Web Anonymity 102 – A Case Study
I recommend reading Web Anonymity 101 – Digital Breadcrumbs as an introduction.
We are putting more of our lives online with the “social networking” Web 2.0 phenomenon. It is becoming easier to find information about a person. People are building extensive databases about themselves without thinking about the long-term consequences. The Internet is forever; once something is online it is cached and archived.
There is enough information available that it is nigh impossible to hide your identity from someone who is determined to find out more about you, especially if they already have an inkling of where to look.
Case Study – How easy is it to find information about someone online?
Identity searches start with a piece of known information: real name, common pseudonym, email address or IM username. I’m going to see how easy it is to find online information about myself, four friends and a family member who also blogs. Like a true friend I haven’t warned them I am about to do this.
- engtech - Me, the guy who runs this site.
- AJ - Writer from Beats Entropy, guest blogger from last week.
- jaybird - Movie critic from Beats Entropy, we went to University together.
- Kenji - Web comic author from Beats Entropy.
- Dr. Entropy – Another guy from Beats Entropy.
- Anonymous Related Blogger – Is it my father? My brother? My cousin? My cat? The plot thickens.
|Real name publicized||No||Yes||No||Yes||No||No|
|Google search by real name||Needle in haystack||559 links, all to him||2nd page of google||785 links, all to him||Needle in haystack||Needle in haystack|
|Google Groups search by real name||Nothing||Stuff for sale||Oooh, that’s embarassing||Demo scene n3rd||Nothing||Nothing|
|Google Groups search by known email addresses||Nothing||Nothing||Books for sale||Nothing||Nothing||Nothing|
|Google search by email address||Nothing||Link to blog||Nothing||Same as web hosting for his art site||Link to blog||Nothing|
|Google search by MSN address||Nothing||Nothing||Nothing||Nothing||Nothing||Nothing|
|Internet Address Book search by real name||Nothing||Nothing||Nothing||Leads to LinkedIn account and Flickr account||Nothing||Leads to LinkedIn account|
|Google search by pseudonym||Needle at the top of the haystack, I finally took the #1 position on Google for engtech||Needle at the top of the haystack||Needle in a haystack, did find movie / book reviews / photography by searching on Flickr account||Needle at the top of the haystack||Link to blog||1540 links, all to same person|
|Found social bookmark sites||delicious,
|Found Flickr account||Nothing||Nothing||Linked to from blog, linked to from Kenji’s Flickr||Linked to from blog,
linked to from artist website,
found on Internet Address Book
|Found Myspace account||No myspace account to find||Real name search,
display name search
|No myspace account to find||Real name search,
display name search
|No myspace account to find||Nothing|
|Found message board posts||Blog comments||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||Blog comments|
|Found list of friends||Loser has no friends||On blog||On Flickr and blog||On Myspace,
|Found photos||Suitably anonymous||On blog,
on friend’s photo pages
on friend’s photo pages
on friend’s photo pages,
on artist website
|Found embarassing photos||No||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No|
|Found calendar of events||No||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No|
|Found home address||No||On blog||No||No||No||Yes, by searching on real email address|
|Found home phone number||No||No||No||No||No||Yes, by searching on real email address|
Originally written using a theme that spanned the entire page. Apologies if it collides with the sidebar on the current theme.
AJ – His fictional work-related posts are hilarious, but may by enough to get him dooced one day. It will probably be my fault.
Kenji – He’s a freelance artist / part-time graphics artist for a game company and all promotion is good.
Jaybird – Dude, you like movies more than I do and that’s saying a lot. :) I couldn’t find any mention of your performance in “Girls Gone Wild – South Beach” so you’ve at least managed to avoid the really incriminating stuff. Oh, wait, what was that on Usenet?
Doc Entropy – Man of mystery. Pseudonym was created when Beats Entropy started, he’s fairly anonymous because of it. I did manage to uncover that he isn’t a real doctor.
Family member – Uses same pseudonym for del.icio.us account. Del.ici.ous has bookmarks for health related articles that give a clear indication of her medical history (or the medical history of people she cares about). What’s funny is that there were also a lot of links to articles about Internet privacy. Search on real email address leads to home address.
This case study highlighted several things:
- Information is only a quick search away.
- Stuff posted on Usenet lives forever.
- Social bookmarking may reveal things you didn’t intend to.
- In any collection of public photos there are sure to be some embarrassing ones (if you aren’t a complete bore).
- Message board posts and blog entries are a good source of information (I didn’t search in depth though).
- We’re old. Except for The Kenji, he strangles kittens to keep his youthful look.
We fell into two categories: worried about Internet privacy or blase about it. Dr. Entropic is the most aloof. He created an email/handle for his blog and doesn’t use it anywhere else. Kenji was the most prolific. He’s an artist and the publicity is good for him. I have a very public identity that is hopefully devoid of personal information, while AJ lays it all on the line. My Anonymous Blogging Relative has the most personal information easily available.
This wasn’t as interesting of an expos� as I hoped. I blame it on being part of the Web 1.0 generation, not the Web 2.0 generation. We haven’t uploaded any videos of ourselves doing embarrassing things on YouTube, or put together a list of everyone we’ve slept with on MySpace. But there was a fair share of naughty photos, and some of the old Usenet posts will forever be saved as blackmail material.
We’re a web savvy bunch and we don’t put information online that we don’t want to publicize.
This is Part 2 of a series. The first part is Web Anonymity 101 – Digital Breadcrumbs. It conclude in Web Anonymity 103 – Online Privacy where I discuss simple methods to reduce the information interconnections.