Separate identities protect your Internet privacy

This document is a first draft of an article on a complex topic. It has not yet been reviewed by internet privacy experts. Take it for what you can get from it and consider doing further research. I'd love any feedback on how to improve it.

How much privacy is possible?

A clever online sleuth or social engineer can probably find your tax and bank account numbers, your age and sex, home address, telephone numbers, sexual interests and practices, etc. Is there any point in being careful anymore? Maybe yes!

You have an internet dossier!

There are now companies which specialize in preparing internet dossiers on prospective employees, tenants, etc. They use automated tools to pull together information on you from social network sites, email and twitter archives, blogs, etc. They also look at information available on your friends and correspondents and use that to infer information about you! When people know you personally, this information is fairly harmless. Unfortunately, a prospective employer, etc. is increasingly likely to look at such a dossier before choosing whether or not to meet you.

Controlling your internet dossier

It's a lot of work to deter a determined hacker, but you can largely control what's in your internet dossier because of how they're prepared. Here are some things you can do to control what gets in your internet dossier:

  1. Create separate identities for different aspects of your life
  2. Encrypt your private e-mail
  3. Encrypt your phone conversations
  4. Use a contact-form on a website
  5. Avoid spyware on your computer, phone, etc.

I hope to get a chance to cover all of these topics in a later version of this or other articles. Right now I'm just going to write about the first piece.

Creating separate identities for different aspects of your life

Names, numbers, email addresses and other distinctive pieces of information about you can be used as a primary key. Primary keys which you (or spyware) transmit over the internet can be used by others to gather together all of your associated personal information. If however, you create separate identities for different aspects of your life and avoid using any primary key across different identities then you can keep different aspects of your life separate.

How many identities should you have?

Somewhere in the range of 2-5 identities will suffice for most people, e.g.

  1. One or more professional identities
  2. One or more friends and family identities
  3. Identities associated with any controversial special interests

The separation of your professional identity from your social identity is the most important one for most people. The number of identities you need and are willing to maintain depends on you; however, the fewer identities you have to manage the better.

An example with two identities

Suppose you simply want to separate your online professional identity from your online social identity.

What belongs in your professional identity

A good rule of thumb about what should be here is any information you would put in a resume. This should be your only online identity to use your legal name. You should not include your age or birthday! Any email address, phone number, mailing address, etc. which you use for business purposes is then off-limits for use by any other identity. You can use your business identity with job and business networking sites. Any pictures associated with your professional identity should be consistent with your intended professional image.

Your professional identity is not a false image of you! It is a simplified image of you. appropriate for people who do not have a closer relationship with you. It can still be lively, creative and consistent with your values. You are the same person whether you are wearing a business suit or a bathing suit. When and where you wear which matters!

What belongs in your social identity

It's useful to have a nickname or handle which your friends can easily associate with you but strangers cannot. You can use this as the basis of personal websites, email addresses, social networking account names, etc. If a social networking site like Facebook asks for your full real name, give them your nickname instead. If you really want to share your birthday, leave off or slightly alter the year.

Pictures of you cannot be used as a primary key - computers are very poor at finding matches for people in photographs. Make sure that any online photos of you which your friends tag or otherwise identify are tagged with your nickname, not your real name.

Some friends know more than one of your identities

You want to gracefully let your friends know that you prefer to reduce the exposure of your private information on the internet. You may want to ask them to read this article, especially the next section.

Respect your friends' privacy!

When you mention someone in an email, blog, twitter or any other online medium do not mix their primary keys! For example, avoid using someone's real name outside of a strictly professional context. Always check with someone before giving out any of their personal information - better yet, let them give out the information.

Honesty and Openness

It's generally safe to be open and honest with other people who are open and honest. Being open and honest with strangers who might take advantage of you is foolish. Your friends will respect you for being cautious with your information and with theirs.

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