What's in a Concept? Some Reflections on the Complications and Complexities of Personal Information and Anonymity

34 Pages Posted: 12 Jul 2007

See all articles by Gary Marx

Gary Marx

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)


The topic of anonymity is conceptually and practically challenging. Among reasons for this are the multiple elements across different levels of analysis, varied contexts, and the variety of goals and dimensions that cross-cut these; 2) conflicting rationales and values; and 3) contested and/or opposing social, cultural and political trends and counter-trends. In order to better understand anonymity, this conceptual analysis article raises and suggests possible answers to the following questions: what are the major types of information that can be associated with anonymity? (nine are identified, such as location and attitudes); what do we mean by personal information (using a series of concentric circles, distinctions are drawn between individual, private, intimate, unique and core identification); what are some of the major factors affecting behaviour involving anonymity, and judgments of anonymity (e.g., the structure of the communication and the type of activity involved); what are the major values that support or oppose anonymity? (e.g., openness in communication vs. accountability); what trends and counter-trends encourage or discourage anonymity (e.g., technologies that make the meaningless meaningful as against increased freedom of choice with respect to identity); what broader principles are relevant to public policy in the area (e.g., informed consent and reciprocity); and what kinds of questions should be asked in setting policy (e.g., clear statement of goals, awareness of unintended consequences).

Keywords: anonymity, privacy, personal information, surveillance, identity

Suggested Citation

Marx, Gary, What's in a Concept? Some Reflections on the Complications and Complexities of Personal Information and Anonymity. University of Ottawa Law & Technology Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2006, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=999664

Gary Marx (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
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Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
United States

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