Matney: Anonymity, security are divided while intertwined

Lucas Matney, Columnist

In an interview Sunday on “60 Minutes,” FBI Director James Comey attacked Apple’s most recent iPhone software security improvement as a development that would protect pedophiles and kidnappers from prosecution. His concerns regard the method in which Apple’s iOS 8 software encrypts user data from end to end, a strategy that will secure user data from hackers but will also stop — or at least hamper — law enforcement officials with a court warrant from being able to seek out the data on the device. Comey insisted that the security will “put people beyond the law” and urged Apple to make changes to the update.

The issue, which arose just days after Snapchat was hacked and over 200,000 photos were leaked, is just the latest concern in a number of cases questioning the online relationship of anonymity and security. Being able to speak freely without being identified has long been a staple freedom of the Internet, though in a new age of invasive government surveillance, corporate data-collecting and a slew of ever-connected devices, anonymity may no longer be a very reasonable expectation to have.

There are few easy answers in this debate. Although it’s convenient to vilify the government for overreaching its bounds or spying unnecessarily on civilians, the security standards that allow the government to access certain bits of data do undoubtedly disarm some very dangerous situations.

On Sunday, a student at Penn State was arrested after posting a message on Yik Yak, a localized anonymous social network, that he was going to “kill everyone” on campus. The safeguards which Yik Yak has in place allowed users to quickly report the post and bring it to the company’s attention while subsequently enabling law enforcement to gain access to the registered phone number of the specific user and track him down.

A the government’s efforts may have enabled us to feel physically safer, they have also opened us up to being more easily harmed online. For years the government has relied on finding or establishing “back doors” in companies’ software products that allow federal agencies to easily access sensitive information without jumping through hoops. Yet as hackers’ efforts have continued to grow more sophisticated, these unpatched security holes are being exploited, putting the site’s users at risk for continued data leaks that compromise their personal and financial information. These developments have angered tech companies that are already on their heels following Snowden’s cyber surveillance revelations and his accusations of the tech companies’ complicity.

How Apple responds to the government’s latest criticism will serve as a significant indicator of the rest of the tech community’s resolve for this issue. Google has already pledged to implement similar measures in Android phones, and others may follow soon with efforts to beef up security in the future.

Increased efforts from tech companies to isolate user information will have major implications for online security, yet absolute privacy of data on the macro level has the potential to compromise individual security in certain situations. While anonymity on the web is often touted as a clear and fundamental right to individual users, it’s important to remember that like the code and algorithms that define the Internet, sometimes the true definition of security can be hard to interpret.

The headline of this post was updated to comply with Daily style.

Lucas Matney is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].