Anonymity And Privacy

When it comes to connecting and communicating, there’s no shortage of choices available to teenagers (and the rest of us). How these different options work and impact the way teens communicate is worth exploring. There are three camps when it comes to social and messaging apps: private, semi-private and anonymous.

Anonymous apps, like Whisper or Yik Yak, offer consequence-free communication for posters. Names aren’t used and many of these apps don’t collect phone number, email addresses or other personal information. Of course, just because the sender’s name isn’t used doesn’t mean names are missing all together. You can frequently find people named in posts and rarely in a positive way.

This has had consequences on the perception of these apps. Yik Yak, for example, detects when someone is near a middle school or high school (it’s intended for 17+) and won’t display posts or allow them to be made. This is likely due to some of the concerns around bullying and threats of violence.

Private social/messaging apps like Facebook and iMessage are easier to understand. Even if they don’t use real names, these apps are all about individuals and groups connecting with each other. These treat identity and privacy in different ways. Some use real names, others use user names. Some store messages on servers, others do not. Some keep content indefinitely while others let it evaporate after a time.

Finally, there are semi-private apps like Instagram, Kik and Tango where posts and profiles may be public but conversations are not. These apps can also allow information to be viewed and shared in ways the poster might not have originally anticipated.

All three types of apps have their place but one interesting issue affecting all of them is the conflation of anonymity and privacy. I decided to get some other perspectives on this issue so asked people involved with app development, marketing and advertising for their thoughts:

“Open and productive communications are impossible when one party is hiding behind the armor of anonymity. Consider the difference between driving and walking. No one swears at strangers as they pass on the sidewalk, but it’s rampant when we’re behind the wheel. In digital communications anonymity can be harmful to brands and individuals alike whereas private, or even semi-private communications, offer a nice alternative to the wide exposure of public comments. Think Angie’s List reviews as opposed to anonymous blog comments from Internet trolls.” — Beth Monaghan, principal, InkHouse Media

“Teens have flocked to apps like Snapchat and Yik Yak; but as we know, their claims of security and privacy are not exactly watertight. This is because messages sent using those services are stored on servers, meaning they can be — and have been — compromised. This can be a problem for teens since they are notorious for acting before they think — so their need for assured privacy is almost a safety net — as is the ability to delete a regrettable text message after the fact.” — Greg Parker, founder of Raketu, creator of the RakEM app

“Teens are an expressive crowd and they crave public gratification, whether its favorites/likes, comments or just having a photo added to a stream. We’ve discovered it’s best to offer multiple communications layers — anonymous when needed, private when they want to share with a friend, and public when they can get larger feedback.” — William Agush, founder of Shuttersong

“Anonymity means not being accountable for what you say — and usually not controlling who hears or reads it. Privacy, on the other hand, not only gives you control over who hears what you say but also makes you accountable for it. Young people should consider whether they are willing to be accountable for what they share on anonymous apps — sometimes posting is the brave thing to do, and sometimes it’s just the opposite.” — Jenny Mirken, founder of Jet

“Effective communication often comes down to truth and honesty. If you want the public to view your comments as truth, then be honest about who you are. If the truth is not appropriate for public consumption, keep it private. And, in those instances when anonymity can help uncover the truth (market research, for instance), only share it with those who need to know.” — Jeff Freedman, CEO, Small Army

The points about accountability and honesty ring true. For teens — or anyone — to communicate there needs to be some knowledge of who is on the other side of the screen. Sure, it can be liberating to say whatever is on your mind without worrying about the consequences but can it be the basis for a two-way conversation?

For brands that want to establish meaningful connections with teenage customers, it’s hard to imagine the anonymous route being at all effective since anonymity by its very nature negates the benefit of the brand. Private or semi-private channels make more sense and there are great examples appearing every day. To be successful, keep the channels of communication clear, open and honest — and for goodness sake, don’t confuse privacy with anonymity.

Originally published at

Ed Felten at the “From Mad Men to Mad Bots” conference at Yale ISP

Last week I had the opportunity attend the Yale Information Society Project conference: From Mad Men to Mad Bots: Advertising in the Digital Age. It was a good event and a great opportunity to get some interesting insights on what’s happening in the digital advertising industry.

The event kicked off with a discussion with Ed Felten of the FTC. Felten started with a description of behavioral advertising and how it differs from contextual advertising. The take away from his comments focused on the role of data in order to connect the dots around user behavior in order to effectively target content.


When asked if we should be worried about persistent tracking Felten said yes, that this kind of tracking could lead to the creation of detailed files of very revealing data about health issues, family problems, employment and more. Even if people are comfortable seeing behaviorally targeted ads, he continued, the tracking behind it carries risks.

His reasoning was interesting – certainly there’s the risk that information could be used for other purposes (from considering people for employment to setting health insurance rates) but there’s also the possibility of people looking over their shoulders and avoiding sites or types of content that could reflect poorly on them.

And there’s also the risk of an “Exxon Valdez” spill of private data. This could come about in any number of ways – from a security breach to the unscrupulous sale of information. However such a spill might occur the result would be messy to say the least.

Felten made the point that while there’s always focus on big concerns there are plenty of smaller harms that are difficult to avert. Unfortunately, according to Felten, many people don’t realize they’re being tracked or what to do about it. The result is confusion. Everyone agrees it would be better if there were more clarity but there’s no consensus on how to make that happen.

While there are things people can do – cookie controls, browser selection and extensions or avoiding certain kinds of sites – none, in Felten’s eyes, offers full protection.

One reason Felten thinks this ability to control access is so critical is that data is rapidly being amassed that can be connected to a specific individual. Anonymity, he explained, is only a profile that hasn’t been connected to a real person . . . yet.

The industry recognizes the problems and is working on self-regulation in the online ad space. Are new laws needed? Not necessarily. Felten believes it’s possible to reach a point where consumers can be comfortable without new legislation. He thinks the industry can go further than they have but that if over time consumer concerns aren’t addressed we may find ourselves in a situation were new laws are put in place.

The desired outcome is for consumers’ needs and concerns to be adequately addressed. The specific mechanisms are less important.

All-in-all it was an interesting discussion. Felten raised plenty of areas for concern but also seemed to have faith that everyone involved – consumers, Congress, regulators and the industry – had some sense of the issue and were working – perhaps clumsily at times – toward a solution.