The era of Internet anonymity is over

A famous New Yorker cartoon once declared, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." But sometimes those dogs bite. Time to put them on a leash.

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One of the most appealing things about the Internet is that it seems to offer blanket anonymity. Very few sites or services require you to use your real name; the Net lets you assume multiple personalities, create a new version of yourself each time you log on, and exist apart from your physical self in real life. (Like most men, I am taller, younger, and wealthier on the Net.)

It also provides a layer of safety when revealing your identity could prove dangerous -- say, for political dissidents or victims of spousal abuse.

But anonymity is also one of the awful things about the Internet. That's because most of the problems people encounter on the Net begin with a false identity.

Someone poses as a former government minister who has miraculously selected you (via email!) to help him spirit millions of dollars out of his country. A message that says it's from your bank is really an attempt to fool you into giving up your password. Someone on Facebook claiming to be an old friend is stranded overseas and badly in need of cash -- quick. A person pretending to be a work colleague calls your friends and fools them into giving up private information about you.

The Nigerian 414 scammer, the financial phisher, the Facebook flim-flam artist, and the hacker/pretexter all have one thing in common: They used a fake identity to cause you harm. They appropriated the trust you'd normally place in that identity and used it against you. (Though being greedy or naive doesn't help.)

Of course, the Internet is not truly anonymous -- as Anonymous themselves are now discovering. You can be traced via your IP address and the information you provided when you paid for Internet access. It's just not easy, and in most cases not worth the effort.

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