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September 2016

Date: 2011-06-12 01:21
Security: Public
Tags:big posts, link, pseudonymity
Subject: Being truly pseudonymous

So, I read a post in [personal profile] synecdochic's journal just now discussing the geolocation feature that LJ had added to its IP logging feature to tell you where commenters were from (the feature is now removed), and it got me thinking that too many people don't really know how to truly be anonymous on the Internet. Tor, which is mentioned in the post, is good, but it's not nearly good enough if you just use it and do nothing else to protect yourself.

So what do you need to do to be truly anonymous on the Internet?

It is possible, but the answer to *that* question would sound very far-fetched to most people here. That's because most people don't really understand the concept of what anonymity actually is. As I ranted about in my post about 'real' names, anonymity means to not have a name. The trouble is, if you have an account on DW or LJ (which you probably do if you're reading this), then you do have a name - your username - and thus you are not anonymous. At the very best, you're pseudonymous - writing under an assumed name.

So for this post I'm actually going to cover an angle which is probably more relevant to people here, and that's how to make absolutely sure that nobody can connect your pseudonym to any of your other identities (which is what most people think anonymity is anyway). Most of these points are prerequisites to being truly anonymous anyway, and a lot of people will find even the list in this post to be over-the-top. That said, I'll cover being truly anonymous (or at least as anonymous as you can get) in another post at some point.

  1. Firstly, don't post information about yourself. This seems pretty obvious, but as mentioned in [personal profile] synecdochic's post, a surprising amount of information can be found on the Internet, even when you have very little information to start with, because they posted information about themselves. (Which may not be a bad thing if you don't *want* to be pseudonymous, but if you do, it's definitely a bad thing.)

    Take a moment now to try Googling, say, your IM screen name, if you haven't done it before. (You may get better results if you put it in quotes.) Maybe nothing will come up, in which case, good for you! But more often than not you'll probably find that you'll get results from a lot of different places, and probably on the profiles of various forums. From there, someone could look at your posts on these forums and potentially find out a bunch of information about you. And remember, anyone can do this.

  2. Don't allow anything that relates in any way to any of your other identities to crop up in anything from your pseudonym. (This is kind of a subset of the previous point, but the focus is slightly different as that was talking about information about *you*, whereas this is talking about mere relations to your identity.) For example, don't talk about your personal life; don't mention any nearby landmarks; don't even say when your birthday is. All of those can be used against you if you're trying to be truly pseudonymous.

    The IM screen name in point 1 is an example of the sort of information that relates to your identity. In that point we were using it as a step to find out actual information about you, but here we're focusing on the IM screen name itself, and why it's important not to even mention *that*. Which leads directly on to point 3...

  3. Create new accounts for your pseudonym if you think you need them. If you're going to mention that you have an account on a site or service, make an account for your pseudonym on that site or service if you don't have one (even if you only use it to read stuff) and point to that. Otherwise, it can be inferred that another of your identities is on it, and that violates point 2 - not letting anything relating to your other identities crop up on your pseudonym.
You've probably noticed by now that these strategies rely on them being absolutely watertight. That's because being truly pseudonymous is actually a whole heck of a lot harder than being truly anonymous; it mainly involves maintaining strict controls on what you say. You have to do that for being anonymous, too, but being pseudonymous carries the extra risk of allowing people to have multiple pieces of information that can all be traced back to a single identity.

If you've ever used 4chan, you may know that it kind of toes the line between the two. It allows anybody to enter any name they like, and their message will be posted under that name. In this way it has the partial benefits of being anonymous (disregarding the content of your message, nobody but the server admin can tell it was actually you - somebody may have been posting under your name), while allowing people to distinguish people - with the caveat that people might use your name.

To allow somewhat more of an actual pseudonym, 4chan allows the use of so-called "tripcodes". A tripcode is basically a hash that the server creates of a password that the post author gives when posting their message. The idea is that the password identifies the user, and nobody else would know what that password was and thus couldn't recreate the tripcode. (That said, due to the birthday paradox, it's probably more likely than you think that two people will share the same password. It's less applicable to this situation than to birthdays, because passwords aren't chosen with equal probabilities, but still.)

Both methods - using or not using a tripcode - should be considered pseudonymous, even though the likelihood of someone else using your name is a lot higher when not using one. Even if it can't be *reliably* traced to a single identity, the likelihood is that anything posted under that name probably *is* you, because people don't post under other names randomly.

(For the record, I don't use 4chan myself, but I do know how it works.)

So, yeah, being truly pseudonymous is tough - tougher than being truly anonymous. In another post I'll talk about that. In the meantime, though, I'm kind of tired and need to rest. :D

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