How It Works

How do people on the internet know who you are?

Knowledge is power – Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est — Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

This came up when someone on a bulletin board I frequent sounded a little freaked when the moderators said that they monitor people by their IP address. The problem this board was having was pretty simple, actually. People would sign up with multiple accounts for various reasons, and then over the course of time, reply to themselves. The moderators were complaining that they couldn’t understand why someone would want to have multiple IDs, and one or two of the users were complaining that the moderators knew their IP address.

Stepping back for a moment, I realize that I’m pretty young, but for my entire life there have been computers. The first home computers showed up around the same time I did, and I really have to take a moment to consider life without the personal computer. Back when I was in elementary school, my grandmother had a DEC terminal hooked up over a phone cradle/modem to her company server to do the books over the weekends, and when I wanted French toast, I’d use the computer to balance books and she’d cook. Personally I think it’s a small miracle nothing went wrong.

When I was in high school, my friends and I had found the magic of on-line gaming. Text only stuff, or sometimes dialup to a bulletin board system and news groups. None of us actually had our own accounts, and email was a mythical monster we all wanted but didn’t have. Shortly there after came things like Hotmail (back before it was Microsoft Hotmail) and college, which gave us all our own email addresses and virtual identities. Those college IDs had access to a tool I rarely see used now, finger. Via a UNIX terminal (accessed mostly by telnet), we could ‘finger’ a username and find out who the person was, where they lived, and if they’d updated it, what they were interested in. This was nothing compared to what homepages and domain names give us now, but then it was the best thing. We were people. We had identities. We had communities.

Not far into college, I started to wonder how safe it was to have personal information like that all over the net. My father was working in risk analysis and assessment, so I suspect it’s only natural my thoughts drifted that way. It was at that point I started researching how my identity was maintained and who had access to it.

How do people know who I am? Bizarrely enough, the first image that comes to mind when I think about this is an old “George Burns and Gracie Allen” radio sketch. Their accountant has come over to drink and commiserate with George and says that Gracie had just been by to do her taxes. He tells George that when he (the accountant) asked Gracie for proof of identification, she opened her compact, looked in the mirror and says ‘Yes, it’s me all right.’ Were it only that easy. In the ‘real world’ I carry IDs with me to say that I am who I say I am. At work, I have a badge with electronic access and a picture ID, to let me into rooms.

It doesn’t translate all that clearly to the virtual world, however. Microsoft, at one point, had a Passport application that let you use one ID all across their myriad of networks. This has fizzled. Yahoo! had a Yahoo! Wallet feature that is still in use, though even websites that use Yahoo! to sell their wares hardly use it, it seems. The concept of a single point of contact for peoples’ money is unpopular to many people, and this should be surprising. Everywhere you look, people warn you about identity, and I see the lack of faith anyone has in submitting their personal information to one location as a heart warming experience. At last! People are aware!

And yet, as evidenced by my experience on the bulletin board in the beginning of this tale, that’s not the case.

People didn’t like Microsoft Passport for the same reason I don’t have Quicken learn all my passwords for my bank accounts. They make me use an additional password to access my other passwords. It’s easier for me to just keep a spreadsheet of all my passwords and use that, then memorize a third (or fiftieth) password. Realistically, this makes sense. Either you have one password (or password schema) for all your accounts, which makes them easier to hack, or you have a thousand different ones and struggle to remember them all. There’s no easy win.

So on that bulletin board as mentioned above, you have an ID and a password. On the best systems, the moderators have no idea of your password (YaBB’s Gold version, which is a CGI board, actually saved passwords in clear-text!). And yet anyone who’s visited an online community knows that there’s a certain amount of people on the internet who have fun making your life stink. They like to post rude things that have nothing to do with the topic at hand, they insult you, they use language that makes the paint peal. Even if you don’t mind a bit of foulness, these are the people you look at in wonder. How on earth did they get out of elementary school?

It’s the duty of the moderators to school those people in proper net etiquette. I’m not going to delve into what is and isn’t good posting, but my short comment on that is that it pays more to be as thoughtful of and respectful to your fellow posters as you would to someone you were talking to face to face. Listen to what they say and reply in an easy to understand manner. There’s a time and place for l33t speak, and you’ll know when it is (if you have no idea what that is, go to and keep in mind some kid in England turned in a one page essay written like that, the f00).

How you’re known on the internet is how the moderators can contact you and reprimand you for your wrong doings. Sounds fair, right? So how do they know? That’s surprisingly simple.

1. Your ID
People use IDs they can easily redeemer. I have the same account name at Yahoo, Hotmail and Gmail. If I was logged in as, let’s pretend, HintOfTheWeek_111, and I was making trouble, the moderator would likely run a quick Google on that ID and see if you were known elsewhere. When I had a hacker attack a board I moderate, doing that lead me to two notices right away. The first said that he’d done the attack before. The second included how to fix it. Very helpful.

2. Your email address
Most boards make you show an email address, at least to the moderators, when you sign up. This is, again, for accountability. They can use that email address and Google it as well, or they can just email you and chastise you. That’s my preferred method, by the way. A private ‘Hey, idiot’ always seemed more polite then being publicly brought to task on the boards where everyone can see it. Mind you, a lot of people sign up with freebie accounts, and never check them, which is why you end up looking at …

3. Your IP address
Every time you post to a bulletin board, every time you make an ID/Password on a website, check your web email (Gmail, yahoo, hotmail), every IRC session, online game, etc you log on to, your IP address is recorded. That’s the way the world works, and it’s the only way places have of holding people accountable for their actions. And if that scares you just a little, well good! You’re paying attention. Information is power, and you’re trusting the moderators to use that power wisely.

On most bulletin boards, moderators would rather ban you from posting using your ID or your email address. The IP address is tricky. While, technically, it’d very easy to implement, it comes with some major drawbacks. Banning someone by ID or email means they can just make a new ID with a different email. Given how easy it is to make new email addresses, you can see how this is a problem for the moderators. The reason the IP banning is viewed as a last resort is that it causes a lot of damage to innocent bystanders. This has to do with how IP addresses are used, as well as what happens when people use dial-up and proxy servers.

If you use dial-up, your IP address is going to change every time you connect to the internet. That makes it near impossible to ban you. If you use a proxy server (like the Northern people do at work), everyone shows up using the same IP address. You can verify this by getting a couple people around you to go to and compare.

This means if I, as a moderator, ban an IP used by a dial-up user, everyone else who uses that IP gets banned. And in all likelihood, the person I wanted to ban is on a new IP address and doesn’t care at all. If I ban an IP used by a proxy, everyone else who uses that proxy gets banned. In a way, it’s a no-win situation. The only solution for board moderators is constant vigilance. If two different user IDs with the same IP starts posting things that look way too similar, and are upsetting people the same way, then it’s probably the same person.

What does all this mean for you? Now you know how you’re monitored, and in theory how to beat it. But that’s not enough. If the fact that the people who write viruses like Sasser can get caught isn’t enough of a hint, I’ll spell it out. Even if you’re using obfuscating tactics, you can get caught. To date, there’s no 100% fool-proof way of hiding who you are on-line. If you use a proxy server that used by a known troublemaker, you may find yourself unceremoniously banned. If you’re the bad person using the proxy, a court order can make them cough up your real IP address.

Admittedly, there a many legitimate reasons to have two IDs on one bulletin board. There are many understandable reasons to use a proxy server. I’m not proposing a solution, but I feel that everyone should be aware of the reality of internet usage. In the age of heightened security concerns and identity theft, it’s important to know how some people are getting to know all about you.

Before you get all scared, the amount of damage that can be done with your IP address, provided you’ve implemented the latest and greatest security patches from Macintosh, Microsoft or whatever other OS you might have, is minimal. They still need passwords and IDs to your computer, among other things. So if you’re essentially a decent person and you don’t knowingly break any laws, don’t panic about logging onto a bulletin board.

On the flip side, assume that someone knows where you’re logging in from. It’s just safest.

Helpful Links:
What an IP address is
Yahoo!’s explanation of IP addresses and privacy
Determine what the rest of the world sees as your IP address
What is ‘l33t’ speak?
Home Computer Security

PS: There’s a fairly humorous link I was given once, and it never fails to make me laugh. It’s a 1940’s style intro to posting on the internet: