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Home > Privacy Fundamentals > Anonymity and Pseudonymity

Anonymity and Pseudonymity

One of the most effective ways to protect privacy is to remain anonymous or to falsify information by using a fake name, for example. Anonymity and pseudonymity are important social customs that empower people to disappear, hide themselves, or hide certain attributes of themselves from other individuals or from institutions. These personal practices foster privacy in terms that precisely fit the desires of the people using them.

There are many legitimate reasons to refuse to be identified, and people do it all the time. Many people refuse to identify themselves to telephone callers until the caller is identified. The victim of an unwanted social advance may give a fake name or telephone number to avoid future contact. Victims of stalking may want to hide their actions and whereabouts by not revealing their names. Critics of government officials often use anonymity to avoid reprisal. And people who do not trust an online business to be tactful may give fake e-mail addresses or other information. The uses of anonymity and pseudonimity are as numerous as the interactions people have.

Anonymity and pseudonymity should not be regarded as signs of wrongdoing, but anonymity and pseudonymity are very commonly in the arsenal of those who go beyond protecting privacy to misrepresent themselves while taking advantage of others.

The government and commercial sectors respond to anonymity and pseudonymity quite differently. Businesses tend to entice consumers to release accurate personal information. Consumers may continue to refuse sharing information if the enticements are not enough. Governments, on the other hand, may threaten or prosecute anonymous or pseudonymous people.

To allow individuals to protect their own senses of privacy, governments and institutions should minimize their interference with anonymity and pseudonymity. There is a difficult balance to strike, however. They must do this consistent with preventing genuine wrongful acts that anonymity and pseudonymity can abet.


Anonymity on the Internet Web page, by William Knowles

Nym Mailing List's Archive of Anonymity and Pseudonymity Resources (List is Invite-Only)

PA Court Establishes First-Ever Protections For Online Critics of Public Officials, ACLU press release (November 15, 2000)

Protect Your Internet Privacy . . . by Lying by Ben Charny, ZDNet News (August 22, 2000)

Comments? (Subject: Anonymous)

[updated 07/19/01]

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