This is the abstract of a presentation I’ll be giving this spring at a cyber-surveillance workshop at the University of Toronto.

Entering the second decade of the 21st century, anonymity, appears to be under siege. While targeted behavioral advertising continues to expand and personal information becomes increasingly commoditized, government officials around the globe warn us that true anonymity is in conflict with national security goals. Indeed, there appear to be growing questions about its continued viability within the digital environment in the age of terrorism.Will anonymity turn out to be a relic of the 20th century or does it have a future?

As Gary Marx has noted, different contexts and value conflicts make it difficult to take an absolute position for or against anonymity. And while the basic idea is clear, a formal definition of anonymity remains elusive. There are a wide range of approaches to anonymity across the world; some are parts of cultural tradition, while others seem more emergent, less bound by established norms.

This paper, a meta‐analysis drawing data from related academic studies, trade press and mass media, will examine recent variations in the salience, use, and comparative value of anonymity, and its tripartite relationship with individuality and collectivism, across three specific cultural contexts: China, South Korea, and Japan. Anonymity is framed in this investigation as a critical form of “context relative informational norms” within Nissenbaum’s (2010) “contextual integrity” model of social information flows. While data gathering is likely to continue until the end of 2010, some of the intermediate findings are discussed below.

Although the primary subcultures of East Asia share a broad range of social values including Confucian collectivism, they have unique stories to tell about the role and importance of anonymity in their lives.

China, perhaps, is the most surprising, where anonymity, and its affordance of experimentation with alternate online identities, is prized more highly among Chinese youth than their American counterparts. Chinese netizens have continued to push back successfully against PRC government policies to require real name registration for bloggers.

In South Korea, public sentiment is more wary of anonymity, as it is seen to have facilitated extreme and inappropriate crowd behaviors leading to public shaming and a number of suicides. Disparate, nameless crowds combine bits and pieces of knowledge about a target to identify it, a curious case (known in China as the “Human Flesh Search Engine”) in which anonymity in one place can be used to extinguish anonymity in another.

The Japanese seem to value anonymity for different reasons and are less social than the Koreans and Chinese. Their anonymous “2chan” web site was the inspiration for the West’s 4chan. Confucian collectivism expresses itself most as the desire to blend nameless into the crowd.

It is through increased understanding of global cultural contexts that we can better understand the critical role anonymity plays in social systems. Even within a region where collectivism rules over individuality, anonymity plays a surprisingly key role. We must be especially wary about assuming social systems might be better off, more secure, without it.