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Online Identities: Transparency and Separation February 14, 2017

Posted by ficial in brain dump, techy.
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There are two main axes to consider when thinking about the privacy of an online identity: transparency and separation. Transparency is a measure of how closely linked an online identity is to an offline one. This ranges from recognized to pseudonymous to anonymous. Separation is a measure of how connected an online identity is to another online identity of the same person. Separation ranges from associated (least separate) to isolated (most separate).

In recognized transparency level there is a clear link between your online and offline life – your online identity uses your real name, notes your physical address, has your main phone number, references other aspects of your life (work, family, etc.), and so on. This is typical of social networks that allow leverage from offline relationships (e.g. facebook, linked in, etc.). A person only ever has at most one recognized identity – all other identities that get linked to it become just another aspect of that single recognized identity.

In pseudonymous transparency level you have a persistent online identity, but there is a clear break between it and your offline life – no real name or other contact or demographic info, personally identifying information is deliberately minimized, etc. You can participate in social networks, have a reputation, build relationships, and so on, you just can’t build anything using your offline resources. A person can have any number of pseudonymous identities.

In anonymous transparency level not only is there no connection to your offline life, there isn’t even a persistent online identity. Actions and interactions are stateless – you have no reputation or connections to give you weight, nor to weigh you down, and each anonymous action/interaction is distinct from others. (note: if it’s not distinct then the transparency level is actually pseudonymous, not anonymous). Anonymous actions either are not identified (e.g. a comment that does not require a username to be given, or that is made from a general, public account), or have a one-use identity (e.g. a comment using a throw-away account).

These transparency levels aren’t general states, but instead describe the knowledge-of-identity relationship between one of your online identities and someone or something else. For example, one could be recognized to a given group, have multiple pseudonymous identities in another community, and be totally anonymous in all other online actions. An antagonist is something that tries to shift towards recognized the transparency level of that relationship between you and it.

An antagonist has three operations at its disposal: coalescing, clarifying, and cohering. Coalescing is linking two or more online identities into a single one. In coalescing transparency is dominated by recognition – any online identities that are linked become an single identity which has the privacy transparency level of the most recognized of the pre-linked identities. Clarifying is increasing the transparency of an identity via research an analysis (e.g. checking metadata, searching posted info for clues, etc.). Cohering is increasing the association of an online identity via research and analysis (e.g. device fingerprinting, social network comparisons word use patterns, etc.).

These operations form a fully connected positive feedback network – the result of any operation makes all subsequent operations easier. Three key consequences are that the transition from anonymous or pseudonymous to recognized can happen very quickly, that small footholds can easily lead an antagonist to recognition, and that protecting privacy means dealing with all three operations. This in turn means that building and using a truly, robustly private/not-recognized online identity requires extreme discipline.

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