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Making the Case for Pseudonymous Identities

We’ve shared views on this blog in the past about hate speech and anonymity. As Chris Wolf pointed out last year, “Without question, anonymity and the privacy it provides are powerful tools for expression,” but, he added, “anonymity also means that people can say and publish things that are hurtful and hateful without being identified, without standing behind what they put out there.”

In other words, hateful people and “trolls” can hide behind anonymity and promulgate racist, sexist and other derogatory commentary. I stand behind Chris, and against the hatred that appears online every day.

Yet the advent of online trolling shouldn’t mean a real-name policy should permeate the web. There are, for example, times when trolls even provide the rest of the world with a little comedy.

Plus, a real-name policy can have very negative effects on the Internet ecosystem, stifling true expression in product reviews, or newspaper comments and, of course, hampering people’s ability to maintain privacy.

I was drawn to a recent column in Wired by Berkman Center for Internet and Society Fellow Judith Donath. She successfully makes the case for why online alter egos are needed now more than ever, and ultimately, her insight has some pretty cool implications for businesses and privacy pros looking to compete on privacy—just look at news this week, for example, that Facebook is now changing its defaults and educating its users on privacy so it doesn’t lose its user base to other anonymous services.

People want privacy and control over their online personas.

In the big picture, think about how we live and communicate with others offline. The conversation we have with a boss will be much different than a conversation we have with our family. Likewise, the conversation we have with, say, our doctors, shouldn’t be heard by the general public. We live our offline lives contextually with segmentation. I don’t have to worry, for example, that my conversations with friends at a weekend get-together will be heard by all my co-workers. They’d be TOTALLY embarrassed by all the nice things I say about them!

Our online experience, Donath argues, should be similar. “Online,” she writes, “words persist forever, in vast searchable databases. Anything you say or do using your real name is permanently attached to it.”

She continues:

It is that very permanence that can be used to design better tools for online interaction. A persistent pseudonym establishes a local identity: You always use it on a certain site or sites, and you build up a history and reputation under that name. You might use one pseudonym to write all sorts of product and service reviews, another in a support group for a personal health issue, and use your real name in discussions on professional forums and to comment on news stories.

Of course, the idea of permanence online has been a huge topic since the European Court of Justice ruling on the so-called “right to be forgotten.” As we learned, in Europe at least, citizens now have a right to compel search engines like Google to remove links to undesirable information about themselves.

But Donath thinks data portraits are one way of bolstering pseudonymous ecosystems. Like “followers” on Twitter, websites allowing for pseudonyms can help their users determine the viability of a particular pseudonym. She explains that the “key to making pseudonymous participation productive is to inspire people to care about the impression they are making on others.” Data visualizations, or data portraits can “make identities based on words and data vivid and easily perceived” by others. “Data portraits encapsulate each person’s history and reputation within a community, and thus encourage people to take responsibility for their words, inhibiting bad behavior. At the same time, they can be pseudonymous, giving people the freedom to discuss things they would be reticent to do under their real name.” (Check out the Wired article for a couple of visual examples.)

Really, making user data visual in this way may help inform the privacy notice issues companies are facing. Perhaps there are ways to build upon the use of icons and other visual representations to help users better understand a company’s privacy practices.

It’s a really creative way for companies to start thinking about their users and customers and for people participating online to express themselves. Really, making user data visual in this way may help inform the privacy notice issues companies are facing. Perhaps there are ways to build upon the use of icons and other visual representations to help users better understand a company’s privacy practices. As we saw earlier this week, the California attorney general is certainly starting to look into how companies are conveying their privacy practices. Richard Beaumont, for example, on this very blog, is proposing that businesses use transparency notices—in addition to privacy policies—to help convey such practices.

On both sides of the coin, whether a business or an individual, we need to think of ways of fostering engagement with businesses online while creating an atmosphere where users feel a sense of control and privacy.

Pseudonyms can help here.

Profs Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger support a similar concept of obscurity, where our online personas are not completely private from prying eyes, but at the very least, are difficult to find. In a recent column for Wired, they explain that the Googles of the world shouldn’t be compelled to actually forget about people, they should just make them difficult to find.

When people feel they’re constantly under the gaze—whether of government or business entities—they tend to change their behavior. Duh. By allowing online users—to use an infosec term here—to segment their online personas, we could very well have a thriving Internet economy while allowing people to have the sense of control they now feel offline about much of their information online.

As Donath points out, we’re getting closer to a world where the offline world is getting subsumed by the online world; where soon, “the physical world will lose its local privacy. The coming ubiquity of cameras everywhere combined with face recognition means that the taken-for-granted ability to facet our lives in the physical world may be coming to an end.”

Just as we may end up donning anti-facial recognition masks in the future, it’s important to ensure that folks online can express themselves with a sense of privacy and control. If we don’t get the pseudonymous ecosystem right online, Donath points out, when the physical world takes on the context-collapsing abilities already found in the real-name digital world, privacy may well have shrunk beyond recognition.

Written By

Jedidiah Bracy, CIPP/E, CIPP/US


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  • "Professor Garnet", CISSP, CIPP/G, CRISC May 27, 2014

    Far too much thought goes into what should be a relatively obvious solution - that is to lie like heck whenever asked for personal information that is not legally required (i.e. shopper loyalty cards, Facebook profile information, etc.). I have several Sybils (fake personas) I use when I don't want to be tracked and use anonymizing browsers when privacy is needed for my searches. My goal is to ensure that tracking databases populate as much bogus information on me as I can possibly feed to them (remember that your "secret" hints for authentication are also sold to data aggregators). Too, as a teacher, I don't want to influence young, impressionable minds with my views so always comment on controversial topics using a pseudonym.
  • Jedidiah Bracy May 28, 2014

    Thanks, "Professor Garnet," for the comment. Aren't there times when you'd rather disclose accurate information for, say, better services or products? Also, as to your last point regarding your students, I totally agree. Prof. Neil Richards just published a great piece called "Privacy Is Not Dead--It's Inevitable", in which he emphasizes the critical nature of intellectual privacy and how it fosters political freedom, individuality and expression.


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