Real names, real problems: Pseudonymity under siege

Pseudonymity, part of Net culture since its early beginnings, may become a quaint relic of the early Internet

By , ITworld |  Security

Image credit: Flickr/Stephanie Chaves

Elsa S. is leading a double life. By day, she's an attorney with a small Internet company. At night, she slips into a form-fitting latex catsuit and pursues her other life as fetishist. For several years she published a popular podcast on the topic.

So it's not surprising that Elsa maintains two very public – but very different – personae online. Some of her vanilla friends and colleagues know about her kink identity; some don't. That's fine with Elsa, so long as she can control who knows what.

Elsa is not her real name. It's not even her real pseudonym. She asked that both be excluded from this story, to make it harder to connect the dots between the two.

"I don't want people finding out about me in a way I didn't intend and then using it against me," she says. "Being a fetishist also makes you a more interesting target to cyber-stalkers. Most of the people in the kink community are nice, but it only takes one jerk to ruin your life."

But Elsa's ability to keep her two identities separate is eroding. Major social networks now require users to supply real names or risk having their accounts deleted. To reign in trolls, popular sites have vowed to verify the identities of registered users. As online services incorporate facial recognition and other biometric technologies to identify users, the notion of participating online using a name not found on your government-issued ID may become a quaint relic of the early Internet.

Pseudonymity, part of Net culture since its early beginnings, is under siege.

Internet detox

As any Netizen can attest, online discussions can quickly devolve into a cesspool of toxic waste. Spammers and comment trolls often overwhelm the conversation. Multiple studies have shown that people say things under the cloak of anonymity they would never say using their real names.

So last month the Huffington Post decided to remove the cloak, announcing plans to "independently verify" the identity of each registered user. In a blog post explaining the decision, managing editor Jimmy Soni wrote:

"It's simple and painless to decry online toxicity; it's harder and more important to do something about it. We at The Huffington Post have chosen to take an affirmative step by verifying the identities of new commenter accounts. We won't eliminate every last note of negativity and nastiness on the site, but we believe this change will offer the guarantee of a gut check."

Soni did not elaborate on how the site planned to verify identities, and did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

HuffPo is hardly alone. Last July, GateHouse Media, a chain of community newspapers in eastern Massachusetts, banned anonymous comments. In February, the Miami Herald did the same. In May 2012, the State of New York considered legislation that would require Web publishers to remove anonymous comments upon request unless their authors agreed to attach verifiable names to their statements. That bill has yet to come up for a vote.

Besides attempting to enforce a more genteel Internet, the push for "real names" has a more commercial motivation. Attaching a legal name to a screen name can open up a trove of commercial and government data about an individual. The more verifiable the identity, the more valuable it becomes to advertisers and e-tailers.

Users have pushed back, but with only limited success. After introducing a hard line "real names" policy for Google+ in 2011 – inciting what became known as the "Nymwars" – Google softened its stance on pseudonyms, but only to a degree. Non-legal names are allowed on the social network, provided the user can prove it is "an established online identity with a meaningful following." When asked to define "meaningful," a Google spokesperson replied, "we don't actually quantify" that.

When you sign up for Facebook, the social network's terms require you use "your real name as listed on your credit card, student ID, etc." Given the tens of millions of fake accounts on the site, however, it's not clear how stringently or effectively this rule is enforced. Last January, users of Facebook and Instagram suspected of violating their terms of agreement were asked to provide government-issued IDs to validate their accounts, spurring another round of protests. (Facebook did not respond to requests for comment about its real names policy.)

As a result, some members of the nym community shun the major social networks entirely. Others, like Elsa, maintain multiple personal accounts (which also violates the terms of service for many social networks). But hiding in plain sight may soon no longer be an option. Last month, Facebook said it was considering deploying facial recognition software to analyze users' profile photos. The ostensible reason is to make better suggestions for tagging images, but it could end up inadvertently outing people who operate under multiple identities.

That's one reason why, when engaged in her real world kink persona, Elsa is careful to avoid having her face photographed.

What's in a nym?

People adopt nyms for a variety of reasons. Some do it to create a clear boundary between their professional and personal lives. Some maintain separate identities for different contexts, adopting a unique one for each group they participate in. Some have used the same nyms for so long that large bodies of work and longtime relationships are associated with them.

Gaius Publius has been writing political blog posts under a pen name since 2003, for sites like AmericaBlog and Truthout. 'Publius' is, of course, the pseudonym used by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay when composing the Federalist Papers; he added Gaius to distinguish himself from other political bloggers who've also adopted the name Publius.

The reason for the nym is straightforward: Publius doesn't want his opinions about climate change or NSA surveillance to affect how others in his profession perceive him, and he doesn't want to self-censor to protect his professional identity.

"I would rather selectively reveal my political leanings to people in my life person by person, instead of having them stumble across these things through my writing," he says.

Nym rights activist aestetix has been using a pseudonym online for so long he doesn't really remember how it started. (Like Gaius Publius, he declined to provide his legal name for this article.) Among other activities, aestetix gives public talks at security conferences about online identity. During the Nymwars, aestetix had his G+ account suspended for using an unacceptable name, only to be reinstated later without explanation.

"There are people I've known for 10 years who know me only as aestetix," he says. "I've developed an entire portfolio built around that persona."

Others adopt a nym because their lives may literally depend on it – like political dissidents, victims of sexual or spousal abuse, or just people whose lifestyles subject them to social prejudice, notes Randall Farmer, longtime online community manager and author of the Social Media Clarity podcast.

"Cancer survivors or members of Alcoholics Anonymous may not want to share who they really are," he says. "Pseudonyms let these people do things online they couldn't possibly do if they had to be identified. Sites that require 'real' names are stomping into an area that's very complicated."

Sophie's choice

Nearly two years ago, Sophie S. dropped the male surname she was given at birth and began living as a woman. But the transgender software developer in San Francisco had already been online as a woman for more than a decade, mostly in massive multi-player games like World of Warcraft.

"Growing up I always had major issues being perceived as a man," she says. "Playing online games where everyone knew me only as a female helped a lot in making the transition."

Three years ago, Blizzard Entertainment began to require members to use their legal names in an attempt to root out abusive players. Sophie, who had registered for WoW using the name on her birth certificate before creating her female persona, suddenly found her male name revealed to other players.

"I wanted to play Starcraft 2, but everywhere I went it said I was Steven," she says. "I didn't want everyone to interact with me as male. I emailed Blizzard to see if they would be willing to change my online name to Sophie. They said they wouldn't do it without legal documentation of a name change."

At the time she didn't have the money to file the paperwork for a name change. Instead she closed her account and started a new one as Sophie.

"I lost my friends, contacts, all my achievements, she said. "Everything I had built up over the years I lost when I had to start over from scratch."

Blizzard thought that forcing WoW members to use their real names would make them more accountable for their actions, says Farmer, Instead, players – many of them women – began to leave. Unlike Sophie, they did not wish to be identified by gender.

"A significant fraction of women who play games online present gender-neutral or male identifiers," says Farmer. "They want to participate, but their gender interferes with their experience. Attempting to remove pseudonyms was a disaster for that community."

Blizzard soon reached a similar conclusion. After a user revolt, the company reversed its real names policy in July 2010.

For whom the bells troll

While requiring "real names" may seem like a quick and easy fix for Web sites struggling with trolls and spammers, it ultimately does little to prevent bad behavior. A better solution would be a reputation management system that relies on the community to identify and banish abusive users, argues Farmer, who helped develop such a system for Yahoo Answers in 2007.

"The government needs to force people to use their legal names in some transactions, particularly legal and financial. Nobody wants to get dragged into court because they were mistaken for someone else. But there is no reason Amazon needs to know my real name in order for me to buy something. All they should care about is whether they get paid and that they show me products I might be interested in when I visit the home page.

Bob Blakley, plenary chair of NSTIC's Identity Ecosystems Steering Group

There are many ways a site can determine if a troll using the name "George Thomas" is also using "Thomas George" or "Georgina Thompson" – via IP addresses, cookies, browser fingerprinting, and so on, he adds. In this context, a "real" or legal identity is less important than a persistent one.

But aside from being complex and difficult to manage, reputation systems don't address the larger problem of how to make a pseudo identity portable across multiple locations, especially e-commerce sites that require verifiable payment information. While start-ups like OneID and UnboundID each allow a handful of individual clients to manage Web identities, there are no identity management services that work across the broad swath of the Internet.

In January 2011 the White House announced the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC), an attempt to create an infrastructure that lets Web sites verify identities without necessarily forcing people to reveal their legal names or personally identifying information.

"The government needs to force people to use their legal names in some transactions, particularly legal and financial," says Bob Blakley, plenary chair of NSTIC's Identity Ecosystems Steering Group. "Nobody wants to get dragged into court because they were mistaken for someone else. But there is no reason Amazon needs to know my real name in order for me to buy something. All they should care about is whether they get paid and that they show me products I might be interested in when I visit the home page."

So far, however, progress toward a solution has been steady but slow, Blakley admits.

"It's fair to say the real work of trying to bang out a picture of what a working system would look like is well under way," he says. "But it will be a while before it's done."

What's my name?

Even in a world where encrypted data is not safe from the clutches of the NSA, Blakley says pseudonymity still has a vital role to play.

"All personal names are pseudonyms," he says. "Even your social security number is a pseudonym. The problem isn't that people are leaving comments anonymously. The problem is that they're acting like trolls. And when you throw them off for acting like trolls, they just come back using a different name. If trolls had a genuinely persistent pseudonym, they wouldn't be able to do that."

Yet consumers who wish to protect their real-world identities today face a series of less-than-ideal choices: Avoid certain services, break the rules and risk banishment, or find technical workarounds, like Abine's MaskMe, which allows users to conceal identifying information and conduct transactions using pre-paid credit cards.

It seems the price of pseudonymity, like liberty, is eternal vigilance.

"You have all these companies trying extremely hard to unmask you," says Elsa. "To make pseudonymity work you have to be extremely dedicated to the idea of total separation. In your pseudo life you may never be able to use your real face. And in real life you'll have to become a boring version of who you really are."

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