Hacking the Future: Privacy, Identity, and Anonymity on the Web

Hacking the Future: Privacy, Identity, and Anonymity on the Web

by Cole Stryker

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Is anonymity a crucial safeguard—or a threat to society? “One of the most well-informed examinations of the Internet available today” (Kirkus Reviews).
“The author explores the rich history of anonymity in politics, literature and culture, while also debunking the notion that only troublemakers fear revealing their identities to the world. In relatively few pages, the author is able to get at the heart of identity itself . . . Stryker also introduces the uninitiated into the ‘Deep Web,’ alternative currencies and even the nascent stages of a kind of parallel Web that exists beyond the power of governments to switch it off. Beyond even that is the fundamental question of whether or not absolute anonymity is even possible.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Stryker explains how significant web anonymity is to those key companies who mine user data personal information of, for example, the millions of members on social networks. . . . An impassioned, rational defense of web anonymity and digital free expression.” —Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781468305456
Publisher: ABRAMS, Inc. (Ignition)
Publication date: 09/13/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 397 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Cole Stryker is a freelance writer and media consultant based in New York City. He is the author of Epic Win for Anonymous, the first book to tell the story of the genesis of the Internet-based protest groups and creative memes currently changing our world. Stryker has been interviewed about his writing by the New York Times, Reuters, New York Observer, Salon, and The Rumpus.

Read an Excerpt


A Brief History of Anonymity

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog To tell your name the livelong day To an admiring bog!

— Emily Dickinson

Before the development of the printing press and the resultant publishing industry, attribution was the exception to the rule. The oral tradition held no copyright — folk stories and music belonged to everyone. In most cases, no one cared about securing a reputation benefit because artistic works were passed around memetically across societies. The most prolific creator in human experience, in every artistic field, was and is Anonymous. But even after the age of recorded media had begun, many dramatists, satirists, composers, and activists held on to their anonymity for one reason or another. Many of our most beloved works were published anonymously, and it wasn't until much later that the identities of their authors were discovered. Pride and Prejudice. Frankenstein. Robinson Crusoe.

To Uphold Modesty

You may not have heard of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but you're probably familiar with his Alice in Wonderland series, which he published under the pen name Lewis Carroll. Dodgson was a painfully shy man and valued his personal privacy above the glory of having written one of the most beloved children's stories of all time. He begged friends not to reveal the connection between his Christian name and Lewis Carroll as the latter's renown grew. Dodgson published several textbooks under his own name, but the stories he published as Carroll were "for fun."

In many cases this modesty was often driven by a sense of duty to God. To reveal one's authorship was often seen throughout history as an egotistical, self-gratifying exercise. In some cultures it was considered ungentlemanly for a man to publish under his own name. Throughout history, works of confession have brought solace to reformed evildoers, but to detail one's indiscretions was considered, to borrow a phrase from the blogging era, "oversharey." John Newton, the man responsible for the most universally recognized Christian hymn, "Amazing Grace," also wrote An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of in 1764. He was anxious about focusing on "the Self" and took pains to keep the focus of his works on the redemptive power of Christ rather than on his own seedy exploits, including involvement with the slave trade, sexual abandon, and assorted blasphemies.

To Stymie Sexists

For many years, works penned by women were pseudonymous by default. They would most often have their work attributed as "By a Lady." Perhaps the most legendary female author ever, Jane Austen, originally used this pseudonym. There are many examples of women taking on a male moniker to avoid ad hominem criticism, forcing critics to focus on the works themselves rather than the author. Charlotte Brontë wrote the following to one of her harshest critics, George Henry Lewes, in 1849:

To such critics I would say, "To you I am neither man nor woman — I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me — the sole ground on which I accept your judgment."

Long before Mary Ann Evans achieved literary success for works such as Silas Marner and Middlemarch, she wrote Scenes of a Clerical Life, her first published fictional work. She wrote it under the nom de plume George Eliot, which allowed her to captivate readers with her depiction of the lives of a trio of reverends, written in the authoritative voice of a clergyman. It is likely that had Evans published under her given name, her work would have been lambasted by critics. After all, what could a woman know of the clerical life? To put on manhood was to put on authority. Her pseudonym exempted readers from struggling with cultural prejudices that may have kept them from enjoying the work for itself.

For several reasons I am very anxious to retain my incognito for some time to come, and to an author not already famous anonymity is the highest prestige. Besides if George Eliot turnsout a dull dog and an ineffective writer — a mere flash in the pan — I for one am determined to cut him on the first intimation of that disagreeable fact.

To Elude the Noose

The history of publishing in the West is rife with authors being persecuted for writing, printing, and distributing literature that challenges the political status quo, be it political power, social norms, or economic conditions.

In 1532 François Rabelais began writing his Great and Inestimable Chronicles of the Grand and Enormous Giant Gargantua. They were deemed not only obscene but heretical by the University of Paris. Étienne Dolet, a friend of Rabelais's, had been hanged for publishing a platonic dialogue that denied the existence of the immortal soul.

Meanwhile in England, monarchs had good reason to fear anonymity. In 1538, the first licensing law was introduced, which required all books to be approved by a royal nominee. This attitude toward anonymous publication was reiterated throughout the ages, with Henry VIII proclaiming in 1546 that printers must include their name, the name of the author, and the date of printing on every book. Edward VI later issued a similar proclamation to stifle any kind of reading beyond the Scriptures (and of course, some translations of the Scriptures were taboo). Elizabeth I reinforced the policy, specifically targeting Catholic works.

In 1579, John Stubbs's hand was cut off following the publication of The Discovery of a Gaping Gulf Whereinto England Is Like to Be Swallowed by Another French Marriage, a scathing denouncement of Elizabeth I's betrothal to Francis, Duke of Anjou. Ten years later, "Martin Marprelate" mocked the Church of England and even named names, cheerfully lobbing Molotov cocktails of searing wit at authority figures. It was one of the first examples of an author who used anonymity proactively and not simply for self-defense.

Monarchs continued to decree laws prohibiting anonymous publication in 1643 with the Ordinance for the Regulation of Printing, in 1660 with the Treason Act, and the Printing Act of 1662. The pioneering activists who raged against these laws helped to soften society's reaction to public insult. In seventeenth-century England, insulting a peer would often lead to a duel, and to offend a social superior would lead to beating or imprisonment.

The danger in publishing was not limited to the author. In 1663, London printer John Twyn's head was placed on a spike and displayed over Ludgate. His body was quartered, and each section was sent to four other city gates. His crime? Printing an anonymous pamphlet entitled A Treatise of the Execution of Justice, which declared that monarchs should be accountable to their subjects and affirmed their right to rebel against unjust rulers. Twyn insisted that he did not even know the name of the author, but even if he had, he would refuse to give up his name. Printers who declared they hadn't even read a work could not claim immunity. The crown needed a scapegoat, and if they couldn't pin down the author of an incendiary work, the printer, or even the bookbinder, would have to do.

In 1682 John Locke published Two Treatises of Government, one of the most influential works of political philosophy, paving the way for the democratic revolution that would sweep the Western world in the coming centuries. Two Treatises argued that a monarch's duty was to his subjects and that his rule was given to him by the people, not by divine right. But the work wasn't always attributed to Locke. In fact, Locke was incredibly paranoid that he would be found out and swore his close friends to secrecy. Locke's work was held in high esteem by American revolutionaries, along with another work, written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon under the pseudonym "Cato." Cato's Letters, first appearing in 1720, influenced the thinking of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, among others.

To Make Mischief

Some authors concealed their identities for much the same reason that members of Anonymous do today. They were trolls, bent on upsetting the equilibrium of the established social, political, or ecclesiastical order, and anonymity both protected and liberated them. Consider Jonathan Swift, a man who went to tremendous lengths to ensure the anonymous publication of Gulliver's Travels in 1726. He arranged for an intermediary to hand off the manuscript to a publisher. Gulliver's adventures among the Lilliputians, the Houyhnhnms, and the Yahoos, viciously parodying the pious and pompous of his day, are considered among the greatest works of satire. The book's release inspired a frenzy of speculation about the author, which fueled sales. The book has never been out of print. In "A Modest Proposal," also published anonymously, Swift again skewered the social scene of his day, going so far as to humorously suggest that the poor children of Ireland should be served as food to their parents in order to deal with country's rampant poverty.

Seven years later, Alexander Pope published An Essay on Man anonymously. Leonard Welsted, one of Pope's literary rivals who'd often publicly mocked his works, praised An Essay on Man as "above all commendation." Pope later had Welsted's praise published and ridiculed accordingly.

But even as the public appetite for satire increased and content restrictions diminished, anonymous publication continued. In the late nineteenth century, Samuel Butler published several satirical works anonymously because he was the son of a clergyman and was concerned that his family would disapprove of his writings.

A century later, an anonymous work called Primary Colors, published in 1996, would send shock waves throughout Bill Clinton's presidential administration. It was publicized on the dust jacket as "the kind of truth that only fiction can tell." The media rabidly attempted to track down the author. The Washington Post obtained an early draft of the novel, complete with handwritten notes, and commissioned a handwriting analysis, which matched the pen to journalist Joe Klein, who was subsequently excoriated by fellow journalists and forced to resign.

The Triumph of Anonymity

In 1734 John Peter Zenger was arrested in the United States for publishing pseudonymous essays attacking New York governor William Cosby. Defending Zenger in court, his lawyer pleaded the jury to lay "a foundation for securing to ourselves, our posterity, and our neighbors" the right of "exposing and opposing arbitrary power ... by speaking and writing truth." The jury acquitted Zenger in a landmark case that established protections for American writers under British common law, a remarkable legal evolution that paved the way for a broader freedom of the press.

This ruling allowed Thomas Paine to publish "Common Sense" in 1776 under the name "An Englishman." Other writers wrote under pen names like "A Pennsylvanian," "A Friend to the Liberty of His Country," or "A Federal Farmer." Most famously, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison, Samuel Adams, and others created the "Federalist Papers" under the name "Publius." These pseudonymous works were powerful — essential, even — in shaping the democracy that was to come.

Once democracy had been secured, anonymity would be used to fight for other goals, like civil rights and women's rights. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) v. Alabama case was a watershed moment for anonymity rights. The state of Alabama filed a lawsuit and attempted to subpoena the organization to force it to disclose its full membership list. The NAACP successfully proved that previous disclosure of its membership had resulted in "economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion, and other manifestations of public hostility." Alabama argued that because these offenses were not related to state action, but of private citizens, the First Amendment did not apply. The court disagreed, noting that the state action was directly correlated with abuses committed by private actors. In the end the court recognized, "Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs."

In 1960 the right to distribute pamphlets anonymously was called into question in Talley v. California. Talley had been convicted and fined in Los Angeles because he was distributing handbills that did not carry "the name of the individual who caused it to be distributed."

We have recently had occasion to hold in two cases that there are times and circumstances when States may not compelmembers of groups engaged in the dissemination of ideas to be publicly identified. ... The reason for those holdings was that identification and fear of reprisal might deter perfectly peaceful discussions of public matters of importance.

Twenty-five years later came the commercial Internet, a relatively free and open platform that promised creators and activists a way to communicate their ideas unencumbered not only by publication and distribution costs but also the meddlesome hands of the state. Anonymity was, for the most part, hardwired into the very protocols that serve as the foundation for the global computer network. Information was sent and received through packets, and when a packet arrives at your end of the connection, it doesn't explicitly have to tell you where it came from.

One of the first methods conceived to allow people to communicate anonymously was the remailer. An anonymous remailer privatizes e-mail correspondence, allowing users to send messages to individuals or entire Usenet groups without revealing the identity of the sender (Usenet was a popular Web community in the '80s that functioned like a hybrid between a message board and e-mail). There are a few different kinds. Some remailers strip the address of the sender completely and keep no logs. The Mixmaster remailer, developed by Lance Cottrell, uses a program to mix up packets of information, like puzzle pieces, and then reorders the packets upon receipt.

I spoke with Cottrell about his experience developing the Mixmaster remailer.

The first remailers were pretty crude. People added encryption to them, and I ran some. Everyone was talking about the vulnerabilities, so I built a remailer that would be much more difficult to attack. I built the first version, got some feedback, and then built the 2.0 version, which really caught on. This was all just in my spare time. We'd all been talking about it but no one had built a tool.

Cottrell's remailer fixed a crucial vulnerability. Remailers were designed to send a message through multiple hubs. Because of the way cryptography works, each layer of encryption adds extra size to the message. If a fully encrypted message with all three layers is 100k, and each layer adds 1k of space to the message, I can connect the pathway across the hubs just by correlating the size that's knocked off at each hub. For example, let's say I want to send an e-mail to you. I encrypt it with the key of the last remailer I want it to go to. And then I put on a message to deliver to remailer 3, and I encrypt it with remailer 2's key. And then I attach a message that says, "Send this to remailer 2," and I encrypt it with remailer 1's key, then I send it to remailer 1. So remailer 1 gets it, decrypts it, sends it to 2, 2 decrypts it, sends it to 3, and 3 decrypts it and delivers it to the recipient.

The most famous anonymous remailer was anon.penet.fi, developed by Johan Helsingius in Finland, which operated from 1993 to 1996. At the time, administrators of university networks argued about whether or not everyone participating in the network should voluntarily put their proper name on messages so that everyone would be held accountable. Helsingius argued, as techies are wont to do, that "the Internet just doesn't work that way ... and if somebody actually tries to enforce that, the Internet will always find a solution around it." To prove his point, Helsingius kept the anonymous remailer running, to prove that there is always a technological solution to circumvent censorship. "It was a question of control. ... I think that's one of the strengths of the network, that nobody can control it."

Helsingius may have been a bit too optimistic. In 1995, Finnish police shut down anon.penet.fi, which was used, among other things, to distribute internal documents published by the Church of Scientology. As far as enemies of the open Internet go, the Church of Scientology is pretty high on the list, and geeks had been raging against their attempted censorship of the Web for a few years at that point. For the geeks, the Internet promised a democratic vision of the future, where all ideas can compete on a level playing field, and no one's opinion can be snuffed out by a powerful interest group.


Excerpted from "Hacking the Future"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Cole Stryker.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

By the Same Author,
1. A Brief History of Anonymity,
2. Anonymous Rises,
3. Anonymous Goes Political,
4. Anonymity Wired,
5. The Age of the Anonymous Web,
6. The Year of the Hacktivist,
7. Nym Wars,
8. Is Total Anonymity Even Possible?,
9. Is Total Transparency Even Possible?,
10. Faces of Anonymity,
11. The Case for Anonymity,

What People are Saying About This

Nick Douglas

This sharp guide avoids the fear, condescension, and hand waving that dominate the mainstream coverage of Internet culture, instead revealing what actually goes on day-to-day at one of the Web’s weirdest yet most important online communities … satisfying [and] thoroughly researched.

From the Publisher

Praise for Hacking the Future:

"A compelling case for anonymity." --Daily Dot

"Argues that anonymity is fundamental to a free society." --Mother Jones

"A multilayered and well-reasoned retort against all those who would seek to erase anonymity from the Web." --Kirkus Reviews

Rachel Fershleiser

Stryker is cogent and hilarious … You’ll be delighted by this clever, informative cultural history.

Customer Reviews