blueoregon admin

On his prominent Virginia blog, Waldo Jaquith is reminding his readers that they're not anonymous on the internet -- not even if they really try hard to be. He's got a series of great stories, and here's the best one:

November 2005. Election eve. A comment appears on this blog. It’s from an unfamiliar name. He’s reacting to the bombshell news that attorney general candidate Creigh Deeds — my senator — has been accused of having a sexual relationship with his children’s babysitter. He declares that Deeds must exit the race immediately.

This was a lie, of course. This comment was posted to a half dozen blogs across the state within a few minutes, each time written by a different person. I erased the comment immediately — one of four that I’ve ever erased — and encouraged other bloggers to do the same.

Every computer on the internet has a unique internet protocol address (or “IP”), allowing them to be tracked. By checking with other bloggers, I found that all of these comments came from the same IP address. And by checking a history of all comments ever posted to my blog, I found that the same IP belonged to a regular pseudonymous commenter. It resolved to his apartment, and the name of the town in which he lived was present in the IP address’ domain name. On a hunch, I searched my e-mail archives for that IP address to see if I’d ever corresponded with anybody using that IP. Bingo, I had a match.

The kid who’d posted that invented accusation was an acquaintance, a Republican activist who was actually working for a statewide campaign. He was a nice kid, if overzealous. He may have a bright future in politics if he can control himself, something he’s historically had trouble with. I e-mailed him immediately to let him know that I was onto him. He was upset, and started inventing excuses, insisting that I call him so we could talk. I didn’t — I just told him that he must never, ever do this again, and that it would be our secret that he’d done it. Provided I never saw a repeat of this incident.

It’s been a year and a half, and he’s kept himself in check. Maybe he’ll make it in politics after all.

Waldo's bottom line?

It is popularly held that the way you behave when you think you’re anonymous — that’s the real you. If all it takes is a goofy pseudonym for you to become misanthropic then congratulations, you’re a misanthrope. ...

You’re never anonymous on the internet. You can make it difficult to find out who you are, such that a subpoena or a DMCA request is necessary, but neither of those are real difficult to get. Everything you do — every comment you post, webpage you read, e-mail you send — leaves an electronic trail that can be pieced back together. That trail of digital bread crumbs leads straight to your front door.

So who are you, really? Read over the pseudonymous and anonymous comments that you’ve written, the way you’ve behaved while behind your mask.

That’s you. Do you like who you are?

Read the rest. As we head into the election cycle, consider it a warning.

  • js (unverified)

    It is popularly held that the way you behave when you think you’re anonymous — that’s the real you.

    Good point! Ditto for how you treat wait staff. Believe me, anyone who is rude to food servers is known far and wide for it. Many of us in political circles have friends who waited on "who's who" long ago. To this day they are telling stories about it.

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    Which is why I never quite get why BlueOregon doesn't have registration to comment. DKos does it (prevents name jacking, etc.) and my sig there has my real name in it. I have no problem owning everything I put out into the public (which everything on the intertubes is). Maybe I have the 2.0 mind-set, but I have always held that you simply be who you are in life and it resolves many a headache.

    Mitch Gore

  • VR (unverified)
    Every computer on the internet has a unique internet protocol address (or “IP”), allowing them to be tracked.

    Not really true. Proxies, Routers, Forwarding, and other such devices change IP addresses.

    In this case the kid used his own internet connection, but in reality - it is not hard to be anonymous if you want to be.

    There are many many anonymizers and cloakers. There is onion routing like TOR.

    Heck, you could just post a message from a coffee shop somewhere. And if you wanted to you could use TOR and some cloakers while at that coffee shop. And if you spoof your MAC address - then there is almost no real way to track the person.

    Additionally, people can "steal" other computers that have been compromised due to malware. So a person could spoof their MAC address, use a local small cafe with wi-fi, bounce through a couple anonomizing proxies, route through a couple zombie computers, and then into a TOR network - all before ever getting to any site. So the IP that a site tracks would be useless. Even if you could (which you couldn't unless you were the NSA) find a way to trace it back through each of the obfuscations - you would only find a cafe shop at the other end.

    If you are careful it is easy to be anonymous. The more anonymous you want to be, the more careful you need to be.

  • GCG (unverified)

    Sounds complicated. Wouldn't it be simpler if people would just stop being stupid dicks?

  • VR (unverified)

    Certainly. But we seem to have no shortage of stupid dicks...

    But my point is that if someone doesn't really want you to know who they are, you won't.

  • LiberalIncarnate (unverified)

    I would agree with VR. Although, it sounds like an awful lot of effort if someone really wanted to, they could overcome most of the above stated "warning".

    I think that the threat is more toward those that are innocent having their computer's and IP addresses used without their knowledge. In this case, the defender would be casing far more harm than good.

    My recommendation, use the IP tracing as a last resort. Erase posts that you find offensive. It is far easier to do and stifles the very voice that is trying to be heard. It is YOUR site.

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    Of course not everone is as nice as Kari and Waldo Jaquith. See the stories about Mayor Newsom's press secretary:

  • DJ (unverified)

    Mitch Gore - given your comments: "I have no problem owning everything I put out into the public...I have always held that you simply be who you are in life and it resolves many a headache" - I assumed I'd click on your screen name "lestatdelc" and find your life story.

    Instead the following error message is returned: " could not be found."

    What gives?

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    Posted by: DJ | Jun 22, 2007 2:43:13 PM

    Instead the following error message is returned: " could not be found."

    What gives?

    The server space I have my stuff on is being moved by my host to a new server this weekend (already underway actually). In addition I am moving to a Drupal installation and redesigning the content in the new site structure. In short, the URL does not yet resolve properly to the new server location and is being redesigned so I can have some better coentne managment and bloging functionality.

    Some of the content is live still but at this URL while the migration and relaunch occurs.

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    Kari, Jim Ross's post up-thread has a screwed-up href html call and is making everything below it a go nowhere URL link which screws up the thread. You might want to edit it.

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    It is popularly held that the way you behave when you think you’re anonymous — that’s the real you.

    I disagree with the premise, and this is something that I've given alot of thought to over the years that I've been online, being a life-long observer of people and what makes them tick.

    Communicating via the web is impersonal. There are none of the usual visual or audio clues... no arched eyebrows or rolled eyes or flush cheeks or subtle clearing of the throat with which to glean information, causing a general loosening of normal inhibitions. We are if nothing else, social animals at heart. We take these subtle clues for granted because most of it is processed subconsciously. But where they are lacking the timid and shy become bolder - there's no chance of misread disapproving looks - and the bold become even bolder for the same reasons. And to top it off, most of us are generally anonymous when online. None of you know where I live or where I work or what I look like and this adds to the weakening of normal inhibitions.

    My personal view is that few of us are the "real" us as interpreted from what we do and say online. Many and maybe even most of us are very similiar online as we are in person. But that lack of social inhibition cues colors everything, IMHO.

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    Communicating via the web is impersonal.

    i'm guessing you've never read a novel or a book of poetry, never received a letter from a friend or family member. the essence of reading is to use your imagination to connect with and gain meaning from the written words. yes, you do get more from someone when you can hear their voice, see their face, etc. one thing you can get is dishonesty, of course; many lies are told by smiling, friendly faces.

    what the web is, is a new way to communicate. we're learning how to make it work. emoticons scratch the surface, but that's the point of them: to replace what we don't have orally. writing on the web is going to force people to do something they've not wanted to do for generations: learn to write, and read, effectively. it's not easy to do, but if you want the web to be a place that holds more than empty text, you better learn. it doesn't replace person-to-person communication, but nothing ever has. it's one of many ways we have to talk, and listen, to one another.

  • Waldo Jaquith (unverified)

    FWIW, I'm well aware of all of the ways in which an IP may be cloaked or non-unique, but they're rather outside of the scope of discussion on my particular political blog. :) NAT, Tor, DHCP lease times and proxies, while interesting to me, would only confuse people, I expect. Though it is true that, with very few exceptions, a subpoena or two is all it takes to find out somebody's identity, and Lord knows that Bush's judges are all too eager to hand those out. (I was the proud recipient of the very first e-mailed subpoena, in the CPHack case, back in 2000, as a member of the Peacefire Three. The purpose of the subpoena was to get me to disclose a list of IPs. I refused.) The fact is, most people are too lazy or too sloppy to properly cover their tracks.

    Thanks for the link-love! I know Virginia politics probably seems like a mighty strange thing over there in Oregon, but I'm glad at least something translates. :)

  • ellie (unverified)

    It is popularly held that the way you behave when you think you’re anonymous — that’s the real you. If all it takes is a goofy pseudonym for you to become misanthropic then congratulations, you’re a misanthrope.

    Maybe it's just me (either by perception or actual action), but I think I'm actually nicer online. Part of it is, I think, because of some of the reasons Kevin listed. I don't have to listen to BS online -- I can just close the window, or click elsewhere. In person, I may become trapped listening to such things, and I don't have a lot of patience with people. It's not that I say rude things -- it's the non-verbal feedback that I give. So you're much more likely to witness my misanthropy in person than online.

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    Personally, I try to swear less on the open internet than I do in my daily life. But that's &%$#@*! difficult.

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    Stephanie V: same here... lol

    Mitch: great to hear about the Drupal install... if you run into any troubles or need to ask a question, just let me know. I don't do any sites anymore without using Drupal...

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    Also, I'm with Mitch on the real name thing... it's extremely rare for me not to use my real name when I'm posting online.

    I do know how easy it can be to hide your IP. However, most people who are just posting online aren't going to go through that much trouble. Most just use the IP they have at home and/or work. When I do occasionally post anonymously, I know that the site admin where I'm at are probably sitting there snickering because they know it's me.

  • zilfondel (unverified)

    I just buy a new condo in Florida and a new laptop everytime I want to troll.

    Is VR saying that there is an easier and cheaper method? Darnit! Those computer saavy liberals just might rule the world after all.

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    I've long agreed with Mr. Jaquith's basic arguments, but it's pretty simple for me.

    I'm just as much of a jerk in person as I am online and I don't aspire (as an individual) to anything that you can use to punish or reward me.

    I also don't make shit up, and that helps.

  • ws (unverified)

    It's true that the web doesn't allow for complete anonymity when using a pseudonym, but what's important to some people, is that it offers them some anonymity, enough to begin venturing to work out ideas and present them in a kind of public setting. For various reasons, not all of them misanthropic and/or conspiritorial, there are people that, where their true identity is known, find speaking in public and expressing viewpoints very difficult and intimidating.

    A lot of people try to do the best they can, and sometimes if the setting is right, like this one, where they might occasionally get good constructive feedback, they can even gradually get a little better, more considerate of others, more personally confident and more constructive in terms of being involved with community.

    I really care about people, even though I, as probably most others do at times, get very frustrated and disgusted with them. So, you say strong things and people sometimes think you're a misanthrope or a jerk. I've found it takes a lot of reading what and how other people say what they have on their minds to learn how to put across a strong point without inadvertently coming off as jerk when you don't intend to be one. I feel like the anonymity option on blogs can help this process.

    <h2>Even with conditional anonymity, I like myself a whole lot better than a couple years back, when I felt incapable of forming or expressing ideas and opinions, and presenting them in any kind of public setting.</h2>

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