A recent fashion show in London presented Stealth Wear, meant to explore "the potential for fashion to challenge authoritarian surveillance."
Featuring an "anti-drone hoodie," to thwart thermal imaging, with an "off pocket" to mask mobile phone location signals, these fashion accessories may exemplify a larger trend -- the drive to find personal means to maintain anonymity in response to ever more powerful and ubiquitous methods used to track our activities, both licit and illicit.
Privacy-enhancing technologies (known as PETS) have existed for years, but the development of popular anonymity applications appears to be accelerating. For example, TOR -- the onion router so named because of its layering effect -- uses a circuit of proxy servers to prevent tracking of Internet usage. The system, originally designed for the military, launched for public usage in 2005. Snapchat, a disappearing-photo sharing service, started less than two years ago, and claims more than 50 million users per day, inspiring similar apps from other sources.
This Adam Harvey Anti-Drone Scarf, which retails for £370.00 (about $561), is part of the designer's Stealth Wear collection, available now.
(Source: Adam Harvey)
By 2012, moreover, several free anti-tracking applications (services designed to prevent electronic profiling on the web) garnered hundreds of thousands of users. These apps include services such as DoNotTrackMe, Ghostery, AdBlock Plus, and TrackerBlock by Privacy Choice.
A host of additional systems, including disappearing email and messaging, search engine de-optimization (which, essentially, make it harder to find information about a user through web searches), and cheap or free encryption methods, already exist or are in development.
When used responsibly, these technologies can enhance the user's experience. Surveys, such as Ponemon's 2012 Most Trusted Companies for Privacy report, suggest growing public concern about protection of personal information. In Ponemon's study (which American Express won in both 2012 and 2011), only 35 percent of respondents believe they have control over their personal information, a result that has steadily trended downward over the years. Thus, methods for protecting user-privacy may be essential to maintain growth of Internet usage. And several international political movements have benefitted from the ability to escape censorship and restrictive monitoring by authoritarian governments.
But these technologies also present a dark side. Drug dealing, terrorism, and the exchange of child pornography are only some examples that suggest, in the wrong hands, anonymity technologies could pose a serious threat to law enforcement and national security. Although President Barack Obama's recent State of the Union address mentioned cybersecurity initiatives, we may be overdue for a serious discussion of the role of PETS in the balance between civil liberties and the public order.
— Steven C. Bennett is a partner in the New York City offices of international law firm Jones Day. The views expressed are his, and should not be attributed to Bennett's firm or clients.