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Where everybody knows your name

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

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."

Mr. Brin said people choose privacy for themselves but want accountability for everyone else.

"Privacy is a deeply felt need," he said, adding that privacy and anonymity are not the same thing. "In fact, we'll have more genuine privacy if we can always spot and know those trying to violate it."

Mr. Brin prefers that the FBI and CIA search out those trying to remain anonymous when their intent is to harm, he said.

"I refuse to pick which group of elites to hold under suspicion. They all deserve accountability," he said.

An area where privacy needs to be protected is in health care, said Janlori Goldman, founder of the Health Privacy Project in Northwest, which advocates safeguarding people's privacy in the health care environment.

"Protecting privacy promotes participation," she said.

Ms. Goldman pointed to the fear that women have about testing for the breast-cancer gene because they want to avoid having the disease mentioned in their family medical records, and to the statistic that 40 percent of people with multiple sclerosis are afraid to tell their employers about having the disease.

"We've spent all of this money, and people are afraid to seek care," she said.

Privacy historically has meant the right to be left alone, but the notion shifted a few decades ago to mean having control over what third parties know, Ms. Goldman said. If people cannot limit who knows what, they will conform and tailor their behavior in order to restrict information, she said.

"What will promote health and individual liberty is where we should end up," she said.

"For a society that wants to encourage participation among all its citizens and their diverse views, anonymity offers the security that some need in order to become involved," said Mark Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Freedom Responsibility & Law Program.

Security and anonymity are dual obligations, said Kim Taipale, executive director of the center for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology Policy, a research and advisory organization focused on information, technology and national-security policy.

"Developing policy to provide both requires a better understanding of how current security requirements and technological developments intersect with and challenge certain privacy interests, including anonymity."

To meet this dual obligation, policy-makers need to understand security strategies and "technical potentials and constraints" while examining conceptions of privacy and anonymity and how they relate to civil liberty, Mr. Taipale said. Protecting security is challenged by automated information processing and collection technologies, he said.

"The question is no longer just whether data will be collected but under what circumstances it can be assessed and used for certain purposes, including national security and law enforcement, while still maintaining core privacy issues," he said.