Anonymous

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Definition

  • 1. Nameless, having no name; of unknown name.
a. Indistinguishable from others of its kind; unexceptional; bland, generic, nondescript.
b. Hence subst. A person whose name is not given, or is unknown.
Of a person: generally unknown, unrecognized, or uncelebrated.
  • 2. transf. Bearing no author's name; of unknown or unavowed authorship.
  • 3. Unacknowledged, illegitimate. rare.
  • 4. Of a place, institution, etc.: lacking a sense of community; impersonal.

Description

Anonymity is derived from the Greek word ανωνυμία, meaning "without a name" or "namelessness". In colloquial use, anonymous typically refers to a person, and often means that the personal identity, or personally identifiable information of that person is not known. More strictly, and in reference to an arbitrary element (e.g. a human, an object, a computer), within a well-defined set (called the "anonymity set"), "anonymity" of that element refers to the property of that element of not being identifiable within this set. If it is not identifiable, then the element is said to be "anonymous".

The term "anonymous message" typically refers to message (which is, for example, transmitted over some form of a network) that does not carry any information about its sender and its intended recipient. It is therefore unclear if multiple such messages have been sent by the same sender or if they have the same intended recipient.

Sometimes it is desired that a person can establish a long-term relationship (such as a reputation) with some other entity, without his/her personal identity being disclosed to that entity. In this case, it may be useful for the person to establish a unique identifier, called a pseudonym, with the other entity. Examples of pseudonyms are nicknames, credit card numbers, student numbers, bank account numbers, and IP addresses. A pseudonym enables the other entity to link different messages from the same person and, thereby, the maintenance of a long-term relationship. Although typically pseudonyms do not contain personally identifying information, communication that is based on pseudonyms is often not classified as "anonymous", but as "pseudonymous" instead. Indeed, in some contexts, anonymity and pseudonymity are separate concepts.

However, in other contexts what matters is that both anonymity and pseudonymity are concepts that are, among other things, concerned with hiding a person's legal identity. In such contexts people may not distinguish between anonymity and pseudonymity. The problem of determining whether or not the identity of a communication partner is the same as one previously encountered is the problem of authentication.

Example

An example: Suppose that only Alice, Bob, and Carol have the keys to a bank safe and that, one day, the contents of the safe are missing (without the lock being violated). Without any additional information, we do not know for sure whether it was Alice, Bob or Carol who opened the safe; the perpetrator remains anonymous. In particular, each of the elements in {Alice, Bob, Carol} has a 1/3 chance of being the perpetrator. However, as long as none of them has been identified as being the perpetrator with 100% certainty, we can say that the perpetrator remains anonymous.

Anonymity is not an absolute. That is, the degree of anonymity one enjoys may vary. In the above example, if Carol has an ironclad alibi at the time of the perpetration, then we may deduce that it must have been either Alice or Bob who opened the safe. That is, the probability of the elements {Alice, Bob, Carol} of being the perpetrator is now 1/2, 1/2, and 0 respectively. This clearly amounts to a reduction of the perpetrator's anonymity (i.e. although the perpetrator still remains anonymous, it is now more likely than before that (s)he is either Alice or Bob).

Means of obtaining anonymity

Anonymity is a result of not having identifying characteristics (such as a name or description of physical appearance) disclosed. This can occur from a lack of interest in learning the nature of such characteristics, or through intentional efforts to hide these characteristics. An example of the former would include a brief encounter with a stranger, when learning the other person's name is not deemed necessary. An example of the latter would include someone hiding behind clothing that covers identifying features like hair color, scars, or tattoos, in order to avoid identification.

In some cases, anonymity is reached unintentionally, as is often the case with victims of crimes or war battles, when a body is discovered in such a state that the physical features used to identify someone are no longer present. Anonymity is not always found in such morbid situations, however. As an example, a winner of a lottery jackpot is anonymous (one of however many play the lottery) until that person turns in the winning lottery ticket.

There are many reasons why a person might choose to obscure their identity and become anonymous. Several of these reasons are legal and legitimate - many acts of charity are performed anonymously, as benefactors do not wish, for whatever reason, to be acknowledged for their action. Someone who feels threatened by someone else might attempt to hide from the threat behind various means of anonymity, a witness to a crime can seek to avoid retribution, for example, by anonymously calling a crime tipline. There are also many illegal reasons to hide behind anonymity. Criminals typically try to keep themselves anonymous either to conceal the fact that a crime has been committed, or to avoid capture. However, the saying that there is no honor among thieves implies that criminals may also snitch on each other for various reasons. Anonymity may also be created through a gradual eroding of ownership information. This particularly applies to quotations deemed anonymous. For example, the quote, "Ignorance is Bliss" originally had a known author, but, over time, information on author's identity was obscured and has disappeared. One way this authorship is obscured is through the evolution of the phrase by modification or addition to the original, which has become particularly prolific in modern times. For example, "Ignorance is Bliss" is only in the form it is in now through a long train of evolution. In fact the phrase has most recently received a modern modification in some areas resulting in a new (and much more cynical) anonymous phrase "Ignorance is Bliss...and I know everything."

Referring to the anonymous

When it is necessary to refer to someone who is anonymous, it is typically necessary to create a type of pseudo-identification for that person. In literature, the most common way to state that the identity of an author is unknown is to refer to them as simply "Anonymous." This is usually the case with older texts in which the author is long dead and unable to claim authorship of a work. When the work claims to be that of some famous author the pseudonymous author is identified as "Pseudo-", as in Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, an author claiming—and long believed—to be Dionysius the Areopagite, an early Christian convert.

Anonymus, in its Latin spelling, generally with a specific city designation, is traditionally used by scholars in the humanities to refer to an ancient writer whose name is not known, or to a manuscript of their work. Very many such writers have left valuable historical or literary records: an incomplete list of such Anonymi is at Anonymus.

In the history of art, many painting workshops can be identified by their characteristic style and discussed and the workshop's output set in chronological order. Sometimes archival research later identifies the name, as when the "Master of Flémalle"—defined by three paintings in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt— was identified as Robert Campin. The 20th-century art historian Bernard Berenson methodically identified numerous early Renaissance Florentine and Sienese workshops under such sobriquets as "Amico di Sandro" for an anonymous painter in the immediate circle of Sandro Botticelli.

In legal cases, a popularly accepted name to use when it is determined that an individual needs to maintain anonymity is "John Doe". This name is often modified to "Jane Doe" when the anonymity-seeker is female. The same names are also commonly used when the identification of a dead person is not known. The semi-acronym Unsub is used as law enforcement slang for "Unknown Subject of an Investigation". The military often feels a need to honor the remains of soldiers for whom identification is impossible. In many countries, such a memorial is named the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.