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Roger Clarke's 'Dissidentity'

The Political Dimension of Identity and Privacy

Roger Clarke **

Published in Identity in the Information Society 1, 1 (December, 2008) 221-228, at DOI 10.1007/s12394-009-0013-7

Version of 1 September 2008

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1. Introduction

Protections for human identities in the information society are an important policy matter for many different reasons. This essay focusses on a facet that has been given far too little attention - the significance of identity protections to political life. The discussion necessarily encompasses not only identity but also privacy and broader human rights.

2. The Policy Significance of Identity

Identity is used in this paper in a manner consistent with the discussion of identity-related terminology published [elsewhere in this Issue?!]. The term 'identity' refers to a virtual presentation of a human entity. The meaning is expressed in such an open-ended manner because it encompasses each of the multiple roles that a person plays (parent to specific children, specific employee of a specific employer, author of a particular published work, and so forth), and each of the shared roles that multiple people play over a period of time (shift leader, club treasurer, etc.) and at the same time (e.g. club bank account signatory). In the cyberspace era, the term also needs to contemplate electronic forms which may act with a degree of autonomy, such as software agents and avatars.

There are many different contexts in which human behaviour depends on the freedom and constraints associated with the identities that they use. Although the focus of this essay is on political behaviour, it is important to first survey those other contexts.

In some societies, the philosophical basis for human rights and freedoms is central to the discussion. People are regarded as being very important for their own sake. The concepts of human dignity and integrity play a significant role, as do the notions of individual autonomy and self-determination. From this perspective, a human needs control over their own identity (in the form of their sense of self), and over their own identities (in such pragmatic forms as names, codes and the many partial digital personae that are known to different people and institutions).

Discussions in the popular media generally by-pass the philosophy and concern themselves with more down-to-earth aspects. Psychologically, people need private space. This desire exists not only behind closed doors and drawn curtains, but also in public places, wherever a reasonable expectation exists that behaviour is not subject to observation or recording. We need to be able to glance around, judge whether the people in the vicinity are a threat, and then perform actions that are potentially embarrassing, such as breaking wind, and jumping for joy. To be able to enjoy such freedoms, we need our behaviour to be anonymous (unable to be associated with us) or pseudonymous (not readily able to be associated with us).

In times past, most actions were ephemeral, so the risk of discovery after the fact was very low. With the information society, however, has come a kleptomaniac commitment to capture and store data. Aspects of ephemera are reduced to recorded form. So the risk of prior actions subsequently coming to light and being associated with a particular identity are far higher than before. This has recently become much more widely understood as a result of social networking services, and the exposure of self and associates that their early use has entailed.

For some people, the need to avoid discovery and recording of their identity is not merely psychological, but also a matter of physical safety. Categories of 'persons-at-risk', who are under threat of harm from others include victims of domestic violence, protected witnesses, celebrities (including not only entertainers, sport stars and politicians, but also recent lottery winners), notorieties and undercover operatives. Many organisations have means for protecting data about such people, including provisions for multiple identities and nymity.

The interests of each individual are in potential conflict with those of other individuals, groups, and society as a whole. Anonymity challenges accountability. It is inevitably (ab)used by some in order to escape responsibility for actions that are illegal, or just anti-social.

It is an eternal challenge for societies to devise and maintain laws so that they provide protections against psychopathic and sociopathic behaviour without undermining other important values. There is a grave risk that impositions of requirements for disclosure of identity and identity authentication will go too far. Socially, people need to be free to behave, and to associate with others, subject to broad social mores, but without the continual threat of being observed. Widespread surveillance chills behaviour generally, rather than being a targeted deterrent of specific behaviour. Societies that implement excessive social controls progressively reduce themselves and their members to the inhuman, constrained contexts that were the lot of the millions locked behind the Iron Curtain.

The needs for identity protections extend beyond the merely psychological, physical and social. Cultural vibrancy and creativity are also heavily dependent on freedoms. Leaders in depictive and performative arts perceive differently and perceive anew. Their artefacts, variously as 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional physical objects, and in digital text, image, sound and video forms, intentionally challenge engrained perceptions.

Many artists, in many media, have found it convenient and even necessary to divorce the part of their self that expresses their art from the other parts that live, work, and have families and friends. For example, many of the early novellists (when the novel was regarded as nothing more than 'a sustained lie') published under pseudonyms (Mullan 2008). This capability is still important. That was attested to in a review of Mullan (Schmidt 2008), which reported that the white male author who recently published under the Asian female name Rahila Khan said "[pseudonyms] released me from the obligation of being what I seem". Even in the arts, anonymity and pseudonymity can be abused, but for the most part they are a positive, enabling factor in the creation and projection of ideas, and the understanding of otherness.

Freedoms are also vital in economic contexts. People need to feel free to invent, and to innovate. International competition is fierce, as a result of such factors as the advances in transportation and communications during the twentieth century, the increased commonality of language, structures and processes associated with globalisation, and the gradual easing of trade barriers.

Countries with high labour-costs need to be clever if they want to sustain their standard-of-living. Cleverness depends firstly on continual waves of invention. Beyond invention, however, a healthy advanced economy demands the articulation and adaptation of inventive ideas, and their integration into existing infrastructure. Inventions embody latent opportunities, but only through the process of innovation can advantage be taken of them.

The chilling effect that surveillance brings with it stifles both invention and innovation. All inventors, and many innovators, are, by definition, 'deviant' from the norms of the time - variously in a scientific or engineering sense, or in terms of their behaviour within organisations. To the extent that inventors and innovators perceive themselves, or at least their careers, to be at risk, they lack the private space in which to experiment. In the conservative worlds of government and large corporations, the job-security of such people depends on their 'thinking outside the square' behaviour being perceived by the employer as a role-play, or a partial identity, rather than as the person's real self.

In discussions about freedoms, the philosophical, cultural and economic aspects have tended to be dominated by the psychological and social dimensions. The remainder of this comment focusses on a final aspect that has attracted far too little attention in the literature and in intellectual conversations - the political importance of identity and identity protections.

3. Dissident

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the term 'dissident' to the mid-16th century. Despite variations over time and context, it appears to have never wandered very far from its origins in the Latin dissidere, to disagree, which in turn derives from dis-sedere, to sit apart.

The contemporary sense of the term 'dissident' goes back to the late 18th century, when it referred to a person who expressed disagreement with "the established or dominant form of religion". Since World War II, its dominant usage has been in relation to disagreement in political matters. In the late 1940s, the context was Palestine, and in the mid-1950s the rebellion by the Vietnamese against the French colonial power. Subsequently, its primary use in the free world was in relation to opponents of the Communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain. Notable among them were Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and Havel; but importantly there were also many people who lacked international prominence as a protection and hence remained underground and published through the samizdat press.

Vaclav Havel was an important contributor to understanding of the notion. During his own dissident era, he wrote that "the term 'dissident' was ... chosen by Western journalists and is now generally accepted as the label for a phenomenon peculiar to the post-totalitarian system [presumably meaning the post-Nazi, Communist regimes in the countries dominated by the USSR] and almost never occurring - at least not in that form - in democratic societies" (Havel 1978).

Havel noted the subversion of the term by the authorities (in his case, in Czechoslovakia): "A 'dissident', we are told in our press, means something like 'renegade' or 'backslider'. [But] dissidents do not consider themselves renegades for the simple reason that they are not primarily denying or rejecting anything. On the contrary, they have tried to affirm their own human identity, and if they reject anything at all, then it is merely what was false and alienating in their lives, that aspect of living within a lie".

Further, "[dissidents] express their nonconformist positions and critical opinions publicly and systematically, within the very strict limits available to them. They are people who lean toward intellectual pursuits, that is, they are 'writing' people, people for whom the written word is the primary - and often the only - political medium they command, and that can gain them attention, particularly from abroad ... [A] 'dissident' is simply a physicist, a sociologist, a worker, a poet, individuals who are doing what they feel they must and, consequently, who find themselves in open conflict with the regime. This conflict has not come about through any conscious intention on their part, but simply through the inner logic of their thinking, behavior, or work (often confronted with external circumstances more or less beyond their control). They have not, in other words, consciously decided to be professional malcontents ..." (Havel 1978).

Although most people to whom the term 'dissident' has been applied lived and live under authoritarian regimes, this is not necessarily the case. Anderson & Davey (1994) applied the title 'American Dissident' to Noam Chomsky. 30 years after Havel wrote his rallying-call for Soviet bloc dissidents, 'Chomsky' coupled with 'dissident' scores 194,000 hits on Google.

Dissidents in relatively free societies have less need to dissociate themselves from their writing, but they are mindful of the sentiment in the poem attributed to Niemöller (himself a dissident in Nazi Germany): "And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up". The implication is that freedom to dissent must be exercised while it can be exercised, for fear that the powerful may later suppress that freedom.

A contemporary interpretation might therefore be that a dissident is a person who opposes an established doctrine, policy, institution or government, and actively intellectually challenges it. The word clusters with sceptic, contrarian and non-conformist. Being a dissident does not necessarily involve any physical protest or participation in demonstrations, let alone civil disobedience or acts of a violent nature, and hence it is equivalent to activist only in an intellectual sense not a physical one, and is distinct from the concepts protestor, demonstrator, graffitist, agitator, militant, rioter, insurgent and terrorist.

4. Dissidentity

Dissidents who are subjects of repressive regimes require great courage, because they are likely to be subjected to psychological pressure (if they have a substantial profile) or persecution, imprisonment and worse (if they do not). China, Myanmar, North Korea, Zimbabwe, several Central Asian republics and increasingly Putin's Russia are among the countries in which dissidents are currently being suppressed.

Dissidents who are subjects of a repressive regime have a very apparent need to avoid association of their ideas and writings with their physical selves. They are well-advised to resort to underground communications, multiple identities, pseudonyms, and strong protections against their pseudonymity being broken and their multiple identities linked.

In relatively free societies, people who express contrary ideas and arguments face far less grave risks. But protections for identity are still vital, at least in some situations and for some categories of people.

A first context in which identity is significant in political speech is the sanctity of the ballot box. Whether a person votes is not a secret, but it is an expectation in free nations that who they vote for not be publicly known or even knowable. The secrecy needs to extend to whether the vote a person casts is valid, an invalid 'protest vote' or 'informal vote' (in Australian terms), or a 'write-in' vote (in U.S. terms).

Voting secrecy is an important protection at the level of the individual, because a breach may result in psychological and even physical harm to the voter, from an employer, a local mafia, or a woman's husband. Serious concern arises at the political level in the event of systemic breach. If multiple people's votes become known, or a general belief exists that they might become known, the decisions of many voters will be influenced, perhaps through overt threats, perhaps more subtly. Influence over even a modest number of voters may be enough to swing an election, without the need to resort to ballot-counting fraud.

Beyond the voting process, active political speech is even more in need of protections for identity. A celebrated instance is the argument in 1787-88 for and against ratification by individual States of the U.S. Constitution, most famously the so-called 'Federalist Papers' published under the pseudonym 'Publius' (Madison et al. 1987). This device appears to have been intended in part to avoid exposure of individuals and in part to create an identity that could be assumed by multiple authors.

Of the various categories of persons-at-risk discussed earlier, it is likely that only a few concern themselves with the exercise of freedom of political speech. On the other hand, open societies create scope for physical assault on people who make statements that are unpopular with volatile segments of the population. It is impossible for free societies to ignore the ability to utter political speech of a Salman Rushdie (whose 'Satanic Verses' enraged many Muslims), or a Kåre Bluitgen (the Danish originator of the controversial set of cartoons depicting 'The Face of Muhammad'), or a Taslima Nasrin (the feminist Bangladeshi). More complex examples include environmentalist opponents of particular mining and industrial developments; and both the leaders of the movement in support of abortion rights in conservative U.S. State and the doctors who perform the abortions.

A further important category of people who are at risk even in relatively free societies is commonly referred to as 'whistleblowers'. These are people who disclose information of significant public interest (as distinct from information that is merely of interest to the public), in breach of laws or terms of employment contract that preclude such disclosure.

To qualify as whistleblowing, the information needs to provide evidence of illegal or immoral behaviour, such as corruption or the suppression of information that should have been published. Celebrated instances such as 'Deep Throat', who provided evidence about U.S. President Nixon's complicity in the Watergate break-in, are vastly outnumbered by workaday leaks (Alford 2002, Martin & Rifkin 2004, Flynn 2006).

Considerable harm has been done to whistleblowing employees by their employers - particularly, but not exclusively, government employers - and pressure in recent years has resulted in the enactment of protections in some countries. The legal protections remain weak, however. More practical and effective protection is offered by anonymity services. A theoretical literature exists (e.g. Chaum 1981, Goldschlag et al. 1999, Rivest et al. 2001, Dingledine et al. 2004). Guidance can be found (e.g. POGO 2002), and tools are available, both of a generalised nature (e.g. Internet traffic anonymisers - EPIC 2007, Tor 2008) and specifically targetted at whistleblowing (such as Wikileaks).

Threats to political freedoms in the near future will come not only from nation-states, but also from corporations. Corporations have achieved very large scale and supra-nationality, and are exercising their influence in order to achieve increasing freedom from regulation. They have also amassed considerable powers in such areas as the protection of the intellectual property. Further, through outsourcing and public-private partnerships, corporations are gaining control of national infrastructure, access to personal data acquired by government agencies, and the power to impose fines.

Private police forces, which were once seen as a phenomenon associated only with un-free countries, are burgeoning. There has been a concerted effort in recent years by corporate interests to achieve acceptance of a concept they refer to as 'Private Military Companies' (PMCs). Such organisations are conducting interrogations (Lockheed in Guantanamo Bay), providing protection in war-zones (Halliburton in Iraq), and providing mercenaries to conduct warfare.

As law enforcement and even warfare become more dependent upon, and even undertaken by, for-profit corporations, they appear likely to achieve the same lack of independent control as official police forces and defence departments enjoy.

The first few years of the new millennium have seen a surge in so-called 'counter-terrorism' laws, which have greatly increased the scope for political repression. During the coming decades, the powerful will have ample opportunities to suppress different-thinkers, including not only the (currently waning) excuse of terrorism, but also religious fundamentalism, over-population, illegal immigration, natural resource shortages, competition for water and global warming. The survival of free societies is dependent on the rights to multiple identities and nymity becoming engrained, as insurance against abuse of the powers enjoyed by governments and corporations.

5. Conclusion

In political contexts as in economic ones, innovation is good for society. But innovation is uncomfortable for those who benefit from the status quo, whether in the form of social values, cultural patterns, economic well-being or political power. Innovation is pursued by people who, depending on the context, are different-thinkers, contrarians, deviants or dissidents. Innovation is opposed by those who are threatened by change, and by those who believe that risks need to be suppressed rather than managed.

Sustaining progress depends on the protection of innovators, and that in turn depends on people being, and feeling, free to propose, discuss, articulate and publish new ideas. A cluster of freedoms relating to human identities is fundamental to cultural, economic and political innovation:

These freedoms are under current threat by the arrogant ideas inherent in the 'identity management' movement, by the presumptuousness of 'identity provisioning' by corporations and governments, and by the tendency among hitherto free nations such as the U.K., the U.S. and Australia to destroy privacy-protective data silos, and the associated identity silos, and impose national identification schemes.

The use of the term 'dissidentity' in this essay might be seen as a mere attention-seeking neologism. On the other hand, dissidentity can be depicted as the freedom of identity needed to enable a person to act as a dissident - that is, as an active intellectual challenger to an established doctrine, policy, institution or government.

Politically, people need to be free to think, and argue, and act. Surveillance chills behaviour and speech, and undermines democracy. The discussions of identity and identities that will take place in this new journal need to reflect the philosophical, psychological, physical, social, cultural and economic reasons for valuing freedoms. Crucially, however, they must also do something that many academic disciplines find uncomfortable. The discussions in this journal must be policy-relevant, and must embrace the political dimension implied up by the term 'dissidentity'.


Alford C.F. (2002) 'Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power' Cornell University Press, 2002

Anderson P. & Davey K. (1994) 'American Dissident' New Statesman & Society 3 June 1994, at

Chaum D.L. (1981) 'Untraceable electronic mail, return addresses, and digital pseudonyms' Communications of the ACM 24 , 2 (February 1981) 84-90

Dingledine R., Mathewson N. & Syverson P. (2004) 'Tor: the second-generation onion router' Proc. 13th Conf. on USENIX Security, 2004

EPIC (2007) 'EPIC Online Guide to Practical Privacy Tools' Electronic Privacy Information Center, 2007, at

Flynn K. (2006) 'Covert Disclosures: Unauthorized leaking, public officials and the public sphere' Journalism Studies 7, 2 (2006) 256-273

Goldschlag D., Reed M. & Syverson P. (1999) 'Onion routing' Communications of the ACM 42 , 2 (February 1999) 39-41

Madison J., Hamilton A. & Jay J. (1987) 'The Federalist Papers' Originally published 1787-88, Penguin 1987

Havel V. (1978) 'The power of the powerless' October 1978, translated Wilson P., at

Martin B. & Rifkin W. (2004) 'The Dynamics of Employee Dissent: Whistleblowers and Organizational Jiu-Jitsu' Public Organization Review 4, 3 (Sep 2004) 221-239

Mullan J. (2008) 'Anonymity' Faber, 2008

POGO (2002) 'The Art of Anonymous Activism: Serving the Public While Surviving Public Service (Whistleblowing)' Project on Government Oversight, 2002

Rivest R.L., Shamir A. & Tauman Y. (2001) 'How to Leak a Secret' Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Volume 2248/2001, Springer , 2001

Schmidt M. (2008) 'Fiction's secret history' The Independent, London, 22 February 2008, at

Tor (2008) 'Tor: Overview' 2008, at

Wikileaks, at

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., a Visiting Professor in the E-Commerce Programme at the University of Hong Kong, and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

A Note on the Word 'Dissidentity'

I coined the word 'dissidentity' in March 2008. Unbeknowns to me, someone else had coined it several years earlier, and published it in her doctoral dissertation, defended in 2007 at the University of Orleans (France). Diane Sabatier derived it from the same pair of words, but for a different concept: "contemporary North American writers dissenting from the stereotyped representations of identities". I became aware of this in December 2011, a few days after Diane launched her web-site featuring the word.

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