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The EU has a lot of laws regulating the privacy of personal data which tell companies when, how and under which conditions they may store information about their users. GDPR is the most notorious of them and is estimated to cost companies billions of dollars over the years.

But why couldn't it be solved through a different angle? Instead of requiring companies to handle personal data with more care, why not require that they allow anonymity when using their services? For example, airlines/trains/buses could be required to transport passengers anonymously within the Schengen area. Postal services could be required to give out packages to anyone knowing a secret code, rather than based on identification documents. Banks could be required to issue cards with a fake name printed on them, so that one could pay online without disclosing their true name. Given the option to use an anonymous identity, storing personal data with care would become much less important.

This would solve the issue with more of a free market approach - anyone who wants to stay anonymous, will stay anonymous. And those who don't can give out their real name. Is there a critical flaw in the proposed approach? Or perhaps the EU has already considered it?

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    Your last two paragraphs do not sound like "encouraging anonymity", but more like "enforcing anonymity"; it seems to go a step (or two) further. Instead of saying "only store user data when necessary for your business purpose or with explicit permission, and when you do store, do it well" your proposal sounds like "and also, always provide an option for anonymous service". That sounds expensive, unpractical, and will probably cause problems with a bunch of existing laws (eg against money laundering in your bank example). – tim Jul 28 '18 at 19:48
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    Oh, right, the "and also" in my previous comment doesn't make sense. But it still seems like a requirement - not an encouragement - that goes well beyond what exists now. I don't think that it's a bad idea (or a bad question), I just think "encourage" is the wrong word here and that the premise that this is a more "free market approach" might not necessarily be correct. – tim Jul 28 '18 at 19:59
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    Allowing companies to provide services anonymously would be a HUGE opening for money laundering, for example (Tax inspector: "So you claim that you got €10.000.000 profit from your flea-selling business. Can I see your customer list to verify that they do exist?" Me: "Here is my list of customers, unfortunately they are all anonymous"). It would also go against other regulations (e.g. security rules for aerial transport). OTOH, last time I used long distance trains and buses there was no need for ID. – SJuan76 Jul 28 '18 at 20:58
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    I don't quite see why this question has gotten the number of downvotes that it got. Surely some of the premises and proposed alternatives are unreasonably optimistic, but otherwise the question itself doesn't seem so outlandish. – Fizz Jul 29 '18 at 9:18
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    Anonymous transportation (flying, at least) sounds like a perect recipe for terrorism against transportation tools. Anonymous postal services seem to make identity theft much easier (given that it's impractical to use a very complicated passcode, and that the code likely has to be stored in clear text). – xuq01 Jul 29 '18 at 13:09
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In a nutshell because "the EU" simply doesn't want more "hard" anonymity. In particular, they surely don't seem to want more financial anonymity, which is a large part of what you propose. Witness the withdrawal of the 500 euros bill in order to fight crime etc. Also the EU certainly doesn't like pseudononymous bank accounts, given how easy it is to use them for tax evasion. Witness the whole series of arm-wrestling matches e.g. [1] [2] between various EU [but not only] countries and Switzerland, incluidng the 2015 EU-Swiss accord etc. (For a brief history of the post-2010 "demise of secret Swiss accounts" see http://www.wolterskluwerfs.com/article/the-demise-of-the-secret-bank-account.aspx.)

What GDPR attempts to do is a much more limited goal. From the words of one its proponents, Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda (at least she was in 2013, when GDPR, which too a long time to see its final form, was being conceived):

Sometimes, full anonymisation means losing important information, so you can no longer make the links between data. That could make the difference between progress or paralysis. But using pseudonyms can let you to analyse large amounts of data: to spot, for example, that people with genetic pattern X also respond well to therapy Y. So it is understandable why the European Parliament has proposed a more flexible data protection regime for this type of data. Companies would be able to process the data on grounds of legitimate interest, rather than consent. That could make all the positive difference to big data: without endangering privacy.

And you can bet that large scale financial transactions being anonymous or pseudonymous is not seen as a legitimate concern of that kind. All EU countries I've been in had a ceiling for transactions that could not be made in cash etc. Germany was probably the big exception. On the other hand, I doubt anyone (but some sellers) would want to track to whom every lettuce is sold at the [super]market. (Ok, there have been some food-safety arguments to the contrary, but mostly involving tracking the producers and intermediaries, rather than final consumers.)

So GPDR is a an attempt to strike a balance by limiting what companies can store and process in a world where (like Giter said) it's increasingly easy to store and link everything. GDPR has some provisions that make it difficult to link data (as well as store indefinitely) unless one can claim a legitimate reason to do so. Granted, enforcing such a middle-of-the-road approach could prove costly.

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The problem is not that we're forced to provide our private data. We want to provide it, but expect the sites to handle it responsibly.

Let's take the simple example of ordering a pizza online.

You can provide a false name, but you can't provide a false address (because then you won't get your pizza). The restaurant gets your address, which is private information. If you want the convenience of having the pizza delivered to you, you can't avoid sharing it.

The question is what they do with this information.

  • Do they discard the address after delivery, or keep it in their database? You may want them to keep it, for easier ordering next time. Or you may want them to delete it as soon as possible.
  • Do they pass this information to 3rd parties? They may have valuable info (e.g. the person at your address orders vegan pizza), so what prevents them from selling it?
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The problem with this approach is that you're severely underestimating how hard it is to stay anonymous.

Think of your identity as a graph, with your aliases being the nodes and common data between the nodes being the connections: without any reason to destroy data or limit the spread of it, the number of connections between your aliases will always grow, so unless the number of aliases also grow then eventually your entire identity will be known.

Because of this, literally every thing you ever interact with would need to be 100% anonymous, and every interaction would need a completely new fake identity or connections could be made:

  • You would need a new, randomized fake address for every shipped purchase, or shipping companies will know your address.
  • You would need a new fake name for every credit or debit card, or banks will know your names and purchases.
  • You would need a new card for every purchase, or retailers will know your purchases and shipping address.

After a certain point, aggregation of shipping addresses, name, purchases, and other info will narrow the possibilities down until only one person matches.

And the most difficult part of staying anonymous: If you ever tell a neighbor, coworker, friend, or family member your real name and address, they can sell that valuable information and completely destroy your anonymity for your entire life.


In short, it is pretty much impossible in this day and age for any customer of multiple modern services to stay anonymous. This is why the focus is on encouraging people to properly handle of your identifying data, rather than encouraging people to not aggregate and sell your identifying data.

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In addition to the other answers:
There is a general trend to suppress "hate speech" and "fake news" in the EU. You cannot control the flow of messages if you do not know who sent them or at least control the access points, so granting full or even partial anonymity would be a death blow to this form of control. Sure, anonymity often is abused for the worse of mankind, so it is not a clear black-versus-white situation, but the problem of government control remains.

I think the EU tries to limit abuse from private firms and foreign governments, but retain full control for the own governmental agencies. Anonymity is in this case not the path to go.

Just two examples from Germany: There was a campaign of a Verein Mediennetzwerk in the state Saarland concerning freedom of speech. It was supported with 50 000€ from the German Federal Ministry of Family Affairs.

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Translation: It means "basic right of freedom of opinion", not "basic right to talk bullshit".

Another thing is the introduction of the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz 2017 (Network enforcement law) which threatens internet providers to remove "murder speech" and "perjury news" "hate speech/fake news" content from the net and disable the offending account.

Both triggered strong discussions in German culture, but I don't think it is just a German issue. It seems that the situation is generally moving in the surveillance direction, so I would like to see some voices from other countries in the EU.

  • On the face of it, the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz merely clarifies that speech that would be illegal offline is also illegal online. When a perpetrator threatens a victim with murder, having an app for it doesn't make it any more legal. The potential problem with the law is that it might encourage social media platforms to err on the side of caution when they are informed that some content, in the opinion of the informer, is illegal under existing laws. Facebook seems to be much better at detecting nipples than incitement to riot. – o.m. Jul 30 '18 at 17:11

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