Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law

Sociology and Social Policy

Research Student: Robert Thornton-Lee

The Anonymous Function: Anonymity, Encryption, and Surveillance within the United Kingdom


Grounded within several high-profile events in recent years, including the Global Surveillance Disclosures of 2013 and terrorist attacks across Western Europe since 2015, my research seeks to explore and understand the complex relationship between practices of anonymity and surveillance.

Matters of surveillance have long been contentious within the United Kingdom, and in the wake of the 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, there has been much debate surrounding the perceived ‘threat’ that inaccessible encrypted communication services, such as WhatsApp and Signal, pose to national security. Alongside this there has also been the passing of the controversial Investigatory Powers Act 2016, nicknamed the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’.

Much of the contention centers on the role and reach of the security services in matters of surveillance. There is an ever-present anxiety that those who utilize digital technologies and communications services for nefarious means are doing so through encrypted and anonymous channels, inaccessible to the intelligence community. As such justifications for surveillance are continually mobilized around issues of national security.

At its heart, anonymity works to obscure the relationship between information and individual. As such, it prevents connections being made and serves to protect and hide the identity of the individual or group that utilize it. Consequently, when anonymity works to obstruct or prevent practices of surveillance, tensions arise.

It is within these tensions that my research focuses. Driven by larger questions around the meaning of anonymity, the everyday functions of anonymity, and the potential to be anonymous in an age of increasing surveillance, my research seeks to understand the discursive construction and positioning of anonymity within surveillance debates in the United Kingdom.

Background

I received my BA in Sociology and International Relations from the University of Leeds in 2014, and it was through the joint honours program that my interest in matters of surveillance and security were formed. My undergraduate dissertation focused on digital anonymity and irresponsibility within the moral sociology of Zygmunt Bauman.

I also completed my MA in Social Research at the University of Leeds in 2015. My MA thesis brought together a lot of my thinking around anonymity, surveillance, and digital sociology and focused on the ways in which digital anonymity is framed within popular debates.

My research interests are:

  • Surveillance Studies: technologies, discourses, borders, risk, resistance, privacy.
  • Digital Sociology
  • Anonymity in everyday life

Sociological theory – In particular the works of Erving Goffman, Alfred Schutz, and Zygmunt Bauman.

What are my plans once I have completed my PhD?

Following my PhD I hope to continue within academia, researching and teaching on matters of both surveillance and digital sociology.

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