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Internet Anonymity and Impersonation

This is not a post about how to use Onion Tor to obfuscate who you are. It’s about how I know who you are.

If you’ve visited this URL, I know who you are. I know your browser, your IP, your OS, your screen size, how you got here, who your ISP is, what country you’re in, and really, that’s a lot of stuff. It doesn’t matter if you post on this site or not, I have a way to log who you are.

Did that scare you? Well, it should and it shouldn’t. Every website on the net has this ability, and some are more honest about what they do with that information and some are not. I use it to optimize content for my visitors, and to block my current bevy of South African residents who are harassing me.

Five years ago, I wrote an essay for my office about how people on the internet know who you are. The intent was to raise awareness in my co-workers as to how people knew who they were, and what actions made them obvious to site-runners that they were who they were.

Someone asked me once if it was possible to be anonymous on the net, and I told him, seriously, “Sure, don’t log in.” Expecting to be able to be truly, 100%, anonymous is like expecting to be able to come to someone’s house and never tell them your name or show them what you look like. They’d kick you out, have you arrested, or worse. A website is a house, and the same basic rules apply. You’re a guest.

If you run your own website, be it a small, weird blog about everything, a tech blog, or a fansite, you have people who come by and will eventually be a dick. This is just a constant in life. But that means you have to keep an eye on your site, upgrade it to keep out the ones who want to hack, and find ways to keep out the ones who just want to be trolls. I’ve written a couple plugins (Ban Hammer and Impostercide) to help me with that, but at the end of the day, no plugin can be as smart as your own brain.

Recently, in the Impostercide comments, someone asked me if Impostercide could stop anonymous users from impersonating each other. And the answer is no, no it cannot. See, Impostercide (and any similar plugin) needs to check against a list, and really, all you have is the list of members. So if someone anonymous tries to use a members email or login handle or URL, well that’s easy to catch! Sure, some people might have the same URL, but that’s pretty unlikely unless they’re running a business together… Like Ron and Andrea. I may want to rethink that part, now…

Anyway, the point is you have to have something to check against. Anonymous users aren’t registered, so the only ‘check’ you have is IP address. In theory, you could jigger the check to say ‘If the user ID/email has commented before, check to make sure the IP is the same, and if not, flag it as bad!’ Except that wouldn’t work, since, for example, I login with multiple IPs. The world is just too mobile for that to work in any decent automated fashion. Instead, you need to use your brain.

As a site runner, when I see a questionable comment, I make a note of the IP address first and then the email. If it’s a specialized domain (like ipstenu.org, something personal), I go to the site and check it out. If the site looks legit, I match the IP. Does it come from the same general region as the website? Does it come from the same general region as where the website says the person lives? If it’s someone I’ve seen around my sites before, does it sound like their other posts? Does the language match their website? Do they post on forums I frequent and sound like they normally do? You’d be surprised how easy it is to notice when someone doesn’t sound right. There will be an odd turn of phrase or a strange typo.

I’ll give you a true example.

I have a sort of twitter stalker/idiot, who pretends to be a famous person, and kisses up to me and asks I verify her celeb account as legit (this is because I run a fansite for said famous person, and I met her once). Recently she posted on my fansite blog. Her comment immediately was flagged by my moderation filter, because it was a new post from a new email address. I do this for all new comments on all sites I run. And even then, if I approve a post I’m not sure about, I manually put it in the moderation list for a while.

What my idiot, apparently, did not know, was that when you post to a blog, it records your IP address. I looked up the IP, since someone who’s purportedly a celebrity should come from, oh, perhaps the general Los Angeles area. Or maybe her agency. But no. It’s from South Africa. South Africa happens to be where another twitter account, one that regularly harassed and insulted me, was located. In fact, if I went to that account’s twitter page, right there under location it says ‘South Africa.’

Armed with that information, I opened up the fake celeb and the troll twitter pages, side by side, and matched time-stamps of tweets. Oh look. All tweets are roughly around the same timeframe (hours that are pre and post school for South Africa, but weird for someone in the USA).

The lessons to take from this are simple. First is ‘Never piss off the sysadmin’ but only slightly less well known is this: If you’re going to pretend to be someone else, you need to be really good at hacking the internet, in order to hide who you actually are. And if you think someone’s being impersonated, well, it’s pretty easy to double check and follow up. If someone contacts you and says ‘Hey, that’s not me!’ follow up right away and assume they’re them. Kill both comments and email asking ‘which one’s you?’ But err on the side of caution.

If you’re a commenter, use your brain. Never assume the person running the site doesn’t look at your data and make some snappy deductions from it.

For a site runner, remember there is no better weapon to fight impersonators on the internet than to use your brain and think things through logically.

4 replies on “Internet Anonymity and Impersonation”

What *I* might do, though it involves incredible legwork & looks really obsessive, if find a point when Famous Person was at a particular public & press-covered event. then cross-reference Fake Tweeter’s posts.

Dollars to doughnuts they won’t line up / make sense.

But I am 😈 like that.

Well, for my idiot, it just so happens I was invited, by the celeb in question, to meet her. It was really just a few weeks before I met her (but after I was invited) that the faker showed up. So … yeah, it’s a case of terrible timing. 🙄 If it got to be really a pain in the ass, I would probably do that mildly obsessive maneuver, but I just shot her agency a note ‘Hey, there’s a fake Twitter account that’s harassing fans.’ 👿

I love your search… A real detective captain !
I’m sad for people who believe ‘South Africa’. It’s not fair for them.

Anonymity on the internet… Vast subject.

The fall out from people who attempt to impersonate others is where we all lose, at the end of the day. I don’t understand WHY people play pretend like that, and sadly getting the innocent to believe the truth, when the proof is something they don’t understand, is troublesome. I don’t know how to explain it in more laymans terms, so it becomes a he-said/she-said argument.

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