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Anonymity technology making public networks safer

The new technology could enhance public privacy as our day-to-day activities shift evermore into the digital world. Image: Shutterstock/nenetus
The new technology could enhance public privacy as our day-to-day activities shift evermore into the digital world. Image: Shutterstock/nenetus

The internet is a double-edged sword – it gives us access to vast amounts of information, but at the same time people can pry into our personal lives with just a few keystrokes.

Being anonymous online is often seen as cause for suspicion, but when that’s coupled with a system that knows who you are and hides it from other users, it could help solve many of the internet’s problems.

Researchers at Europe’s ABC4Trust project have worked out a way to do just that – pinning down the identities of students at a school in Söderhamn, Sweden, but giving them a pseudonym which meant they could anonymously chat with peers, parents and teachers.

‘There are in fact many fields where identification of the user isn’t necessary at all.’

Professor Kai Rannenberg, Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany

On 6 May, European lawmakers released a strategy to create a single market for digital businesses across the continent. One of the main objectives is to make the internet safer for Europeans.

According to an ICT survey by Eurostat, 44 % of people in Europe who use the internet and are aware of cloud services, for example, do not use them due to security or privacy concerns.

‘There are in fact many fields where identification of the user isn’t necessary at all,’ said Professor Kai Rannenberg, coordinator of ABC4Trust, based at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.

Using the technology developed by the project, a pupil was able to discuss a sensitive matter one day with a teacher, such as their grades, and submit a request for advice on a course topic another day – both these events were not linkable on the system, and most importantly the pupil’s right-to-privacy was secured.

This level of protection could help vulnerable children make the first step towards seeking help. The so-called pseudonym approach also means that if the user does something which rings alarm bells, such as threatening to kill themselves, their identity could be revealed for inspection.

In the university in Patras, Greece, another pilot study by the project allowed students to evaluate their course professors anonymously. Simultaneously, the system guaranteed that only students who visited a minimum number of lectures were accredited. Students used a wireless smart card to ‘check in’ at a reader in the lecture room.

Participation

This kind of online anonymity could even lead to more direct participation of the public in political discourses.

Speaking at an event earlier this year in Brussels, where the project’s results were presented to the EU, Jan Albrecht, a member of the European Parliament who is involved in the European General Data Protection Regulation, said that this type of privacy technology was valuable for implementing so-called ‘privacy-by-design’ in electronic IDs for identity management and should be looked at by legislators and regulators.

The source code developed by ABC4Trust is already receiving interest from major companies. In the near future, this approach could be used as a convincing case to protect public activities online, and update European Parliament legislation on privacy.

It could enhance public privacy as our day-to-day activities shift evermore into the digital world from online banking via smartphones and e-shopping to paying taxes from home PCs.

That’s because even the most modern digital certificates have so-called ‘calling home’ loopholes that can be exploited to reveal more information about a user’s identity and behaviour, meaning that in theory a user’s account can be linked to different online transactions, introducing privacy risks.

ABC4Trust’s code is now freely available on the GitHub website for developers to create future open-source applications for browsers and mobiles.

These safety concepts could also be integrated into concepts from smarter cities and energy systems to better agriculture where, for example, sensors could tell farmers when they need more nutrients or instruct sprinklers to dispense the exact amount of water for crops, under work being carried out by the EU-funded FI-WARE project.

‘FI-WARE uses some of the open-source results from ABC4Trust in its proof-of-concept developments,’ said Welderufael Tesfay, an ABC4Trust project researcher based at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.  

The EU-funded MAPPING project is also researching areas of privacy, internet governance and intellectual property rights. One of the project’s goals is to model right-to-privacy issues for businesses that use personal data.

The project is researching whether creating spaces within cyberspace where European values on privacy and other human rights may be applied, could be achieved by technological or legal means.

European General Data Protection Regulation

The European Commission’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) aims to better protect personal online data of people within the EU through enhanced rights and greater control of their data, more transparency, and greater enforcement of European data protection rules. The idea is to replace the various data protection laws currently in force in different member states.

The GDPR will have an impact on any business that operates from within the EU, does business with organisations within the EU or stores data in EU member countries. Also non-European companies that trade in the EU will be affected.

A common position on the GDPR should be reached by the European Parliament and European Member States by June 2015.

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