The Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, is currently preparing a report on the legal framework governing the relationship between freedom of expression and the use of encryption to secure transactions and communications, and other technologies to transact and communicate anonymously online. This report will be presented to the Human Rights Council in June, 2015. To prepare his study, Mr. Kaye is gathering information on national laws, regulations, policies or practices that permit or limit, directly or indirectly, the use of encryption technologies and services or the ability of individuals to communicate anonymously online. All States are being asked called to submit information on their relevant national norms and policies. Similarly, the Special Rapporteur would like to encourage all interested non-governmental stakeholders – including civil society, corporate actors, international and regional organizations, and national human rights institutions – to provide their views on the appropriate scope of the right to freedom of expression as applied to encryption and anonymity. He would particularly appreciate receiving comments addressing this matter from legal, state practice, or technical perspectives. Any available information should be sent electronically to email@example.com, not later than 10 February 2015.
Whisper has developed an in-house mapping tool that allows its staff to filter and search GPS data, pinpointing messages to within 500 meters of where they were sent.
The technology, for example, enables the company to monitor all the geolocated messages sent from the Pentagon and National Security Agency. It also allows Whisper to track an individual user’s movements over time.
When users have turned off their geolocation services, the company also, on a targeted, case-by-case basis, extracts their rough location from IP data emitted by their smartphone.
The Guardian witnessed this practice on a three-day visit to the company’s Los Angeles headquarters last month, as part of a trip to explore the possibility of an expanded journalistic relationship with Whisper.
The Guardian had previously worked with Whisper to find Iraq war veterans who wanted to share their opinions of Isis, find an undocumented immigrant to write an opinion article and post people’s confessions about Valentine’s Day. At no point during those collaborations did Whisper indicate it was ascertaining the location of individual users who had disabled their geolocation feature.
The Guardian visited the Whisper offices to consider the possibility of undertaking other journalistic projects with the company and sent two reporters last month to look in detail at how the app operates. At no stage during the visit were the journalists told they could not report on the information shared with them.
The Guardian is no longer pursuing a relationship with Whisper.
Broderick sees online participation split into two very different worlds. “There is a social realm where things are rationally sorted and then there’s the anonymous place that brings out a person’s base instincts. It can become a frothing, bubbling cauldron of insanity,” he said. “Yet, you need that animalistic part of yourself. I think of it almost like your sex drive.”
So with so much potential for offensive behavior, why allow commenting in the first place?
Both Isaf and Broderick believe that open and anonymous commenting is quite powerful when it works. Sometimes, even great ideas are born among the shouters. “We’ve seen comments where people spend a couple of hours researching and writing. I’ve watched a discussion on abortion that had 50 people taking part with 200 comments without a single attack,” Isaf said.
“V For Vendetta director James McTeigue has applauded hacker group Anonymous’s use of the distinctive masks from the comic book movie. […] "I like seeing it around. It’s good that you can have a discussion about things that are anti-establishment. If you can be anonymous behind the mask, then it’s great.”