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Can You Really Hide Online?

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Link-Up Digital

The issue of Internet anonymity continues to play out in lots of interesting ways, shedding light on the future of privacy in a world increasingly infused with digital communications.

Lots of people use "handles" rather than their real names when online. Some of them think it makes them invisible and gives them license to act as they please. A recent court case showed otherwise.

This past November a New York City man was sentenced to six months in prison for using multiple aliases online to harass adversaries. This wasn't your typical online "flamewar." The man sentenced was a lawyer, and the point of contention was an academic debate.

What the lawyer did was use multiple email accounts and blogs to impersonate historians in order to try to discredit those who disagreed with the views of his historian father about who created the Dead Sea Scrolls. Passions run deep about this collection of hundreds of ancient texts discovered between 1946 and 1956 in caves near the Dead Sea, some of which contain the earliest known version of portions of the Bible.

Among the most nefarious specific actions taken by the lawyer was using an email address that made him appear to be one of his father's academic rivals who was admitting that he had plagiarized his father's work. In court the lawyer contended that what he was doing was a "satirical hoax." The court disagreed. As of this writing, the case is still in appeal.

The Internet has disparaging names for these types of actions. One is "sockpuppet." When it first came into usage, a sockpuppet was someone who used a second online identity to praise himself, in the manner of a ventriloquist using a hand puppet. But it has since been generalized to mean anyone who uses a misleading online identity.

Another name in usage online is "nymshift." People who nymshift repeatedly change their online handles, or shift their nyms, to avoid being blocked by others who don't want to see their postings.

Using an online handle has a history as old as the online world, and using a pseudonym has a history far older. Among the many famous people using multiple pseudonyms was Benjamin Franklin.

Such behavior of course isn't necessarily negative.

Online, using a handle can give people the freedom to post honest opinions about politics or other sensitive topics when posting under their real names might get them in trouble at work. Handles also allow people to seek information and solace from others if they've been a victim of abuse or suffer from a medical condition without fear of embarrassment among family and friends.

Other times people simply like using a nickname online for the fun of it. I did a little study recently by analyzing the names used by the 108 people who logged onto one particular Web discussion site I follow.

Most people used a handle that didn't appear to have any meaning or was some hidden combination of their first and last names with perhaps some extra letters or numbers. The next largest group chose a fun handle such as captaincoffee, Dads Stuff, Eagleeye, homevideo, labmom, lostDutchman, Oldman, superbeast1098, TreasureGirl, and WildJon. Then came those who used what appeared to be their real first names. The smallest group, just three of the 108 people, all of whom were experts or well-known in their field, used their full names.

If you use a handle for negative purposes such as heckling or bullying others, don't think it can't and won't be pierced. In another online group I follow, one frequent poster habitually harassed others, seemingly for sport, calling them names and trying to put them down in every way possible.

Several other posters were able to sleuth who he was, apparently through the Internet Protocol address (IP address) of the computer he used to log onto the Internet. Using free online sources, they uncovered and posted the numerous handles he had used, Web sites and online discussion groups he posted to, his email addresses, his real name, his eBay I.D., Web sites he created including his business site, his age, his marital status, the address of the apartment where he lived, and his phone number.

Don't expect privacy either if you log onto the Internet at work, particularly if you're using company equipment. On the other hand, frequent advice given to employers is to create a clear privacy policy that spells out exactly what employees can expect, to avoid misunderstandings and even potential legal problems.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at or

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