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Where everybody knows your name
Like everyone else entering the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on the morning of May 4, A. Shaen Bernhardt-von Bernhardi had to show identification to a security guard at one of the entrances. Like the others in the fifth-floor room where he spoke about anonymity issues, he had
to sign his name on a list at the entrance to the wing for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“Is it really important for the guard to know what my name is?” said Mr. Bernhardt-von Bernhardi, managing director of Venturi Capital, an investment banking and private equity firm.
He answered his own question with a “no” — because the security guard did not check his name against a criminal database, he said.
“There’s this illusion of security,” says Mr. Bernhardt-von Bernhardi, addressing the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference on whether citizens can protect their anonymity in a post-September 11 world.
In his own life, Mr. Bernhardt-von Bernhardi said, he uses pseudonyms on his favorite e-mail discussion list, concerned that statements he makes in cyberspace might be taken out of context and prejudice clients.
Richard Field, vice chairman of the American Bar Association’s section of science and technology law, found Mr. Bernhardt-von Bernhardi on the e-mail list and invited him to the conference to represent someone attempting to live anonymously in society.
“I’m not the anonymous maven he’s made me out to be,” Mr. Bernhardt-von Bernhardi said at the start of his presentation.
Mr. Bernhardt-von Bernhardi differentiated among identity, privacy and reputation. Identity is an identifier and often relies on third-party assertions, as in the case of a driver’s license that shows someone’s identity with a photo and descriptors; privacy is the right to be left alone; and reputation is a predictor of behavior and a means of valuation, he said.
“Identity by itself is meaningless,” Mr. Bernhardt-von Bernhardi said, adding that the security check he underwent to enter the Woodrow Wilson Center ascertained his identity before his reputation.
“Identifiers evoke nothing until reputation is attached,” he said.
A trustworthy reputation would not require such diligence, he said. He defined trust as confidence in ownership of an identity that is “accurate, owned by you and deserved,” he said.
“Anonymity de-links identity from reputation, but also from responsibility,” he said.
In other words, anonymity is a way to escape accountability, but it also prevents political ideas from being linked to identity, he said.
“Anonymity is a way to avoid accountability for one’s actions,” said David Brin, author of the novel “The Postman.”
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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