Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Anonymity and the Web  

From time to time I encounter people who wonder why I don't use some creative online name. You know, some AOL-inspired unique handle like "drewsome" or "hyperthought" or "knockinboots16". Better still, when I intelligently argue an opinion against someone who'd rather not be rational, I've received dark comments about how it's surprising that I'd use my real name to "spout that kind of garbage".

(As an aside, I find it interesting that the latter kind of vague threat -- and it is definitely meant as a threat -- has only so far come from people who hold far-right-wing political views. Whenever that happens, though, it's a sure sign that you've won an argument; remember, violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.)

So why do I use my real name, anyway?

Part of it is that I can't be bothered to keep finding new names when the one I want is taken. For example, I could choose to be "drewsome" on half a dozen accounts, but then have to come up with something new when it's taken elsewhere. Well, that just stinks. My full name is not the most unique one in the world -- I'm no Deep Jawa -- but I can get by with using it most of the time.

I also find that using my real name helps a lot in business, since there's no need to explain why I've chosen it. It's simple, to the point, and easy to remember if you know my name, which you should if you're doing business with me. And if you are using it to email me, you will have to spell my last name correctly. Hint: there is no Y in it whatsoever.

But one of the biggest reasons is that I truly believe that anonymity on the web is an illusion. And since it is an illusion I don't see that it's worth the bother to go out of my way to maintain it. I try to act online the same way I do in real life: I'm polite, I respect the opinions of others, and even when I have a very strong opinion I still try to see both sides of the story.

That's quite a sweeping statement to make, so let me clarify it. I do not mean that anonymity is an illusion in the absolute sense. It's still very possible in this day and age to keep your identity hidden online from anyone but the government if you work at it, and if you're extra paranoid it's probably even possible to keep hidden from the government. (Although I guarantee they do not reveal everything they might be able to do to track you down.)

But for the average person, if you spend a reasonable amount of time online interacting with others and you don't go well out of your way to protect your identity, you are not anonymous. You may feel anonymous, but it's an illusion.

If you make comments on blogs and use the same identity over a period of time so that people can recognize you, you are not anonymous.

If you ever mention personal details of your life online or fill them out in forms, you are not anonymous.

If you have an internet connection in your home which keeps the same IP address for a long period of time, whether it's static or dynamic, you are not anonymous.

If you maintain an account on a webserver which keeps logs (and pretty much all of them do, with rare exceptions), then to anyone with access to the logs you are not anonymous.

The technologically savvy among you are saying, "Sure, but there are ways to get around all that." And you're right. There are. But in the end they are impractical for the average person. To be anonymous to everyone but the government, you need to be fairly antisocial. You can't maintain a consistent identity -- for any system where an account is required, you generally would have to create multiple names/accounts and never linger in any one for too long. Furthermore you'd need to watch out for quirks of spelling, typing, word choice, and grammar which might provide hints to which accounts are the same people. And you must trust the webmaster of the site, since most server software normally keeps logs of which accounts are accessed from which IP. Anonymizing proxy servers are possible, but due to the vanishingly small number of people that use them, you can actually make yourself less anonymous by doing so! And most obviously, but perhaps the thing that people forget most often, is that you can NEVER reveal to anyone your real name; the memory of a web server is much longer than the memory of a person, and in many cases things you say on the web NEVER go away.

A recent example of how anonymity failed on the web came to my attention this summer. Remember the book Unfit for Command? It was not much more than an ugly hack job written to smear John Kerry, but the book got some attention from the paid conservative onanists. Then a micro-scandal flared up when it was revealed that one of the co-authors, Jerry Corsi, had made some nasty, hateful, and often racist comments on the nasty, hateful, and often racist far-right-wing political website Free Republic. Oops.

It turns out that Corsi fell victim to the last and most obvious pitfall -- he revealed his name, and it later came back to bite him. But take a closer look. Joe Conason of Salon had just documented the links between the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Free Republic, two organizations whose names are very much Orwellian doublespeak. To the best of my recollection, Conason was first to pick up on the link and then someone else found Corsi's name. But even if Corsi hadn't made the obvious slip, it really might not have been very long before Corsi was identified from his posts on Free Republic anyway.

Don't believe me? Perhaps you remember the protestors who "infiltrated" the Republican National Convention and made a nuisance of themselves. They were quickly tackled and subdued, but a TV camera caught a young-looking guy kicking one of them, a girl, while she was pinned down on the floor by event security. A lot of people were outraged, and there were a flurry of blog posts like this one trying to identify him.

With nothing to go on but his obvious political leanings and a vidcap of his fairly nondescript face, a likely candidate named Scott Robinson from UPenn's Wharton was tracked down. He eventually denied it, and it's not quite proved beyond a reasonable doubt. But there are things that make you go hmmm. Someone with a guilty conscience cropped him out of a picture on the National Taxpayer's Union website while the brouhaha was going on. Hmmm. People came forward who knew him and said yeah, sounds exactly like something he would do. Hmmm. The chair of the UPenn College Republicans even said it looks like him. Hmmm. What do you think?

There are many more stories like these two. I'll spare you the details, but I've been working online for more than a decade (closer to two decades, if you count BBS systems), and the same pattern keeps showing up.

Are you really anonymous? No. Not really, not when somebody really wants to know.