September 24, 2021

Don’t kid yourself. There is no such thing as anonymity on the Internet.


Anonymity, which is Greek for “no name,” is a uniquely human psychological experience: it’s the idea that we all have identities that we present to the world, but under certain circumstances we can switch the identity off and operate in total secrecy. In real life, there are very few situations where it is useful or even desirable to be anonymous outside of explicitly anti-social or criminal behaviour. But when it comes to the internet, we have become accustomed to assuming that we are hidden in obscurity behind the “wall” of our device’s screen. In fact, often the Internet brings out the worst in many people, who write things they would never say in person. The problem is that the Internet remembers everything. Your online rage is really just being careless with your data. And that can have detrimental consequences.

Anonymity and the Internet

Anonymity has been a longstanding notion associated with the internet. In the early 90s internet service providers went to great, paranoid lengths to discourage users from divulging even basic tidbits in their public profiles, like first name, city, even gender. This notion was popularized by the “on the internet, nobody knows you’re dog” caption of a famous New Yorker cartoon. Two decades on and the early days of “signing on” (or perhaps even “dialing in”) has been succeeded by always-on broadband that never prompts for any personal login information at all. We are not asked for identification when we browse most websites, and when we are, more often than not we create pseudonym identities, monikers, that are fanciful and disposable.

Internet Trolls occupy an online subculture that is a direct result from the anonymity the Internet allows. Trolls enjoy posting deliberately obnoxious, harmful, disruptive messages on forums, games and other online social centers in an effort to get a reaction from the participants and antagonize other people. While most online users probably don’t engage in “troll-ish” behavior, we do know people are likely to say things online they’d never do in person. Why? Assumed anonymity acts as a wall to hide behind. As Dr. Kent Bausman, a professor in the Online Sociology program at Maryville University, recently said in a Forbes article, “Considerable research shows how the online environment leads to a lack of inhibitions in posting behaviour and adds to a sense of empowerment through the cloak of semi anonymity that comes with online posting… When you combine these with the lack of accountability that often comes with one’s online behaviour, we have emboldened people to speak in a virtual public sphere in a manner they would not otherwise do in a physical public space.”

There are times when real identity is required, such as making purchases, online banking, social security admin etc. However, as it is always requested separately, we have convinced ourselves that these authentic interactions are distinct islands, away from all our other “anonymous” online interactions. But – the Internet is a public place.

You are not as anonymous as you think

Here is the bad news. There is very little, if any, anonymity on the Internet. We all leave “digital footprints. If you type it into an electronic devise, you have made it accessible to others.Every time you access and use the Internet, details of your device’s setup are communicated to your Internet service provider, and often to the site or service you are using. Advertisers track your internet habits across your devices – phone, tablet, laptop – to know where you habitually go, shop, and what kind of websites you visit. Facebook and Google are legally allowed to store all of the data we allow them to collect from us – Facebook tracks you everywhere if you don’t log off. Similarly, browsers follow you, even with tools that purport to eliminate tracking. Simply put, whether you’re a savvy social media user, or a window shopper, Internet activity is easily monitored, even when data encryption is in use.

Internet psychology normalizes bad data hygiene

Many of us would acknowledge that we are somewhat tracked online but in the same breath we also consider that our actions are fragmented. Individual instances may seem anonymous, but social engineers are masters of crossing fragments of digital footprints to generate a more complete picture of who are and what you do. Information that we might consider trivial, such as likes on Facebook are usually enough to reveal a person’s sexual orientation, political leanings and even intelligence. By the beginning of this century researchers had established that nearly 90% of the US population could be uniquely identified simply by combining their gender, their date of birth and their postal code. In short, all the traces of information left behind with every data transmission can be combined together to serve as a unique identifier.

In short, our presuppositions about what is or isn’t anonymous online undermine our data hygiene. We inadvertently leave a trail data patterns to follow. We are often vigilant about the kinds of emails and phone calls that clearly are spam or are from false sources. However, pieces of persona data that we leave out on the Internet provide components of a perfect disguise for social engineers.  Imposters can get very personal and disarming. If someone knows your bank account number, as an example, they can use that to pretend to be your bank and use the information as a validation vehicle. Once the imposter has your trust, all bets are off. When it comes to your business, the trails of your employees – even in their personal digital lives – may lead to the loss of your company’s secure, proprietary, or financial data.

Most corporations understand basic security and have hardened servers and firewalls to prevent hacks. But there is a part of your corporate vulnerability that does not lie solely in your hands. Even if it’s not intentional, your employee’s personal and seemingly anonymous online interactions might be putting your business at risk.

All is, or will be, discoverable.

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