There is a lot of chat online about whether CNN (or anyone) should reveal the identity of an offensive meme generator who uses the online name of “HanAssholeSolo.” Whether or not this person’s identity is revealed remains to be seen, but it reminds me of something I wrote for the now-defunct website PrivacyTest.com. Since the original post is not longer active, I’ve republished it below.
A lot of people try to protect their online privacy by using pseudonyms instead of their real names, or they may only use their first name or initials. Unfortunately, pseudonymity is not the same as anonymity. A fake name is a weak and often temporary privacy protection.
As a means of protecting privacy a pseudonym is a speed bump not a barricade. It can slow down the process of revealing your identity, but it is not likely to shield you forever. And once the connection between you and your pseudonym is made there is immediately a connection between you and everything you ever posted under the guise of that pseudonym.
Take for example the case of Michael Brutsch. As “violentacrez” he was a notorious Reddit user, active in subreddits focused on illicit pictures of teenage girls and violence against women. For years he trolled that site and others in anonymity until his identity was revealed on Gawker. Once identified, Brutsch lost his job and was threatened and harassed for what he had done as violentacrez.
Most people aren’t using pseudonyms to hide anything as awful as violentacrez, but they may still be posting things under fake names that could damage their relationships or their careers if attributed to them.
What a pseudonym can do
A pseudonym is not useless. Using one can help your privacy in several ways.
First, a pseudonym can prevent someone from being able to immediately identify an author. A reader won’t be biased by someone’s name either because it implies a certain gender or ethnicity (assuming that gender or ethnicity isn’t implied in the writing) nor because that name may already be familiar.
This is likely why J.K. Rowling used a pseudonym for her book The Cuckoo’s Calling. Although “Robert Galbraith” was revealed fairly quickly to be be Rowling, for a brief period she could learn what people thought of her work without it falling under the expectant label “from the author of Harry Potter.”
The second use of a pseudonym is to avoid those posts from showing up when someone searches for your name using currently-available search tools. (More on the “currently-available” caveat later.) Eschewing search results is often a major motivator for using a pseudonym. I know many teachers who use fake names online because they don’t want their students to know about their personal lives no matter how uncontroversial they may be.
The effectiveness of pseudonyms erodes over time
A pseudonym becomes less strong the more online content you attribute to it. Every word is a potential clue to your identity. A few personal details revealed here or there start to reveal an identity.
Maintaining a strong pseudonym requires a commitment to secrecy. If over time you start to tell more people about your pseudonym you increase the risk that the people you don’t want to learn your identity will.
Evolving analytic tools will get better at identifying pseudonymous writers
Not too many years ago J.K. Rowling could have hidden as Robert Galbraith for as long as she wanted. In 2013 all it took was some suspicion and software that was able to compare her writing to that in the new book. Similarly, a photo posted without a name used to only be able to be identified by people who knew the subject, but now photos of strangers can be identified with facial recognition.
In graduate school I conceptualized a privacy tool meant for learning if others were posting about you even if they were not using your full name. The idea was that a user would input details about themselves and the program would rank online content by the probability that it referred them. For example, a reference to “Kim in Chicago” might be me or a lot of other people. However, a mention of a Kim who studied information security and is a playwright in Chicago is almost certainly me.
My assignment was to design a tool with which someone could protect their privacy, but the same tool could be used to find someone writing under a pseudonym as well given enough identifying clues. Really, how many information security specialists/playwrights can their be in Chicago?
Although such a tool is not currently available it most certainly will be someday since the difficulty is not designing the algorithm but simply having the processing power to return the results in a reasonable amount of time.
If a pseudonym can’t guarantee anonymity what can?
True online anonymity is difficult to achieve and takes a lot more than not using your real name. To be anonymous you must be sure to obfuscate you location including IP address, router paths, and embedded location data. As shown from the J.K. Rowling example you also may need to obfuscate your writing style.
In fact to be truly anonymous you need to fully hide your personality. Because labeling oneself “anonymous” is just another pseudonym the same rule about it eroding over time holds, which is why truly anonymous posts have no technical or logical connection to any other anonymous post by that same person.
So what should you do to protect your identity online?
Just because pseudonyms have their weaknesses doesn’t mean they aren’t worth using. For example, I know professional writers who use pseudonyms or at least omit their last names from their personal blogs because when prospective clients search for their work they want to ensure that their professional work is the first thing the world sees. They openly admit that the blogs are theirs. They just want the online tie to be a bit obscure. A pseudonym works well for that.
The important thing is not to use a pseudonym to hide something you couldn’t stand to have associated with your name at some later date. If something could damage your career, hurt people you love, or implicate you in a crime don’t put it online ever no matter what you think your privacy settings are or how clever you think your pseudonym is. It’s rarely worth the risk.
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