Online anonymity and fraud: Understanding the implications for the problem and the solutions


The capacity to operate anonymously in online environments brings various benefits to civil society, including safeguarding our individual right to privacy and freedom of expression without interference from governments or private companies. This can be particularly important for protecting marginalised and vulnerable citizens. Furthermore, as commerce, finance and our social lives migrate to digital spaces, online anonymisation technologies are a key defence for securing our personal and sensitive data. However, online anonymity can also be a source of insecurity, especially in the context of fraud. It gives considerable advantages to perpetrators seeking to misrepresent their own identities and socially engineer a situation to deceive victims (for example, in romance fraud), and also helps conceal their identities which makes tracing them more difficult (if not impossible) for law enforcement. Furthermore, anonymity potentially fosters online deviance and antisocial behaviour, in part due to the perceived low risk of detection and punishment, however there is some indication that cybercriminals can over-estimate the extent to which they are anonymous when online.   

There is an appetite in the public for both security and privacy, though these can represent competing objectives from a social policy and technology perspective. There is a balance to be struck between protecting private information from unwanted intrusion and abuse (from criminals, companies, or state actors), and protecting the public from online fraudsters. This is fundamental to current debates in relation to legal and policy developments such as in the Online Safety Act in the UK. 


This research seeks to develop our understanding in the following areas:

  • The role of online anonymity in facilitating online fraud and the barriers to effective responses.
  • The significance of online anonymity to existing and future public policies and responses to online fraud.
  • Understanding public attitudes and perceptions of online anonymity and the risk of fraud, in conjunction with wider considerations of privacy and data protection.

The study will use the following methodologies:

  • Focus groups with the public to examine the values, perceptions, and attitudes of the UK public on the importance of online anonymity in relation to online fraud, and in this context, the competing agendas of online security and the right to privacy and freedom of expression.
  • Semi-structured interviews with practitioners in the police, and other sectors, on the role of online anonymity in facilitating fraud and the challenges in implementing effective responses.
  • A review of the published literature on online anonymity and the key considerations for public policymaking.

Project team

Michael Skidmore

Felicity O’Connell

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