October 8, 2011

Online Anonymity and Identity

It may appear as though I don’t really worry about online anonymity. My first and last name is listed in the title of my blog. It’s in my email address, and my online signature. It’s not that I don’t think it’s a good idea to be careful, or that I don’t worry about privacy. From a practical standpoint, online anonymity doesn’t really exist. There’s not really much I can do, even when I try and hide.

You can’t hide from the Crowd

A decade ago, before facebook, myspace, there really weren’t many people online. You weren’t likely to run into many people online that you also knew offline. There was no one to recognize your photo, or who would know your real name. Now, with so many people online, finding out who you are can be easily crowd sourced. Take the example of the Toronto Kissing Couple. The internet was fascinated by a photo by Rich Lam, taken during the Stanley cup finals of a couple that appeared to be kissing. Within days, their identities were discovered through an acquaintance. During the same event, the Toronto police were able to identify rioters by asking people online to identify them in pictures. This is sometimes referred to as “crowd sourcing”: turning to a large group of people to solve a problem.

Crowd sourcing has even been used to help return lost cameras to their owners. With so many people online, chances are someone is familiar enough with you that they can recognize you in a picture, or by seemingly small number of innocuous details about your life.

You are your own worst enemy when it comes to anonymity

Even without crowd sourcing it can still be easy to deduce a person’s identity, especially if one is active in any kind of online setting. I have inadvertently stumbled upon the last names of several anonymous bloggers I follow. One blogger posted a link to her wedding photographer’s sneak peak page which included a photo of the wedding invitation, somewhat obscured but readable. Another linked her multiple social media profiles including her linkedin profile to her klout page, presumably to boost her score, then shared her klout page. A third blogger used her last name in her twitter handler. She never posted her twitter account on her blog, but she often tweeted with another blogger I follow on twitter and I recognized her profile picture.

Often our identity can be pieced together using small, innocent pieces of data. It’s called the Mosaic Effect. For example, by noting what times I post you can get a sense of what time zone I’m in. If I complain about a bad snow storm you know I’m somewhere cold. None of these details by themselves is enough to triangulate my whereabouts, but put enough together and you can get a very good idea. One study found 87% of the US population can be uniquely identified by just a zipcode, a gender and a date of birth. In fact, birth date is one of the most innocent details identity thieves look to steal.

Scary? A little bit.

Staying Safe

So what can you do to keep your identity and your privacy “safe”? It depends partially on what you’re worried about. One strategy is to come up with an online profile. Identify which details you’re willing to share and stick to it, no matter what. This is the strategy I employ. As a PhD student, I want to be found. A potential collaborator may want to know what university I go to, but there’s no reason a professional acquaintance needs my birth date. For that reason, I don’t share my date of birth, age, middle name (other than my initial to help differentiate me from the 100s of other Sarah Tylers), zipcode, or hometown, etc. in any public forum. Ever. No matter how innocuous the detail seems, or how obscure the online forum is. Of course that doesn’t mean someone can’t find these details with enough effort, I just won’t wake it easier for them.

With this strategy I am findable for professional colleagues, but somewhat protected from identity thieves and stalkers. Another way to protect yourself is to apply a little bit of misinformation. Some suggest creating an “un birthday” for online websites that require it.

The same rule applies to children. A report came out a year ago of identity thieves using children’s social security numbers. In their excitement about a new little one’s arrival, Parents often don’t hesitate about sharing a birth date or child’s first and middle name online. Some even post photos of birth announcements, which are archived by search engines. Yet with these details an identity thief is halfway to acquiring all the information he or she needs. Yes, you can get remove the fraud, but how carefully are you going to be checking your new infant’s credit history? Before the report came out it would have never crossed my mind.

Of course, nothing is full proof. Just like there is no full proof way to keep your car safe from thieves, there is no full proof way to keep your identify safe. But you can make it a little harder to steal your identify than then next guy’s.

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  1. […] friend who posted a photo not realizing her street number was visibly. I, too, am no stranger to stumbling upon think kind of personal information. In fact, people have been so cavalier in sharing information without thought in recent years that […]


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