On the Internet, the FBI knows if you’re a dog

Online anonymity is rapidly becoming a relic of a bygone era.

In 1993, the New Yorker ran a cartoon by Peter Steiner which showed a dog sitting in a chair at a computer seemingly typing while another dog sat on the floor and looked up at him.  The caption: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” 

As laid bare by the scandal engulfing former C.I.A. director David Petraeus and threatening the career of Gen. John Allen, that caption, written over 20 years ago, may not long remain true for the Internet.

Today, where lives are defined by emails, text and “private” messaging, Facebook postings and tweets, it is very likely that not only will companies (and the government) know whether you’re a dog, they will know what breed, what you had for lunch, and where you slept last night. Anonymity, despite its best efforts, is rapidly becoming a thing of a pre-connected past.

As noted in a posting I wrote last month, privacy and the lines between personal and work lives are becoming more complicated as our online personas merge the two. If you are a public figure such as Gen. Petraeus or Gen. Allen, that merger is even more complicated as additional norms and expectations are developed.  Granted, as military and intelligence leaders, their norms are even more complicated than other public figures due the possibility of blackmail and/or compromise of state secrets. Nonetheless, they are still different from those for public figures in the past.

Imagine if the Internet was around when Eleanor Roosevelt was writing private letters to her friend Lorena Hickok.  What if Mrs. Roosevelt, instead of writing letters calling Hickok “dear” and “darling,” had sent a direct message via Twitter with those same words? Or instead of Mrs. Roosevelt finding President Franklin Roosevelt’s letters to Lucy Mercer in his suitcase, the Secret Service found emails detailing the President’s affections towards his wife’s social secretary? In today’s information-driven society, it is unlikely that the media, blogs, and the gossip mills of social networking would have focused on the merits of the policies these public figures advocated while leaving their personal lives alone. 

As more details emerge in the current scandal, expect more attention to be paid to the government’s surveillance methods in the case. Privacy and civil liberties advocates are already pointing to the scandal as reason to move on the long-stalled reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) in Congress to cover cloud data and eliminate distinctions between content (e.g. old versus new), among other things.   

Whatever happens with ECPA reform,  the type of information available online will not change, only how the government obtains it.  Dogs everywhere should be wary.