Web Anonymity 103 – Online Privacy
For most people being anonymous on the Internet is not a life-or-death matter. You aren’t dissenting against a fascist police state, or trying to hide from the secret police or from a crazy ex-lover who means to do you harm. You are anonymous because you want to keep a modicum of privacy. It is an easy goal to achieve if you put some thought into it.
Unfortunately, people don’t put thought into their actions online. As an extreme example a teenage girl “anonymously” posts pictures of her breasts on message board. A friend accidentally reveals her first name and the name of a website she frequents. A shit-storm develops as the forum lurkers go on to post her full name, address, phone number as well as common handles.
Follow these steps to protect your online identity and don’t be that girl.
The first step to online anonymity is to be aware of what information is out there about you. Take some time to google your name, email address, phone number and common pseudonyms. Do you like the results?
Be a Needle in a Haystack
Use common words as pseudonyms. The Internet is a big place and the easiest way to be hide is with a low signal to noise ratio. Having a unique alias may seem like a good idea at first. You create an immediately identifiable brand. But it also means that any search will lead straight to you.
Before trying out an alias, google it and see what the results are. The more hits the merrier. Has someone already used that alias? It will create false trails.
Be careful when adding numbers to the end of a name, or taking several common words as a phrase to make a pseudonym. Huggybear1981 is a lot easier to find than Huggybear69 or Huggybear.
Different Names for Different Places
Use different pseudonyms on different sites. It is very easy for someone to find your profile on other sites if the pseudonym is the same. IE: your account name on a dating web site or MSN could lead to your blog, your bookmarks, message board posts, and online photo gallery.
Most people use the same login/password for all sites they visit. Using different usernames at least provides a thin measure of security if you don’t change your password. When you use the same login/password everywhere if security is compromised on ANY site you visit, then it is compromised on ALL sites you visit.
Use a “Real” Pseudonym
The simplest way to hide your identity is to use another identity that seems real. A famous example is Eric Gorden Corley who was the editor of the hacker journal 2600. He went by the alias Emmanuel Goldstein. If you had never read 1984 you wouldn’t have thought twice about the possibility of subterfuge.
Don’t Use Your Work Address for Personal Email
Your work email account is archived and routinely scanned. If you think email is private because it is addressed to your name you should read the fine print more carefully. Any email sent or received using your work address is property of your employer. If you work for a government agency there may be a policy in place that all email has to be stored for a certain number of years and is available to the public under Access to Information.
Privacy issues aside, you are accountable for the contents of your inbox. Funny email forwards and prejudiced jokes can lead to a permanent mark on your record. Why do employers restrict access to web-based email? It is more beneficial to both parties if a work email address is used strictly for work-related emails.
Multiple Email Address – Be a Spider in a Web
Use multiple email address for professional contacts, friends and acquaintances. It is easy to setup Gmail to send and receive from multiple email addresses using a single account. For professional contacts use an email address with your full name. For friends and acquaintances use an email address that keeps your full name private.
Keep your primary Gmail login that you use for all your mail devoid of any identity. This will ensure your privacy in situations where you accidentally reply with the wrong email address. Don’t use this primary email address for public sites like Google Homepage, Project Hosting, Co-op Custom Search Engines, etc.
Use a Unique Email Address for Instant Messaging
Your instant messaging address goes out to all kinds of people. It is intended for friends and family, but as time goes by you may give it out to strangers (for online dating) or to co-workers (during a deadline crunch). Keep it identity free. Don’t use your real name, your real email address or your regular pseudonym.
Keep your Email Address Off the Web
It takes only four hours for a plaintext email address posted on the web to start receiving spam. That’s annoying, but what you may not realize is that much like a unique pseudonym this email address forms a unique key to search on. Friends, family and co-workers are more likely to know your email address than your online alias. Profiles, newsgroups, message boards and petitions can haunt you forever.
If you have to display your email address online, use an image file.
Friends and Strangers
Leave that Profile Empty
Most online profiles ask for unnecessary information. Do you really want to link your hometown, phone number and MSN messenger handle to that account? You already ignore all of your friends on instant messenger, what do you have to say to a complete stranger? A list of things you are interested in is innocuous, but knowing what schools you went to and the years you graduated is enough information for to find out everything else about you.
Watch What Your Friends are Posting
You can’t control what other people post about you, but you can be aware of it. In the example of the young girl with the “anonymous” photos, it was a friend who accidentally exposed her by posting her first name while he was using the same pseudonym as on another site they both frequented. Make sure your friends understand your feelings on privacy. I have a friend who refuses to have any photos online. It is perfectly understandable and we respect it (and if we don’t she kicks our asses).
Respect Their Privacy
The number one way in which bloggers self-implode and turn an online hobby into something that negatively impacts real life is by not respecting the privacy of others. Bloggers have a bad habit of posting confidential information with enough clues to lead back to real identities. No one likes to find out that information about them was publicized without their consent, especially if it is about their medical illnesses, love life, job performance, or hygiene issues.
Exercise Some Restraint
There is no true anonymity online and the Internet never forgets. Copyright is a figment of your imagination in a digital environment; once information is online you have lost your ability to control it. A video of you shaking your thang on MySpace is going to attract the wrong attention. Be aware that someone can download it, repost it and you’ll have lost the ability to control it’s distribution.
The Dead20 website was deep-sixed because it’s author was writing a blog that put his career in jeopardy. Don’t throw stones in glass houses. He wrote enough discouraging things about enough companies that people went to the effort of finding out who he really was. (It was too bad, because he had one of the more entertaining 2.0 web logs out there.)
Is Online Anonymity Possible?
No, it is not possible to be truly anonymous online unless you do things like use public computers, hide your IP address, mask post/edit times, and use throw away blogs/email addresses. That is too impractical for the average person who has nothing to hide, just things they would like to keep private. The methods I suggest are to prevent yourself from leaving footprints on the Internet; digital breadcrumbs someone could use to follow you around and find out more about you than you think you’ve revealed.
And with that I’m going to put on my tinfoil hat and go to bed.
- Electronic Frontier Foundation on blogging anonymously
- News.com on blogging on the job
- Electronic Frontier Foundation on anonymity and privacy
- Electronic Frontier Foundation on how to protect your privacy from search engines (based on AOL leaking user search information)
- Web anonymity for bloggers whose lives might be in danger (earlier draft).