Anonymizing The Shooters

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, staked out a firm — and interesting — position after a terrorist attack by a white supremacist on two New Zealand mosques killed dozens of people last month.  “[Y]ou will never hear me mention his name,” said Ardern. “He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”  She added: “He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.”

anongiftsPrime Minister Ardern is the latest figure to argue that the individuals who commit mass shootings should be anonymized, and that news reports of such crimes should not name the killers.

The anonymity effort traces its roots back to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, which produced massive coverage of the American teenagers who did the killing.  The Columbine shootings are believed to have motivated many other mass shootings, both in the United States and around the world, and some observers argue that giving the Columbine shooters publicity and celebrity-style coverage only encourages future attacks.  The New Zealand shooter, for example, was supposedly inspired by a 2015 mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

As one criminologist, Adam Lankford, has put it:  “A lot of these shooters want to be treated like celebrities. They want to be famous. So the key is to not give them that treatment.”  Detailed news coverage of shootings can also be used as a guide to would-be shooters who are planning their own mass attacks, and can motivate future killers to try to outdo the death tolls in prior shootings.  It’s apparently a sad, sick reality of our modern world that some people are so obsessed with becoming famous that they will commit heinous crimes against innocent strangers to obtain the publicity they crave.

Should the terrorists and criminals who commit mass shootings be named, or should the news media refrain from identifying shooters while otherwise providing the news about such killings?  There’s no doubt that the names of criminals are part of the news.  Every new reporter learns about the “5 Ws and an H” — who, what, where, when, why, and how — that should elements of any news story.  But members of the news media also are part of society and have always accepted some element of social responsibility in their news coverage — by not publishing ultra-bloody or violent images, for example.  Withholding the names of mass shooters who hope for notoriety is just one additional step down that same path.

I don’t know whether anonymizing mass shooters will help to discourage future tragedies, but I do know that what has been done to date hasn’t worked.  I applaud the stance of Prime Minister Ardern and hope that reporters and editors will start to recognize that providing publicity to such shooters simply makes the new media a pawn in their sick and twisted effort to become famous.

Cash Culture

If you take flights on certain airlines, you have heard the announcements that they only accept credit cards if you want to buy a snack box or adult beverage. I always wonder how that can be — aren’t greenbacks legal tender that must be accepted everywhere? How can you deny someone who wants to pay with cash?

So I’ve been happy to go to a few places recently — like this taqueria in Detroit’s Mexicantown neighborhood — that not only accept paper money, they require that you pay with it. But why do they apologize for that policy? The retailer doesn’t have to pay credit card fees, and the purchaser doesn’t have to sign little slips and worry about whether their card data will be hacked. There’s a pleasing, old-school anonymity to paying with folding money that has new-age privacy benefits, too.

In some places, cash is still king. No apologies necessary!

The End Of Privacy As We Know It

The right to personal privacy isn’t a right that is specifically recognized in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, but it has been a recognized area of the law for decades, as well as a treasured ideal for many Americans.  For many people, the right to be left alone is an important one.

But this is another area where technology is simply changing the game.  Whether it is cookies left on personal computers that lead to pop-up ads that are specifically targeted to your website viewings, search engines that can sift through mounds of news stories, photos, and data in split seconds whenever a name is entered, tracking mechanisms on cell phones, surveillance cameras on every street corner, drones in the air, computer hacking, or listening devices that are routinely used by governmental entities, technology makes the ability to maintain some zone of privacy harder and harder.

20130203_adde1Social media also has had a significant impact.  Anyone who likes the convenience of Facebook as a way to keep in touch with their old friends, family members and colleagues is giving up a piece of their privacy.  And when technology and social media meet, the erosion can become even more pronounced.

Consider the news that a software developer has used the advances in facial recognition software to develop an app that allows you to take a photo of a stranger in a public place and immediately run a search for the identity of that person through Facebook.  It’s called Facezam, and it’s apparently going to launch on March 21, although Facebook is raising questions about whether the software is in compliance with the Facebook privacy policy.  But even if Facebook quashes the idea as to Facebook, you would imagine that the app could be modified to be applied to search through other sources of photos.

It’s creepy to think that random strangers, simply by taking your picture in a public place and unbeknownst to you, could then find out who you are and, if they’re so inclined, track you down.  One person in the story linked above describes that concept as the end of anonymity in public places, and I think that’s right.  If you want to guard against it, you can withdraw from any social media, refuse to get your photo taken, avoid going out in public except in disguise, avoid any travel, and stay in your room.  Those aren’t especially attractive options, are they?

Welcome to the Brave New World!

 

In Search of Internet Anonymity

Some of the most popular new smartphone apps offer users the prospect of anonymity. With names like Secret, Whisper, Confide, and Yik Yak, they employ different methods to allow people to post items, and responded to other posted items, without attribution.

The developers of these apps say that anonymity is a kind of pressure-release valve: people have carefully crafted their on-line personas on social media sites, and anonymity lets them really expose their true natures without risk of blowback. (Wait a minute! Are they saying that what people post on Facebook isn’t a true window to their very souls?) So, the apps supposedly allow people to be more “honest.” Of course, there are dangers — such as bullying and defamation — with any social media outlet that allows posters and commenters to hide their identities, so the app designers have to develop techniques to detect or restrain malicious behavior.

Why is the promise of anonymity attractive? It’s a question almost as old as the human species. The classic form of anonymous comment is graffiti, and that dates back thousands of years. Obviously, there’s something about making public statements, without significant fear of retribution, that some people find attractive. Of course, often those anonymous public statements are cruel and repulsive, and frequently the veil of anonymity produces statements that are consciously designed to inflame. Are the people who use these anonymity apps really being more honest, or just saying things that they know will be provocative?

The story linked above mentions the early days of the internet, when pseudonymous postings were commonplace. Some people apparently enjoyed those early days, but I wasn’t one of them. My first few ventures onto the internet, using a dial-up modem and ridiculously slow connections, suggested that the world was filled with mean-spirited people who would glibly say the most awful things imaginable. It took a while before I found websites where I was comfortable.

I think the internet’s move to attribution — like its move to high-speed connections — has been a definite improvement, and I’m not interested in going back. I won’t be looking to add one of the anonymity apps to my iPhone.