Thursday, February 28, 2008

Are you really anonymous?

My last post got me thinking about blogging under a pseudonym and the separation this allows me to keep between my online personality and my "real life".

Most of the blogs I read use some kind of pseudonym although quite a few use a real name. That led me to the question - do pseudonyms really protect our identity? How easy would it be for someone to dig behind the avatars we use on chat sites, forums, blogs and so on to discover who we really are.

I am no detective, nor do I possess any special web skills but after a few minutes searching I have come to the conclusion that the answer, for most of us is: Pretty easy indeed.

Let me clarify. I believe the internet offers tremendous anonymity to some people. If you are a l33t haxxor who is paranoid about security and has the ability legal or otherwise to make computers half way around the world jump to your command then I think you can probably hide your identity pretty effectively. I also suspect that some kid logging into Yahoo as MANU4F4 could be pretty hard to trace simply because they haven't been around long enough to leave a mark on the internet. That is until they set up a Myspace or Bebo page with pictures of themselves and all their friends on it.

For adults like myself however I think the story is very different. We are old enough to have left traces of ourselves in many places. School and college websites, employers websites, clubs and societies, newspaper and magazine articles, forums, blogs and so on. All of these clues to who you really are can be found using internet search tools and they can never really be erased. Cached pages can be searched just as easily as live ones.

I tried this out on myself first of all and then on a randomly picked anonymous blogger. Using publicly available information and a bit of deductive thinking I was very quickly (15 minutes or so) able to dig out lots of personal information. Real name and address, details of current and previous employers, education history, family details and so on.

You can probably tell I was getting a bit carried away. My "inner nerd" was coming out and I began to get engrossed in the detective puzzle. When I realised that what I was doing was borderline stalking I stopped. The point had been made there was no need to go any further.

Does this bother me? Not really. My online identity isn't as private as I thought it was but I am not ashamed of my blog or any of my other online scribblings. I have been around for long enough to realise that you don't put anything in writing (online or in ink) that might be illegal, libelous or other wise later regrettable.

Does this make it pointless to use a pseudonym? Make your own mind up. For me the answer is no. The pseudonym creates a separation between this hobby and other parts of my life. It is a bit like taking off a business suit when you come home from work. Same person but different clothes allows you to adopt a different persona.


Tipa said...

I use a pseudonym so that people who google me aren't inundated with my game related activities. It's not intended to hide my real identity from someone who really cares to find me, and in the case of game companies desperate to find someone to work on their games, I wish they would :)

So anyway, calling myself Tipa allows me to separate gaming from real life on the Internet.

mbp said...

Our reasons for using a pseudonym are basically the same Tipa.

I do think that different folk have different levels of privacy that they are comfortable with. Bill Harris is happy to blog in his real name. I notice that you link to web pages of family and friends. I tend to keep my family and my job out of my blog but I write the occasional piece about my kids. Others are even more private.

I guess my mini researches have shown me that there is really no such thing as privacy on the net. If you want to participate then get used to the fact that you leave a trail that can be followed.

I suppose I am somewhat uneasy that similar detective work (better in fact) could easily be carried out for unsavoury purposes such as identity theft. Welcome to the internet.

Tipa said...

I think we understand now that privacy was a uniquely late 20th century anachronism. When I was a kid in the 60s, privacy was entirely unknown. It was a small town and everyone knew everyone else and if I had understood French (the language most of the adults spoke) I'm sure I'd have found out a lot of stuff about the adults of the town that would have burned my ears. I bet that's why they spoke in French.

Suddenly we had this idea of privacy, or maybe I just thought we gained more when we moved up to New Hampshire, but even then, I think pretty much people were aware of the juiciest facts about everyone else.

I'm actually kinda hard pressed to remember when privacy became part of my life. Maybe while I was living in California?

Now we have the internet, and companies claiming they can find all the dirt on anyone for $15. We'll never have any sort of privacy, ever again. Just have to get used to that.

I think you will find ever more people setting up shadow identities, a virtual persona who might not be like you at all. We MMORPG fans do this by instinct now, but soon, everyone will.

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff mbp...I have used my real life id in all my blogging & social networking to date. So I have left myself a little more open to most other bloggers.

I just felt that I wanted to be a voice that readers could relate to easily & get to know who I really am...up to a point. What I don't do is mention friends or relatives by name.

DM Osbon is I...enjoy!

mbp said...

And it is a pleasure to know you DM. Funny thing though about these internet conversations where some people use their real names and some people use pseudonyms: It really doesn't seem to matter at all. One minute you are chatting to Timothy Brown and the next you are chatting to "Axe Headsplitter" and no one thinks twice about it.