How Anonymous Chat Makes Privacy Stronger

I’ll open this post recognizing the inherent double-edged sword of anonymous chat apps and online anonymity in general—it scares people as much as it protects people. Anonymous trolls attack people for no other reasons than they can get away with it (because they are anonymous). I’ve been attacked online by anonymous trolls and been on the periphery of some nasty, school-yard behavior inflicted on one blogger by other bloggers.

The consequences of online bullying can be tragic and horrible. When trolls use a mask of anonymity to willfully hurt others, their actions degrade the real and essential need for anonymity and how anonymity strengthens personal privacy.

Anonymity is needed for a lot of good reasons and this post wades into those murky waters with those reasons front and center. The cost of not allowing for anonymity online is far greater than the harm abusers of anonymity wield.

Anonymity is essential for free speech

The points made by the EFF, Bruce Schneier, and others is anonymity protects people—and the people they love—from retribution and harm when what is said slams up against governments, corporations, or the authorities. Scores of political activists—let us not forget the Federalist Papers were published under a pseudonym—need to shield their real identities while trying to change the course of government.

Whether you don’t want to expose your identity to your employer because your personal politics might not mesh with people at work or ensure a clear separation between you and your employer—as one of the organizers of the Arab Spring did because he worked for Google—anonymity is a right.

Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society. U.S. Supreme Court decision in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission.

Here are just a few groups of people who have vested interests in keeping their real identity out of the public eye:

  • Journalists: Consider Woodward and Bernstein’s famous confidential source “Deep Throat”. Instead of meeting in a parking garage, the conversations might have been over an anonymous chat app today. The masthead of the Washington Post is “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. Imagine if journalists couldn’t protect their sources or themselves with anonymity. That is the darkness under which democracy would die.
  • Activists: If you are challenging an oppressive government, or shining a light on government corruption, staying anonymous is important for your safety and the safety of others.
  • Whistleblowers: Like activists, anonymity brings protection from retribution, especially around governments which do not believe in free speech of the truth.
  • Women: It pains me how often women bear the brunt of online vitriol when they publish online, even publishing about uncontroversial topics. It’s one thing to have to deal with trolls if people don’t know who you really are, but wholly another if trolls can find and harass you offline as well.
  • Other marginalized groups.: If you are a minority, and trying to fight discrimination, staying anonymous means staying safe.

From the EFF article above there are two quotes that summarize the need for anonymity:

When I first started blogging I wanted my identity to remain secret because I didn’t want my online activity to interfere with my professional life. I wanted to keep both as separate as possible. I also wanted to use a fake name because I wrote about politics and I was critical of my own government. A pseudonym would shield me and my family from personal attacks. I wanted to have a comfortable space to express myself freely without having to worry about the police when I visit my family back in Morocco. -Hisham Khribchi

I might be a state employee. I might not want my children to get grief at school. I might be fleeing from an ex-partner who was abusive and would rather he not know where I am. My family might not want to talk to me anymore. I might alienate my best friend. Maybe I don’t feel like having a brick thrown through my window. My spouse might work for the Palin administration. Maybe I’d just rather people not know where I live or where I work. Or none of those things may be true. None of my readers, nor Mike Doogan had any idea what my personal circumstances might be. -The Alaska Muckraker (AKM)

I would consider the people above as modern-day superheroes—maybe without the tights and capes. Considering how often journalists are the targets of SWATing and other attacks because people find out where they live, the need for protecting their privacy is essential.

Anonymous chat apps give you control over your privacy

Anonymity is only a facet of privacy. People like Brian Krebs and Bruce Schneier aren’t anonymous, but they try to protect their privacy—but the protections they use can only go so far. Because both use their real names, it’s possible to find personal, private information about them (like phone numbers and addresses). If they used anonymous pseudonyms, it would be harder to find them and “out” them.

In the past people used pseudonyms when writing books, websites, or blogs—and it was pretty easy to protect your pen name. It’s a different world today, where chat apps (and related tools like Instagram) are part of the landscape. In the name of helping people genuinely connect and build communities, chat apps and social media platforms actively encourage “real names”. This policy, however, disregards all the reasons people need to protect their identities.

Chat apps—especially WhatsApp—are powerful tools for spreading information and ideas. It’s easy to stay anonymous through books, websites, and blogs, but chat apps are a different story. Many apps are tied to your device’s phone number or an email address. While you can have a semi-anonymous email address, your phone number is directly tied to you. On these apps you can be private-ish and anonymous-ish, but not fully either.

One of the flaws in non-anonymous chat apps is you can be found through the app’s central directory. It is convenient when you first sign up to a new chat app—like Telegram and WhatsApp—for it to look through your contacts and show you the people you know already using the app. Convenient, but also a little creepy.

Maybe I don’t want to be found on the app. Maybe I need a private channel and don’t want people to know I’m using it. If you are a whistle blower using Telegram (for example) to connect with a journalist or lawyer, your presence there could be the piece of information that connects you personally to your online activity.

Apps that allow you to sign up and use the app anonymously give you an additional degree of privacy missing in apps like Telegram, WhatsApp, and others.

Anonymous sign up means:

  • You choose who you connect to.
  • You choose who knows you’re using the app.
  • You choose what information people you’re chatting with know about you.
  • You maintain control over your privacy and security.

Anonymity puts you in control of your privacy, not an app developer or company. The fundamental part of privacy is letting you decide who knows what about you. Respecting privacy is a human right.

How SKY ECC approaches anonymous chat and messaging

SKY ECC allows you to sign up and use the app completely anonymously. We make a point of not gathering personally identifiable information ourselves and we require our reseller Partners to respect customer’s desire for privacy and anonymity. Sometimes this makes business transactions more complicated, but avoiding inconvenience isn’t a good enough excuse to compromise anonymity.

Your right to privacy and anonymity is a core tenet of SKY GLOBAL. New features, internal processes, and how we do business must always answer the question “are we protecting our customer’s privacy” with “yes”.

Anonymous messaging in SKY ECC

Here are the core tenants of anonymous messaging built into our app:

  • SKY ECC IDs are randomly generated six-digit HEX codes.
  • We don’t connect a phone number or an external email address (an email address is generated for device management and not accessible in the app or used as an email address).
  • You can’t be “discovered” through a master directory of SKY ECC users.
  • If you want to add someone as a contact in SKY ECC, you must know their SKY ECC.
  • Putting in random iDs and trying to connect with the person you want has an extremely low likelihood of success—and would violate our terms of service leading to cancelling your account.

Within the settings, you set your display name and picture to whatever you wish—we even include a set of stock images you can use for your profile. We strongly recommend putting something in as your display name to protect your ECC ID and make it easier for your contacts to find you in their contact list. What you put as a name and use as a photo is entirely up to you*.

Your contacts can edit your display name to something more recognizable (for example if you have two friends named “Bob” on your contact list, you want to keep them straight by naming one Bob S and the other Bob R). However, we don’t allow people to set a custom name and forward a chat to another person keeping the custom name—there is too much risk for impersonation and misinformation.

Anonymous messaging in a nutshell

We believe anonymity and anonymous messaging are essential to society. Although people will abuse this right, we maintain free speech, democracy, and keeping those in power accountable are things too important to sacrifice.

In the US Supreme court decision quoted above, the final sentence reads:

“The right to remain anonymous may be abused when it shields fraudulent conduct. But political speech by its nature will sometimes have unpalatable consequences, and, in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse.”

This is why, in a nutshell, why SKY ECC fully supports anonymity as a bulwark for privacy and security.

* Within reason. We don’t allow people to knowingly impersonate another person or use a pornographic image for their profile.