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The Uses of Anonymity: Everybody's Doin' It

August 17, 2007

What can one say about a so-called journalist who “reviews” a Crotonblog article before it has even been published? Bruce Apar, who lays claim to the self-bestowed title of “Editor in Chief plus Publisher” of The North County News, has done that with the article you are about to read.

Mr. Apar isn’t much of a journalist. He was so mixed-up about happenings in the historic Underhill House in his hometown of Yorktown Heights that in his newspaper he asserted Major John André was French, and claimed the British arrested him there during the Revolution. How confused can one get?

Mr. Apar got just about every fact wrong: Major André was British; Yorktown Heights (then called Hanover) was in American hands; American militia members arrested André later in Tarrytown. On another occasion, Mr. Apar wrote in his newspaper that Indian Point was in Montrose. Anyone concerned about the threat this ticking bomb poses to life and limb knows it’s in Buchanan. So much for Mr. Apar’s abilities as a journalist.

A Chatroom for the Discontented
Mr. Apar has committed a sin even worse than being unclear about facts. He has irresponsibly advocated that users of the Internet identify themselves by name. Not only that, he created a site specifically tailored for citizens of Croton on which they are actually forbidden to use a screen name. Simply stated, Mr. Apar’s site puts every user of it at risk. Moreover, it is not a true blog but consists of nothing more than hundreds of unrelated comments, all written by a small coterie of users. Mr. Apar has created the ultimate chatroom, something its users accused Crotonblog of being.

In May of this year, The North County News, a weekly newspaper owned by the corporation that publishes the very profitable Pennysaver, set up this clubby, barely viable site exclusively for Crotonites. A small band of Crotonblog’s critics are its principal users. Although called a blog, it contains no editorial matter, consisting of intermittent and often cryptic messages to and from one another.

Almost solely made up of spontaneous comments and thank-you notes, it is now a vain attempt to breathe life into a corpse. Curiously, although headquartered in Yorktown Heights, The North County News has established no working sites for Yorktown Heights or Peekskill. The latter, a city in which it has been trying to increase its circulation base, is an attractive target because its population is so much larger than any village in northern Westchester.

The site is part of a campaign by The North County News to supplant The Gazette and its coverage of Cortlandt, Croton, Ossining and Briarcliff Manor. What is more, the site denies readers the right to post comments anonymously but insists that they sign them “with their full, legal identity,” whatever that means. For those who fall into the trap of revealing their identity to the world, this can be an invitation to disaster.

Crotonblog has to wonder in which of Mr. Apar’s job descriptions as Editor-in-Chief or Publisher is he charged with cladding himself in armor with the assistance of his serfs, being lifted onto his horse, taking up his spear and attacking the fire-breathing dragon named Crotonblog. Why doesn’t he spend more time peddling his papers or boning up on local history and geography?

Anonymity Ubiquitous Today
Mr. Apar has made anonymity a dirty word, but readers will be surprised to see that anonymity is present in much of everyday life. Consider the omnipresence of the practice:

  1. Unsigned newspaper editorials and stories.
  2. News media sources often described as, “government officials who insisted on remaining anonymous because they are not authorized to speak.” The most notorious example of this was “Deep Throat,” whose inside tips fueled the Watergate investigation of the Nixon administration by The Washington Post.
  3. Hot lines on which whistle blowers can report crimes and other illegal acts.
  4. Tip lines offering cash rewards for reporting the whereabouts of criminal suspects.
  5. Telephone subscribers with unlisted phone numbers
  6. The wide use of “Caller ID” making phone callers identify themselves.
  7. Persons with P.O. box or mail drop addresses.
  8. The privacy and anonymity that now surrounds credit card numbers and Social Security account numbers.
  9. Telephone and mail surveys and questionnaires in which the respondent remains anonymous.
  10. Restricted access to the names of crime victims, AIDS patients.
  11. Amnesty programs for turning in firearms, or for the return of stolen objects, or forgiveness for past criminal behavior.
  12. Needle exchange programs for drug addicts.
  13. The Federal Witness Protection Program.
  14. Anonymous gift giving to charitable organizations.
  15. Blood and organ donors.
  16. Sperm and egg donors.

There are many other subtle manifestations of anonymity, such as the practice by single women of listing their names in phone books with initials or with pseudonymous male-sounding first names, and the omission of specific addresses. There is the anonymity of the confessional or the confidentiality of the attorney-client relationship. How about the time-honored and constitutionally limited conditions under which police can require that persons identify themselves? Or the discussion and support groups for alcohol-, drug- and family-abuse programs? Or the strictures against disclosure of medical and legal records? In the preceding enumeration, Crotonblog has barely scratched the surface on the subject of anonymity.

Practicing What We Preach
As is the common practice on the Internet, Crotonblog posts news stories, op ed pieces, editorials and reader comments without requiring that names of the authors be shown. A few critics, including Mr. Apar, took Crotonblog to task and demanded that Crotonblog’s contributors or commenters reveal their true names. In Crotonblog’s view, this is a trumped-up, phony issue intended to divert attention from their inability to respond to or refute Crotonblog’s postings. Unhappy with the message, they want to attack and kill the messenger.

Such criticisms always originate with persons who are technologically unsophisticated and unaware of the dangers that lurk on the now-globalized Internet. Curiously, these critics voice no complaint about unsigned, highly opinionated editorials in such publications as The Weekly Standard, The Washington Times or The Wall Street Journal. The British weekly The Economist affixes no names to its articles, and its loyal readers see no problem in that. Yet Crotonblog has been subjected to repeated criticism from persons whose own linen is not exactly lily white.

In the past, Crotonblog has patiently explained its reasons for concealing the identities of those who desire to be protected when writing articles for Crotonblog or making comments to already published postings. First and foremost, anonymity ensures that the contribution or the comment—and not the contributor or the commenter—will be judged solely on its merits. Neither untoward threats nor actions can be made against any poster or any commenter, or their property, or their family members, including, as has happened in Croton, their children.

Identity Theft on the Rise
Individuals who sign their names on blogs anywhere on the Internet can face problems as a consequence. On Crotonblog, posters of articles or comments are encouraged to sign a contribution with any alias, cognomen, handle, label, moniker, name, nickname, tag, term or title they choose to employ. If they so desir, they can use their own names, although common practice on the Internet is to avoid doing so and for good reason. Crotonblog shouldn’t have to remind readers that identity theft is rampant in our society today.

Gone are the days when individuals would freely give out their dates of birth, Social Security account numbers, credit card numbers, or bank account numbers as readily as they would hand out candy at Halloween. No more. With millions of individual names, Social Security numbers and other personal data in purloined computer records stolen from banks, credit companies and government agencies, a person’s name is no longer just a person’s name. It is now the starting point for data miners or list and information compilers to begin peeling back the layers of information that surround every individual in our society. Selling personal information has become a big business, and sellers and buyers are often shady individuals with nefarious motives.

Unsuspecting victims have been subjected to everything from identity theft by unscrupulous con artists to clever swindles of large sums ranging into the millions. Starting with a mere name, these criminals wheedle additional information from their intended victims or find sensitive information from other sources. In many cases, such scams are being operated from outside this country. Globalization and international banking have made international fraud an all-too-common reality. Using easily obtained information, a scruffy-looking individual sitting in a cafe in Sofia, Bulgaria, with a laptop can easily clean out your bank account without your knowledge, leaving you with no recourse.

In the face of a mass of evidence, there should be no doubt on the part of readers about the pervasiveness of anonymity and of its utilitarian value. Statistics also show that with identity theft on the rise, a concomitant escalation in anonymity is also taking place. Under these circumstances, Crotonblog has to wonder why these niggling critics persist in challenging us. We have been called “cowards” by Richard Pellicci and, in one immature critic’s inelegant words, we have been accused of lacking “balls,” a position that apparently allowed him to be the most prolific and opinionated commenter on Crotonblog.

Crotonblog has no objection to readers cloaking themselves in anonymity. In fact, we encourage it for your own protection. To those readers who see boldly signing their own names as a valiant act of openness, Crotonblog would remind them that doing so is anything but wise. More important, Crotonblog encourages readers to make absolutely certain their children refrain from revealing personal information, keeping it from prying eyes when on the Internet. Criminal types who prey on vulnerable children sometimes masquerade as government officials. Others claim to be game show hosts or contest operators, promising fabulous prizes to participants.

An especially dangerous group portrays themselves as so-called “pen pals” (“keyboard pals” would be a better term to describe them), offering sympathy and counseling to unsuspecting troubled teenagers when their ultimate objective is a sexual encounter.

Editors’ Note: We hope that Mr. Apar will withhold his review of Part Two of this three-part series titled “The Uses of Anonymity: Dangers of the Internet” until after it has been published. In it, Crotonblog explores the hazardous world of the Internet, a veritable happy hunting ground for criminal activity.

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