen call and internet records? A new analysis of terrorism charges in the US found that the NSA’s dragnet domestic surveillance “had no discernible impact” on preventing terrorist acts. Instead, the majority of threats over the last decade were detected by regular old intelligence and law enforcement methods—tips, informants, CIA and FBI ops, routine law enforcement.


I do understand that the point of the program is to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks but by invading the American people’s personal records and not informing us of such actions? That does not seem beneficial to any innocent citizens.



Drones: Are They Helpful in Reporting the News or an Invasion of Privacy

Drones can be very useful to individuals and our country, like take photo and video for real estate, surveying crops, and capturing crimes.  The only question is: Where’s the line between surveilling to be useful and invading privacy?  They’re becoming more available for everyone to use so everyone can spy on everyone.  The military can use them to help combat terrorists and enemies.  The news and media are also starting to use them for the purpose of finding out information that they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. They’re also being used by the police to look for missing people, and help keep crimes from happening, but there’s a line between invading people’s privacy and surveilling a situation.

Drones are becoming more commercial. People are concerned whether or not it’s invading their personal privacy. Many people against the use of drones say that it’s a violation of the fourth amendment. Justice Sonia Sotomayor is concerned about the potential of drones taking away our personal privacy, which we all care so much about. “There are drones flying over the air randomly that are recording everything that’s happening on what we consider our private property. That type of technology has to stimulate us to think about what is it that we cherish in privacy and how far we want to protect it and from whom.”

Drones are very useful in the military sense, including surveillance of our borders, in order to keep us safe.  Many are very small and very quiet so it’s easy for them to keep tabs on what is below, without anyone noticing or being a large distraction. They can also survey the land above in areas such as a forest that are difficult to search on land. In a time of war, this could be useful to help find enemies that would otherwise be hidden by the trees from above.  They can give immediate feedback and report about where an enemy is, and keep them from advancing or causing any more harm.  Chad Copeland, who’s a National Geographic contributor and a pioneer in the use of drones, said that drones aren’t as intrusive as a man-powered aircraft, and less dangerous if they were to crash.  As long as they warn people that it’s possible that they may be used then they have a right to use them.

Sotomayor said, “We are in that brave new world, and we are capable of being in that Orweillian one, too.” These drones could be just as much surveillance as the Thought Police in Orwell’s book.  Just like the secret spies that were all around in 1984, there could be drones flying through the air collecting video surveillance of you all the time. “’The thought of government drones buzzing overhead and constantly monitoring the activities of law-abiding citizens runs contrary to what it means to live in a free society,’ Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa said at a Judiciary Committee hearing on whether legislation on drones was needed to protect civil liberties.” This is a very valid point for those that don’t like drones.  They can see things that others don’t want them to see.  A person could have something hidden, but it could be reported very easily for someone with a drone.

Even though drones can seem very invasive to our personal privacy, they can also be very useful and help our society report the news and gather information.   They can help keep crimes from happening, find missing persons, and fight fires. They are also useful in “alerting officers about accidents and crimes and provide video of the incidents.”  They can get in really close to a celebrities window to see inside.  They can get very close on a report of a plane accident.  They could even get close enough to see a dead body.  They could end up finding something secret that could get them in trouble.  All of these things sound almost like a good thing.  The line is very thin on where it is finding out information, and going too far and invading privacy.  It can be really wonderful, but easily become very bad very quickly.

There should be a difference between public and private places.  No one should be able to use drones on private property without consent or a warrant.  A person or people could use their own drown as a way to survey their own grounds.  It would give the News information very quickly, and could get in areas that normal cameras couldn’t.  Anything on public property should be open to have a drone on it at anytime.  There may be a few exceptions, like if a crime were to happen they couldn’t allow a drone in a certain radius distance.  Besides that, public should be public for drones too.

The Federal Aviation Administration has a ban on drones for commercial purposes at the moment. They are deciding on the rules and regulations for these types of uses this coming fall. The FAA has a lot to take into consideration and many things to watch for before they release their regulations this fall.  In California, law enforcement officers that use drones are required to get a warrant, according to Bill AB 1327. There are exceptions to this rule for emergency situations, search and rescue efforts, traffic first responders, and inspection of wildfires. California will be the 14th state in regulating law enforcement drone use if they sign this bill.  A warrant is necessary because it will keep people from snooping without another person knowing and for the wrong reasons.

Drones can be very useful in reporting news if these guidelines are followed.  It’s not an invasion of privacy if these strict rules stated above are followed.  Anything on public property should be allowed because it can find news faster, find it at a new/different/better angle, look for something much faster than by foot, give a lot of detail, live stream, and be given to a news agency by anyone with a drone.

Journalist Adam Tanner to Visit Class on October 1, 2014

Adam Tanner

Adam Tanner, a former Reuters news bureau chief in Belgrade and currently a Fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard, will be visiting our class on Wednesday, October 1, 2014.  Adam blogs on personal data issues for Forbes at  http://www.forbes.com/sites/adamtanner/.  He has written a new book that was just published about how the Las Vegas casino industry has used data mining it its marketing and customer service activities.  Two reviews of his book may be found at the

Wall Street Journal, (review 9/8 “Mr. Tanner’s engaging book is realistic.”) and the  Huffington Post,(review by Don McNay 9/9 “[A] masterpiece…Tanner’s book is one of the best business books written this year; in fact, it is one of the best business books in this century. It reminds me of Joe Nocera’s first book, A Piece of the Action, in that it combines detailed knowledge of his subject matter with an excellent writing style, countless personal interviews and observations of events.”).

Mr. Tanner also will be giving a talk at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 2, 2014 at a  Hinckley Forum jointly sponsored by the HIP and the University’s MUSE project.

Surveillance, Does it work?

Since the horrific terrorist attack on 9/11 airports have increased their security claiming that they are keeping us safe. Starting as a simple mandatory search, Americans would say that is was all right if it was for them to be protected. As time went on new technology was brought to airports such as an electronic strip search using full body scanner, which could see through clothing. Even pat-downs were getting pretty personal. Now, Americans question, “Is this surveillance really working?”, “Is this really protecting us?”, and “Is this really necessary?”.

These many new technologies that are used at airports that are to “protect” us and “protect” our belongings do indeed work. But it has become clear that prejudices and biases have become increasingly involved. There are even no-fly lists. There was a man who had to change his name because he was fed up with consistently missing his flights every time he had to travel because he was being “randomly” searched. Some of the technologies are set up to automatically and “randomly” search people. It is known that a black woman is more likely to be strip-searched than any other person at the airport.

The many technologies are endless. There is an iris scanner that can detect the color of one’s eyes. It can easily detect the difference between blue eyes and hazel eyes. It does have some issues from the elderly who may had cataracts and for people who are in wheelchairs and they will without a doubt be subject to search because this technology doesn’t work for them. There are also motion detectors, thermal sensors, and video cameras to help surveillance.

Security cameras, the number on most thought of surveillance, even have evolved to give better pictures and more clear evidence. With better cameras to detect more issues, wouldn’t the airport not necessarily need these other technologies? So that they “could do more with less?”

Today airports actually want to do “more with more”. With many different stakeholders these security and surveillance systems are being transformed with more than just basic surveillance in mind. While these new technologies are increasing protection for us, it is also increasing instinctive overprotection that could be helpful in the future or most likely be more harmful to the idea of surveillance and security.

An example from our readings in the book, Supervision: an Introductory to the Surveillance Society, states that the security have had instances where they would not be doing their job watching and seeing for issues but instead looking at women’s breasts or butts just for the operators enjoyment. Some of the other findings include that security officers would follow young people and those of color disproportionately. These people are supposed to be protecting us.

On the border of the US there are high surveillance towers and high barbed wired fences to help mandate infractions and help agents to prevent anything unlawful to come across the border. There are more than plenty of differing displays of border surveillance. The European Union created the system EURODAC in 2003. This collected fingerprints and other information from individuals who were searching for sanctuary; refugees. The intentions of the EURODAC were meaningful but like any of the other technologies or regulations for security, it had changed and now is used through the creep function. This is what may have started as good intentions but has been changed by political circumstances.

I believe that people want to be protected from harm and have the right to do so. But is it against their rights to be overly searched and have their privacy invaded? These new surveillance technologies are claiming to help increase the protection of the citizens of the United States from future terrorist attacks. Studies are increasingly showing that these new policies are decreasing and falling into the state of being overprotective and aren’t very effectual in preventing crime and terrorism. The claims are truthful and have great intensions but at some point these new technologies are invading privacy and clearly prejudices and biases are getting in the way. Airports are starting to collect data that is seemingly unnecessary and it is creating friction between the security and those who plan to travel.

The surveillance production in these airports are billion dollar industries. They are invested to help and protect. The claim is true and with all good intensions but in all reality, it is just too much protection and too much security. Just for them to say that they have these technologies isn’t enough to have actual hard evidence that they work. In the end, the hard core surveillance is actually effecting and disturbing the right to privacy and crime is still present in airports today.


( http: / / www.google.com / patents / US20040008253

( http: / / www.aviationpros.com / contact/ 10944310 / e- anthony – incorvati Airports )

(Gilliom, John, and Torin Monahan. “Security at Any Cost?” Supervision: An Introduction Ti the Surveillance Society. Print)

(http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=XcQK1zSxVJYC&oi=fnd&pg=PA249&dq=EURODAC+creep+function&ots=QovoWOW0S_&sig=vMFmSbCvqBWChMlAWwBzHk8KJIA#v=one page&q= EURODAC%20creep%20function&f=false)

( http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080 / .VCWDCEvqMds

Movie vs. Reality. Can movie surveillance actually happen?

“Remember, remember the fifth of November.” A very famous quote from a movie where a totalitarian government rules futuristic London, and its people are watched at every second. V for Vendetta is a depiction of what could possibly happen if the government tried to monitor ordinary civilians’ every day life. The movie begins as a young women, Evey, is caught on the streets after curfew by policemen. These policemen mean to rape the young women and do her great harm. She is saved in the final moment by the anti-hero V.

Once Evey has been introduced to V, V takes Evey to see the fireworks that he has set up for the evening. Most certainly the fireworks were present on that night, but they were accompanied by the explosive demolition of the government’s courthouses. Evey goes home and tries to forget the whole incident. Little did she know that V would play a major role in her life. The next thing the government knows, V is on every single television in London calling for a rebellion on the next year’s fifth of November.

Over the course of a year, V begins his rebellion. As he builds his mutiny, he follows through on many personal vendettas against high authority figures in the government. On the fifth of November, the day V said the rebellion would take place, thousands of civilians show up to show their support of V. The movie ends, I apologize for the spoiler, with an explosion of the parliament building as a symbol of detest for the government’s totalitarian control.

All of this could have been easily avoided if the government didn’t keep a tight hold on the people. The biggest thing I think that the government did to the people was constantly lie to them. This country only had one news source and that news source came directly from the government. This means that the authorities controlled everything the people knew. When V demolished the courthouse building, the government told the people that the explosion with the fireworks was a planned demolition, with fireworks to send the building off with a bang.

The constant lies from the government was only the beginning. The government had patrol vehicles that would drive through neighborhoods and were able to record what was being said by the occupants in the houses. The fabricated news from the government was also a big issue that contributed greatly to the distrust the citizens had towards the government.

The non-stop surveillance of the government, in my opinion, did more harm than it did good. I understand that government wants to keep its people in line, and keep them safe. But there comes a point when there is just too much surveillance. There comes a point where the people can’t or won’t even speak their minds without the fear of being punished. There comes a point when the people will fight the power when they have had enough. with many revolutions in history, the fighting doesn’t start with the shot heard around the world. It gradually grows just like in V for Vendetta.

When the government started the habit of lying to the people to keep them in line, I think this is where things started to go downhill. With the constant surveillance on everyone, it was very difficult for anyone to do anything about the tyrannical government bearing down over them. The film continually showed the leader of this fictitious country as Big Brother and using all of his tools at his disposal to monitor his people. He used these devices for a very malicious cause to keep an eye over his people. He utilized these devices to rule his people with fear, and as we all know that never turns out well.

On both sides of this issue of surveillance, surveillance is helpful to both the people who are being surveyed and the people doing the surveillance. They both gain by having the safety of knowing that they’re trying to catch bad people meaning to do the country harm. On the other hand, the civilians’ privacy is all but gone. So the government has to choose either to hide their surveillance from the people, or openly admit to monitoring them at all times. I think more often than not, governments choose to hide their surveillance activity and eventually that activity gets exposed to the open public.

When we look at the reality of V for Vendetta, I think that the whole movie’s surveillance aspect is quite possible. We are already seeing forms of surveillance that we couldn’t have dreamed of 20 years ago, and I am afraid of what surveillance might be capable of becoming 20 years from now. The result from the surveillance of these people from London I think is very possible even today. The complete revolution because of the constant surveillance and lies that are always being told. If a government is treating its people unfairly the people will retaliate. In the words of V: “People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.” All in all, I think that the surveillance depicted in V for Vendetta was very harmful to both the government and the people, and could quite possibly happen in today’s world.

Snowden: Hero or Criminal?

Edward Snowden had been working for the government, both NSA (National Security Agency) and CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), for just a short amount of time before he decided to make a decision that would change his life forever. Starting off as a security guard at the NSA, he somehow graduated to working an information-technology job at the CIA. While working at an NSA office in Oahu, Snowden then began to notice programs within the government that involved spying on citizens’ phone calls and emails. This seemed to have rubbed him the wrong way.

It wasn’t long after that that he began copying and storing confidential government documents to gather the data for the case he was building. He was preparing to reveal all the secrets of the government that took him in and offered him a way to support himself. It wasn’t until a month later, after he had collected as many confidential files as possible, that Snowden had begun leaking that information to the many reporters surrounding the NSA. He began to discuss his opinions publicly with these same reporters and this is what may have lead to his asylum in Russia. “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things … I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”. While Snowden shares his reasoning openly, stating that he did it for the sake of the American citizens, it is hard to tell just how heroic his actions really were. While some will say that Snowden was a hero that informed American citizens that the government had been spying on them, personally, some would have to argue that because of the way he had informed citizens and the harsh outcomes that have happened before can categorize him as a criminal.


Even though he believed that was he was doing was for the well being of the people of America, he caused more damage than he could have imagined. By revealing the fact that the NSA was invading the privacy of the citizens, he ended up ruining most of the security that was already in place. “First, there is the undeniable operational effect of informing adversaries of American intelligence’s tactics, techniques and procedures. Snowden’s disclosures go beyond the ‘”what” of a particular secret or source. He is busily revealing the ‘”how” of American collection.” By bringing this heightened awareness to the situation at hand, Snowden made it easier for the real criminals out there to commit their crimes of choice. He ultimately presented them with a warning, as well as the exact way they are being watched. This gave the real terrorists a way around the NSA so they could easily adapt and find new ways to hack into our governments system. In doing this, Snowden announced to other countries how  the security systems in the United States are running, which put us at a disadvantage. In the same way the criminals were made aware of how we are securing our citizens privacy, these other countries could find a way to evade the tactics we were practicing and find another way to invade our government.


Snowden was affected in a way most other NSA employees were not. Due to his own personal morals, he believed that he was righting a wrong in our government and security system. Although a lot of the citizens benefited from this announcement, Snowden was aiming to please himself and satisfy his own moral code. By saying this, it is not stating that what he did was not moral, but that Snowden could have thought of ways to get this information out and handling this information besides the way he had. Some could say that Snowden releasing this information benefitted them greatly to be more aware with what our government is doing involving us personally, but it was immoral in the fact that perhaps the nation did not need to know every detail of this situation. Snowden could have found a way to share this information without making it so public as to be also sharing this information with outsiders to our country. While it seems as though it is for the better good of the nation, it did more harm than good.

“The American government, and its democracy, are flawed institutions. But our system offers legal options to disgruntled government employees and contractors. They can take advantage of federal whistle-blower laws; they can bring their complaints to Congress; they can try to protest within the institutions where they work. But Snowden did none of this. Instead, in an act that speaks more to his ego than his conscience, he threw the secrets he knew up in the air—and trusted, somehow, that good would come of it.”

Edward Snowden made what appeared to be an easy solution to a very complicated problem. By deciding to break the law and out the government, he made a rash decision. There were other ways he could have gone about this as mentioned in the quote earlier. He signed a contract with the NSA, stating that he would not share what he saw or did to the public, and he broke that contract. Snowden knew what he was signing up for. He knew what the NSA did and the fact that the first thing that bothered him, he decided to breach his contract and break the law, sharing the information he gathered with the first people to give him a chance.

“We’re not prepared to endorse that campaign, and we’re not even sure that Snowden qualifies as a whistle-blower in the strict sense of someone who discloses government information in order to expose illegal activity. The two surveillance programs he was apparently responsible for revealing — an electronic dragnet of Americans’ phone records and the monitoring of the contents of foreigners’ electronic communications — are legal, authorized by Congress and overseen (however indulgently) by federal judges.”

By releasing all of the information he had obtained to do what he thought of as the right thing to do, Snowden ended up causing more harm than he may have intended. Even though he came off as having the right intentions, he isn’t the hero he is made out to be. In the end he broke the law and caused the nation trouble, even if the citizens don’t realize it. There’s a fine line between security and spying. Our government is here to keep us safe and although it might have seemed like the right thing for Snowden to do, there is much more to it than invading the privacy of the citizens of the United States.

Students are a bit schizophrenic, and perhaps predictable, when it comes to privacy attitudes and practices

So, what do “typical” first year students at the University of Utah look like in terms of their attitudes and beliefs about privacy and surveillance?  What privacy practices do they follow and how accurate is their knowledge about privacy?

These and other questions were answered when  the 20 students (10 male and 10 female) enrolled in UGS 2260 “Privacy & Surveillance”  anonymously answered a 65 question survey before the first day of class.   What follows is a composite picture of the “average” class member, who we shall call by the androgynous name of “Pat.”

First, some demographics: 

Pat is 18 years of age, is from Utah, will likely major in political science or a science related field and intends to pursue an advanced degree.

Pat is social media savvy, having a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Vine and Google+ accounts.  However, she does not use Flickr or other photo sharing sites.  Pat has three email addresses and has used an opaque online user name which hides her real name as she believes anonymous speech is an important element of using the internet.  She does not subscribe to any RSS feeds, has never edited a Wikipedia page and is not a blog author, but she does post comments on blogs and online sites.  Pat’s primary source of news comes from social media and  although she sometimes reads online newspapers Pat never reads print newspapers for news.

Pat is also technologically savvy having first received a cell phone when she was 13 years old.   She maintains an online banking account, a frequent shopper digital account, orders and pays for products and services online, uses cloud storage and uses text messaging as the primary means of communicating with her friends when physically apart.  When communicating with her digital dinosaur parents and family she uses the phone.

Pat’s attitudes about privacy.

Pat is “somewhat uncomfortable” with the fact that some internet companies provide free services and in exchange collect personal information about her for advertising purposes , yet she uses such services and is willing to disclose personal information in exchange for the free services. She is only “mildly concerned” about her activities in public spaces being recorded, but believes that if a person takes a photograph of her in a public space that person should obtain her permission before posting it on the web.  Pat is of the strong view that she should be entitled to know what personal information about her is being collected by government and businesses and should also have the right  to delete personal information collected about her.  However, she is not willing to pay to either obtain or delete the information.  Pat views the privacy rights of public and private institutions in a markedly different manner.  She believes public institutions have an obligation to be transparent and have no right of privacy in how they operate.  On the other hand, private organizations have no obligation to be transparent and should have a right of privacy in their operations.  Interestingly, the distinction between public and private institutions does not extend to public and private individuals.  Both individuals, she says, are entitled to privacy in how they conduct their lives.   Pat places a higher value on privacy than institutional or personal security when the two are at odds and strongly believes that healthcare providers should not share her personal information even with other healthcare providers without her consent.

Pat’s privacy practices.

Although Pat believes Congress should enact Do-Not-Track legislation allowing her to opt out of online tracking, she believes it is the user who is primarily responsible for insuring the safe handling of personal information on online sites and networks, not government or the site owner.  Despite this latter view, however,  Pat’s efforts to protect her privacy are somewhat inconsistent and  lax.   She has password protected her mobile device , has modified the default privacy settings on some of her social networking accounts and sometimes turns off the geo-location feature on her phone.  On the other hand, she does not use separate passwords for her online accounts, has not enabled Google’s two-step authentication for her Gmail account, rarely clears her browser history, rarely deletes cookies from her computer and does not encrypt her emails.  She only “sometimes” reads a website’s privacy policy before establishing an account and she has not put a “Google alert” on her name.

Pat’s knowledge about privacy.

Like many people, Pat has several mistaken beliefs about online privacy.  She mistakenly believes that if a website has a privacy policy the site owner may not legally share  her personal information with other companies and must delete such information  on her request.  She does correctly know that a website does not need her permission to share her address and purchase history with the government, but erroneously believes that when she orders a pizza by phone for home delivery the pizza company may not sell her address or phone number to others.  Similarly, she incorrectly believes that when she gives her address and telephone number to the store cashier when making a purchase that the store may not sell that information absent her permission.

Any survey surprises?

Pat’s views and attitudes about privacy mirror the information learned from extensive surveys by the PEW Research Center.   See http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/20/young-americans-and-privacy-its-complicated.  Based on a 2013 national survey of persons aged 18-29, PEW concluded , among other things,  that young adults are more willing than older Americans to let companies use their personal data for commercial purposes, but are more skeptical about the government’s acquisition of personal information for purposes of combatting terrorism and better insuring personal safety.

It will be interesting to explore the reasons behind the privacy views of our class during the semester and to see if any views are changed as a result of the class.




Why a real name policy for online comments works best (except when it doesn’t)

The debate about anonymity on the internet has raged since the advent of the internet. The debate usually pits free speech advocates against proponents of civility and accountability with both sides approaching the issue with an all or nothing mentality.  The  past few years, however,  have witnessed a growing trend among website owners to require persons to use their real names in order to post or comment online.  Facebook, YouTube, the Huffington Post and  Quora are just a few of the more notable websites that have recently joined this trend. One commentator has even  advocated a mandatory internet-wide real names policy.  This post identifies the main arguments for and against a real name policy and sets out the authors view as to the proper policy that should be adopted.

  Promoting Civility & Insuring Accountability

Advocates for requiring a person to use their real name (or at least a recognized user name) primarily argue that such a policy raises the level of civility and quality of discourse on the internet, fosters accountability, discourages trolls and abusive posts and provides valuable contextual information for the reader to assess the post.  Persons who are defamed anonymously are often unable to seek judicial relief because the wrongdoers are anonymous.   And, there are numerous example of persons abusing their power and avoiding accountability for what they say by hiding behind the cloak of anonymity.   The poster child for this latter concern was the U.S. Attorney in New Orleans, who was a highly respected attorney and one of the longest serving U.S. Attorneys in the country, but resigned in December of 2012 when it was discovered that two of his top deputies were using the internet to anonymously attack persons their office was investigating.   Another example is the Cleveland, Ohio State Judge who made anonymous comments about several high profile cases that were pending before her and then sued the paper when she was outed.  Recently, the online review site Yelp was ordered by a court to reveal the identities of seven reviewers who posted negative reviews about a prominent local carpet cleaning business in Virginia. The business claims the reviews were false and were not from actual customers, but from competitors. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jan/8/court-rules-yelp-website-must-identify-seven-negat/?page=all

Slate Senior Editor Emily Bazelonreflects the views of many when she argues that a free democracy is better off when everyone is forced to put their name to their words, noting that online anonymous users are poisoning civil discourse with their vile and defamatory comments, all under the excuse of “free speech.”

  Protecting Whistleblowers & Fostering Free Speech

Proponents of anonymity acknowledge that abuses may sometimes occur, but argue that anonymous speech has along and hallowed tradition in our country and, indeed, enjoys constitutional protection.  Absent anonymity, speech will be unnecessarily chilled, they argue.  How many abused women, whistleblowers and political dissidents will come forward if they must do so using their real names?  Anonymous Facebook and Twitter communications were essential during the Arab Spring protests and anonymity allows victims of domestic violence to rebuild their lives where abusers cannot follow.  In a recent post, David Maas of the Electronic Frontier Foundation identifies 16 different groups of persons who benefit from anonymity besides trolls and political dissidents. Maas argues that anonymity is important to anyone who doesn’t want every facet of their online life tied to a Google search of their name.  He focuses on the free speech promoting aspects of anonymity when he argues ” To suggest anonymity should be forbidden because of troll-noise is just as bad as suggesting a ban on protesting because the only demonstrators you have ever encountered are from the Westboro Baptist Church—the trolls of the picket world.

The website geekfeminism.org has created a Wiki which compiles a list ofpersons harmed by a real names policy. Some commentators argue that anonymity actually promotes truth and trustworthiness on the internet. http://irevolution.net/2013/10/22/trustworthiness-and-truth/.

Traditional media, who are struggling to adjust to the online world, have adopted various approaches.  Some newspapers allow anonymous comments, but editors moderate all posts by reserving the right to delete comments that violate the papers posted community guidelines, such as no racist, sexist or personal attacks.  KSL TV follows this approach in its Comments Policy.  This is labor intensive, however, and with the economic challenges traditional media, this approach has lost favor of late. The Salt Lake Tribune allows opaque user names, but you are required to have a real email address in order to open an account which is a prerequisite to posting comments.  Comments are not moderated by Tribune editors, but are subject to being deleted if they violate the Tribune’s terms of use.  Other newspapers permit readers to self police the comments by allowing readers to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on each comment.  If a particular comment receives a certain number of down votes it is removed.  With Facebook’s ubiquity and the ability to log onto a site via Facebook, many newspapers allow a commenter to check in with Facebook and have reported that such a policy has improved the quality of comments.

 Anonymity, But With Potential Accountability

 While it certainly is well within the rights of any website to dictate its own terms of use, I place my thumb on the free speech side of the scale when it comes to anonymous speech.  We unavoidably stifle and restrict free expression when we rule out anonymous statements.  That does not mean that anonymous posters should be given free reign to libel and attack others with impunity; it just means that they have the right to speak anonymously and they must be willing to accept the consequences in the event their identity is discovered.  In today’s increasingly transparent world, it is becoming very difficult to be truly anonymous in the face of a persistent effort to learn someone’s identity.  Moreover, there are existing legal processes that allow a judicially compelled disclosure of identity when certain legal threshold showings are made.  In my view, this regime (allowing initial anonymity with judicially compelled disclosure under certain circumstances) strikes a reasonable balance between the competing interests.