How Your Likes and Emoticons Give You Away

online anonymity

Is it really possible to protect your online anonymity while using social networks? This article will show some ways in which our habits online will give our identity away.

Why more and more people want to keep their anonymity on the internet?

Everyone has their own reason to hide their real name and other personal details online. Some want to protect themselves from scams like identity theft, others want to hide their activities from governments and secret services. Many users use anonymity in order to oppose state censorship – they want to read and write what they really think.

In last 2 years the userbase of Tor – online anonymity software – grew exponentially, up to 2.5 million users a day. Russia is in the top 5 countries where the Tor network is most popular.

The attitude of the Internet companies towards Tor users has been changing. In autumn 2014, Mozilla promised to consider Tor developers’ input for the next versions of their Firefox browser. Facebook, despite previously blocking their service to access from Tor, has become more flexible.

How Facebook Made Life Easier For Anonymous Users

facebook for tor
facebook anonymity

On October 30st, Facebook officially has allowed access to Tor users. Developers have launched a website copy inside the anonymous Tor network itself, so that Tor users can safely login to Facebook. Still, the social network requires from the users to give their real name. Not only that, while registering on Tor, users have to provide their mobile phone number or ID (for example, a passport scan). These limitations surely can be bypassed by giving a fake name, but the anonymous user’s details can still be identified by security agencies and scammers.

How Your Typos and Emoticons Give You Away

emoticons give your identity away
Emoticons will give you away

Facebook posts made under a fake name can still be tied to a real person, based on an analysis of the person’s previous texts. Everyone has his own unique writing characteristics – recurring typos, number of typos, favorite emoticons, capitalization policy, etc. Concordia University scientists developed an algorithm that perform this writing analysis in such a way, that the results are acceptable as court evidence. So far, the algorithm can be applied only when there is a limited number of suspects, among whom the author of the anonymous post is present. For each suspect, unique writing characteristics (writeprints) are collected and then compared to the anonymous post in question.

There are only two ways to protect yourself from such an analysis: either meticulously change your writing style, or to very carefully imitate another person’s style including emoticon usage. There is no universal method to determine authorship of an anonymous text without having a limited number of suspects. Investigators have been trying to reveal the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the Bitcoin founder, by analysing his texts – and haven’t managed to come to a definitive conclusion.

How Your Followers and Friends Give You Away

In 2009 Texas University scientists developed an algorithm that could determine the identity of an anonymous social network’s user based on the structure of his contacts in another public social network. For the experiment’s purposes Twitter and Flickr were used. In 43% of the cases, analysing the friends and followers information allowed to match the users of one network to the users of another. In most cases, the identity of a particular anonymous user could be determined. In other cases, the algorithm made a small error by pointing to someone tightly connected to the anonymous user in question. Researchers noted, that the audience of these two social networks is loosely related, otherwise the algorithm’s precision would have been much higher.

There is one defensive technique from this de-anonymization method. In a 2013 research an “identity split” protection is recommended. The researcher suggests having different social accounts for different social circles – one for colleagues, one for friends, one for hobbies, etc.

How Do Likes Give You Away?

Likes and rating can also reveal the identity of an anonymous user. In 2006, Netflix has published personal data of half a million of its users. This data has contained only the film ratings given by users and the timestamps of these ratings. Scientists matched the data set to IMDB ratings, many of which are posted under real names. If a person has rated at least 8 movies both on Netflix and on IMDB during the same time period, his identity could be determined with almost 100% precision(even if his ratings were different on the two websites). Fans of rare movies(i.e. not in the top 500) could be identified even without analysing their ratings.

Is Online Anonymity Even Possible

We live in the time of Big Data where powerful computer crunch massive information sets. Each one of us leaves a unique footprint on the internet, even when operating from an anonymous account. Our writing style, our social contacts, our likes and hobbies easily give us away – even when we use a secure anonymized network like Tor.

The question is do we accept this, or is something can be done to protect our anonymity.

This article is based on the following publicaiton:

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