A lot has been said over the years about the human right of anonymity in today’s society. There is a conflict between those that say ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ and the more libertarian view that everyone has the human right to total anonymity. Especially where state surveillance and databases are concerned.

But is this a correct analysis? Where does anonymity fit in to our society and is it the good thing that many believe it is?

In thinking about this I considered what a ’society’ of humans would look like many thousands of years ago. You would have smallish bands of closely related people either wandering around together or inhabiting a distinct area. They would know each other intimately. They would be relying on their deep knowledge of each other for the survival of the group as a whole. Any threat posed by an individual to the group would have been dealt with swiftly and harshly.

Even in large towns most people would not travel far, so would know those in their own little areas. In villages everyone would know something about their neighbours. Those wishing to stand alone would be known as the local hermit, or be considered as a bit strange.

No-one in those times could be considered as anonymous. People were confined together in small camps and dwellings for survival. If you weren’t known you would be a stranger and there would be few of those. That does not mean that as a stranger you would be automatically made a figure of suspicion, it would mean that you had a label. Anonymous people do not have labels other than ‘anonymous’. A stranger could therefore not be truly anonymous in small close knit societies.

The fact that everyone knew everyone else, knew their foibles, their weaknesses and their strengths made for sets of small but strong societies.

Sailors on a ship halfway across the ocean were not truly anonymous. Everyone knew where they came from. The rich travelled about in liveried coaches openly displaying their identity.

The advent of fast travel with centralised shopping and working over the last century or so has changed all this and made people more truly anonymous. Instead of gathering in local markets, people travel many miles to get together in tens of thousands just to go about their daily activities. No-one knows anyone else or even cares.

In this environment those that live, work and rely on the shadows prosper. This includes those that indulge in criminal activity as well as those that make political pronouncements behind a mask.

It is only to be expected that society will find a way to defend itself against this relatively new threat. It has done this by, what some consider as intrusive, surveillance. But is this really any different from the day-to-day surveillance that anyone who lived in a close knit society thousands of, or even a few hundred, years ago would have been subjected to? Modern High-Tec surveillance may just be society redressing the balance that modern anonymity has upset.

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