Monday, October 20, 2008

The Reality of Anonymous Posting.

The Reality of Anonymous Posting.
By Bob Hubbard

There are well over a 10 million forums, lists, chat rooms, news groups, blogs, journals and discussion areas on the internet today. On many of them, there is a debate on using handles or aliases or fake names. The bottom line is, there is no such thing as true anonymity online today. Oh, there are ways you can make it harder to figure out, but with enough time, resources and in some cases money, your identity can be found.

The first level of anonymity is the handle. A handle, or alias can be anything from a nickname, to a login name, to a cute saying or a fake name. "DaffyDuck2525" and "Nose Picker" are 2 examples of aliases. In some cases, they reflect a fantasy personality, associated with things like science fiction fandom, or reenactment organizations. Many people use them for fun, and don't really hide much, however there are those who will gladly use as many false identities as they can, to cause trouble and give the illusion that many hold a certain opinion, when in truth, it is only a few. Some sites have forbidden the use of handles, as it is hard to hold a professional discussion with someone named "Hot Dog" using the picture of a puppy n fire as their public face.

The second level of anonymity is the fake name. This is different than the handle, which is often obvious. The fake name is the easiest way to hide, as there are few ways to verify you are who you say you are online. Some people go to great lengths in their use of fake realistic names, creating elaborate histories, and getting one or more known-real people to vouch for them. When put on the spot, they will often claim to have never been photographed, or taped, and will refuse any meetings requested of them. Their verifiers will step to their defense and reiterate that they are real, and they know them well. While many sites will allow the use of handles, they will insist that you "sign" your posts with your name. While this can give some credibility, short of requesting notarized copies of government issued ID or credit cards, these are hard to prove especially when enough known-real people insist on their existence. Other means must be used to disprove this tactic.

The third level is the fake or throw-away email address. We all get tons of spam, and hear worries of identity theft daily. Some resort to temporary or throw away addresses through the numerous free email services out there. A favorite tactic of spammers and certified internet troublemakers, also known as 'trolls', more and more the free services are being blocked from reputable sites.

The forth level of anonymity if the proxy server / anonymizer service. These services, sometimes free, sometimes for a fee will allow you to surf the net, under a sort of 'cloak'. Some background information is needed here. Each computer that connects to the internet is assigned an id number, called an IP address. It's kind of like a phone number for your computer. When you connect to another computer, it gives your IP number as an identifier. The anonymizer service doesn't block your number, it simply reports a false one to the answering system. While hard to identify and block, they are not perfect. Not all services are as anonymous as they claim, and there are ways to find who really did make the connection, a fact that some today have discovered the hard way after law enforcement traced them.

In short, regardless if you surf as "John Smith", "Jeffery Dillion III" or "Captain Caveman", the people who run the sites, the engineers at the data centers who run the computers, and the boys in blue can with some time and effort, find out who you are.

The use of a handle can be fun. It adds flavor to hobbiest sites, can be used to advertise your business or your proficiency at a subject. They can also however be used to cause problems, sow dissent and otherwise disrupt a community. More and more, professionally oriented sites are either discouraging them, or banning them outright as a result.

So, use your handle, have fun, but don't be expected to be taken seriously unless you post under a verifiable real name. After all, who would take advice from someone named after a mouse?

Bob Hubbard is an administrator of the popular martial arts sites and He is president of SilverStar WebDesigns inc., a web site design and hosting company specializing in affordable solutions for martial artists as well as a professional photographer.

©2007 Bob Hubbard - Copies of this article are free to distribute, provided all text is retained intact.

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