The search for a better voting system in the wake of the 2000 election has revealed a critical issue for politicians considering new online privacy laws. Whether we're talking about online voting, online shopping or any other cyber activity, the fact is that privacy carries a price, and anonymity can be dangerous.
As for e-voting, the rush is on to construct an accurate, secure electronic voting system in time for America's next elections in 2002. Of course, our voting process also requires anonymity, which creates a problem, according to Bryn Mawr computer science professor Rebecca Mercuri, an online voting expert.
The Wall Street Journal sums up that problem in its March 19 edition: "Completely computerized voting systems can give us accountable ballots or anonymous ballots, but not both. Any system that can be audited to assure that votes were captured and counted correctly will jeopardize the privacy of the ballot. Measures that protect voter anonymity make it difficult to verify an election's accuracy."
Clearly, electronic voting will sacrifice accuracy if it must deliver total anonymity. In a similar way, online commerce will sacrifice opportunity and security. Total anonymity means that websites can't learn anything about individual customers. That means that less advertising money will flow to online media and less free content will appear on the Web. The security issue may be even more important. We all love the idea of privacy, but do we really want all web users to be able to operate with total anonymity, accountable to no one for their online behavior? Should a man be able to attack websites, trade in child pornography, or break into credit card records with the absolute confidence that nobody will ever be able to identify him?
Virtually every online privacy bill in Congress demands a level of privacy that we have never had in the offline world, with rights that have never existed outside of cyberspace. This new mania for privacy seems ironic in an era when many people will do just about anything to get on television, including marrying complete strangers and breaking up on "Temptation Island," but it's true that many of us still value our privacy. Let's not sacrifice too much for it.
© 2001 The Blackwell