Unlisted Publishing And The Burner Account: Responses To Online Surveillance?
from the it's-a-post-snowden-world dept
One of the consolations of spending far too much time online is that you get to witness the birth of new ideas and new terms, along with new uses of existing ones. On Medium, Chris Messina points out two recent examples of creative re-purposing of older ideas and words. The first is the apparently trivial idea of “unlisted” content:
My first personal experience with “unlisted? content online was likely on YouTube. Making a video unlisted means that only people who have the link to the video can view it. It also means that the content won’t be broadcast to followers, or appear on the creator’s public profile. This is known as security through obscurity since the video isn’t secret, it’s just hard to find. An unlisted video can be viewed without requiring authentication.
Services seem to offer “unlisted” publishing to simplify sharing while providing more flexibility. It’s a pragmatic solution to address the challenge that what people think they want (i.e. 100% secrecy and control) isn’t in practice what they’re willing to put up with. It comes down to behavioral economics: if the value of keeping something secret is less than the frustration caused by maintaining its secrecy, people will route around the system designed to keep the thing secret.
As he points out, in addition to YouTube, “unlisted” services are now available from Flickr, Dropbox, Google Drive, Vimeo and Medium. His other cultural find is at a much earlier stage of its development: the “burner account.”
Like most people, “burner” connoted cheap, prepaid, disposable phones used by drug dealers to evade surveillance to me.
It’s not the phone that the drug dealers care about? — it’s the repudiability. A burner essentially makes fungible the association between an attribute (like a phone number) and an individual. This is important. Whereas a social security number is used as a lifelong attribute (and is therefore not fungible), a phone number is useful as an identifier only as long as the owner chooses to keep it. Once the number has served its owner’s purpose, it can be recycled back into the pool of available numbers without being traceable to the former owner.
As an example of its evolution, he cites a product called simply “Burner,” created by a friend of his:
Burner is your “other” number — a smart privacy layer for the smartphone era, giving users the power to take control of their communications and personal data.
Enabling users to obtain and manage additional phone numbers for voice, SMS, and MMS communications, Burner is fast, safe and private. Burner lets users get as many numbers as they want, use each as a private line on an iPhone or Android phone, and keep numbers indefinitely or ‘burn’ numbers they no longer need.
But Messina points out that the meme is beginning to spread beyond a single product:
I recently noticed that [Gawker Media’s] Kinja has adopted the “burner” nomenclature for anonymous commenting on its site — the first example I’ve seen of this language being used on the web
As well as their intrinsic value in extending the online ecosystem in novel ways, it’s interesting that both “unlisted” publishing and “burner” accounts are about giving people more control over who knows what they are doing on the Internet, including the ability to hide it in different ways. Maybe that desire for privacy is a response to Snowden’s revelations that we don’t actually have as much of it as we thought.