online anonymity

No One Is Anonymous on the Internet

February 04, 2011
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Many people believe the Internet is a forum where they can interact anonymously, without fear of reprisal. But as a number of recent episodes show, almost everything you do on the Internet can be traced back to you.

Mapping the Cyber Universe

In recent years, a college blogger, AOL search users, Domino's employees playing a prank, users of ChatRoulette and even the Central Intelligence Agency have discovered an inconvenient truth: Almost every move you make on the Internet leaves identifiable “footprints.”

In April 2009, an employee from the fast food chain Domino’s anonymously uploaded a home video on YouTube that preyed on consumers’ greatest fears about fast food. The employee was shown sticking cheese and peppers up his nose—and worse. The video was posted on the Consumerist blog. Quickly, a reader recognized the particular restaurant, and then someone else outed the employee as Michael Anthony Setzer. These tips helped authorities track down the video’s authors, who were fired and arrested for food tampering.

Later in 2009, ChatRoulette launched and became an instant hit, based on its promise to connect people from around the world anonymously through video-chat sessions. But within months, an unrelated site, ChatRoulette Map, posted photos of ChatRoulette users on a map in the general vicinity of their homes. ChatRoulette Map did this by capturing the Internet Protocol (“IP”) addresses of users, which can be used to trace a computer’s location.

ChatRoulette Map discovered that many IP addresses, including those issued by the University of Maine, contain user names. Though it held off on publishing the IP addresses, ChatRoulette Map warned that it may do so in the future.

Without a Trace?

Every series of keystrokes you enter, for any purpose, leaves a number of identifiable traces that can reveal the identity of the user. As Dr. Neal Krawetz of Hacker Factor Solutions explains, it is possible to obtain information about the identity of supposedly anonymous users merely by “analyzing the words used or the keyboard characters typed,” Robert Vamosi writes for CNET. Even though most Internet consumers lack the necessary tools and skills to conduct such sophisticated tracking, the possibility of it being used to uncover your activities is something you need to be aware of.

Just using a search engine that tracks users’ search terms can result in your identity being discovered. In 2006, AOL, hoping to promote academic research into search habits, released “three months' worth of search logs that contained nearly 20 million search histories detailing the online lives of 658,000 customers,” Wired reported.

Very quickly, news organizations were able to identify many of the customers and contacted them for comment. While AOL profusely apologized for the incident and no search engine is likely to repeat the mishap, the incident drove home the ease with which individual identities can be uncovered online, even as a result of a publisher’s good faith intentions.

The Illusion of the Anonymous Comment

There is no such thing as an anonymous comment on the Web. Whenever you make a comment on a blog post, a newspaper article, a Wikipedia entry or a friend’s updates on Facebook, it leaves a trace of activity that, if examined, could reveal your identity. Every Internet user, including the CIA, can be tracked down online, Wired explains.

Although U.S. courts generally refuse to order a Web site or Internet service provider to reveal the identity of an Internet user without evidence of the user’s comments being defamatory, this general rule is not always followed.

In November 2009, Butler University filed a libel lawsuit against an anonymous blogger who posted critical, though not clearly defamatory, comments about the university administration on a blog. The Indiana court forced the blog provider to reveal the name of Butler student Jess Zimmerman. Once the University had the student’s name, it dropped the baseless lawsuit but initiated internal proceedings against Zimmerman. Though the matter was settled confidentially, the case serves as a warning to all anonymous bloggers who believe their identity won’t be exposed so long as their comments are fair.

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