On Online Anonymity

A quote I saw recently reminded me of a conversation I had some time ago about online privacy. For the last decade or so, my handle on most internet-based services has been my real name. My partner asked me with some confusion why this is, given that I am steadfastly and acutely protective of my privacy. I maintain that I have no issue with information I choose to release to be available and attributable to me, and that my concerns with privacy is what other organisations do with my data once they have it. In fact, I believe that by putting my name to my words, I ensure accountability and ownership of those words.

And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. — Plato, The Ring of Gyges, from the Republic, Book II

The problem with this accountability is that we no longer control our data and once we release it to companies, we don’t actually know what any given site will do with your information. This is further compounded by the superb computing power of computers and digital storage of that data.

The web site you’re signing up to might have a privacy policy, most of which are boiler-plate templates, but generally, until the data is used, you won’t know where your information could end up. Sometimes you might not even know it’s happened.  And once it’s public, it’s there for anyone to grab and use to build a profile of you, your family, your actions.

Case in point today, I’m looking at a shopping web site that tells you the usernames and shopping lists of recent shoppers. This is presumably designed to engender trust in the company; after all, if these people are buying these products, then my perceived risk in buying from them is reduced. Clever.

The thing that caught my eye is that one person had a rather large shopping list. This site usually, I guess, has orders of between 1 and 4 items. This person bought:

  • A wireless mouse
  • Earbuds (music headphones)
  • An elastic trailer net
  • A torch
  • A lantern
  • T-shirts
  • Polo shirts (X-Large)
  • Bug Zapper
  • Knife block
  • Socks
  • 2.5 Litre Jug
  • 3 other items

His username looked like a real name, and a fairly unique one at that, so I searched for it and found one Australian with that name. His LinkedIn profile tells me his working history and where he went to school. His Facebook profile gives me a couple of pictures of him and his (presumably) wife, who I guess will be enjoying a camping trip at some point soon (given his shopping list). I found out some other stuff about him, which I won’t mention here.

I’ve changed my name three times now, and each name I’ve had has been either unique or very uncommon. In fact, I only know of one person who’s ever shared a name with me. So, when I see this man’s life unfold before me with some fairly rudimentary searches, all tied together by nothing other than his name, I must admit to having my views on privacy validated; not that I’m seeking that.

This has given me cause to reconsider my use of my real name online. In places where I am assured of my privacy, such as this blog, I will remain identified, but perhaps it’s time to find another moniker for use in other realms.

Notes

In order to maintain his privacy, I withheld the identity of three items in the list and some search results for the person who’s life I delved in to because they were bordering on personally identifiable either by themselves or in conjunction with other information in this post.