‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’ Oscar Wilde
Google’s ‘real name policy’ and the value of pseudonymity and anonymity continue to be subjects of much debate, and I still come across several well-written and heavily commented blogs about it. One of them is by Danah Boyd. Another post, by Kee Hinckley, features an exhaustive compilation of reasons why pseudonymity is often essential to free, healthy and proper debate.
Under the new system, users of Google+ must have a public profile showing their full name (and gender), or more accurately what someone at Google arbitrarily decided constitutes a real name. But it doesn’t look as if Google+ is doing so well anyway. Quite a few people found the automated sign-up won’t actually accept their real names, thanks largely to bad programming. Perhaps most its potential users prefer to stick with their usual online identities anyway. Only a handful of people I know have bothered registering accounts, mainly out of curiosity. None of them are persuading others to join.
Persistent Identities and Attribution
People have used pseudonyms since the very early days of the Internet, when proper online communities existed and their users maintained a definite separation between the virtual and real worlds. Pseudonymity is actually very different from anonymity, as a pseudonym has a persistent identity along with a reputation built over a period of time, and a history attributable to it. We could argue that the ‘global community’ would have been next to impossible without it. Nobody knew the other person’s real name and nobody asked, but their identities were still persistent, valid and trusted by various degrees. It’s something that’s worked well for the past five years at AVEN and many other forums where the use of real names is strongly discouraged.
Although true anonymity probably doesn’t exist today, because of numerous methods available to profile users, maybe there’s no other way to attribute profiles to real-world identities than to force a ‘real names policy’. In other words, if people didn’t provide their full names, their online profiles can’t be matched to them.
As someone commented in The Register about a month ago:
‘Think how it looks if you do things the way Google wants: literally everything you do online goes through Google. Your email, your social networking, your chats, your contacts, your calendar, your phone (remember, when you buy an Android phone, the first thing you’re supposed to do is sign it into your Google account, which it then never signs out of), search, maps; they do _everything_. I see Google+ mainly as a cunning means of making sure you’re signed into Google the whole time so they can track everything else you do as well.’
Thankfully I’ve never been entirely dependent on any of the major providers like Google, having been slightly disturbed by invasions of privacy in the name of marketing, targeted advertising, and the countless methods of covert profiling. If a person signs into a Google service, all other online activity during that session, other data stored by the browser, and God only knows what else, is recorded. The ‘social advertising’ firms have moved onto things like flash and respawning cookies after people started getting wise. And there was the Street View controversy after Google went around gathering as much data as it could from peoples’ wireless connections, which I’ve overheard a security expert say was no accident.
I’ve had a couple of theories about why Google’s insisting on users registering real names. One suggestion is the company wants to establish itself as the identity provider/verifier for the government’s online services, which is something FaceBook and Twitter would be the main competitors for. Another reason could be that Google wants to sell analytics data of a much higher quality than FaceBook’s, and could easily do this if the profiles were attached to real world identities.
I’m now in the habit of using IXquick as my default search engine. It’s definitely worth investing a little time and money into finding more custom alternatives, and a personal domain, a little bit of storage space and a half-decent encryption system can work wonders for those who put privacy before convenience.
Stalkers Who Want to Find and Connect
Google wants to make it easier for people to ‘find and connect with you online’, which might be what people want to some extent. It’s a lot different from making it possible for others to ‘find and connect with you’ in the real world, which is what most people really don’t want. It’s something that makes it easier for the dodgy, dangerous and plain annoying to ‘find and connect’ with whoever they’re stalking. But most people know this anyway. What if family members are harassed and employers contacted because of some onlune dispute with the wrong person? What if repressive governments manage to ‘find and connect’ with dissidents and activists?
People using their real names online are at a substantially increased risk of identity theft and social engineering. It means friends, colleagues and relatives can be manipulated using this and whatever information is intentionally and inadvertently provided, and a complete stranger could even pose as someone known to the target. There are countless ways of exploiting this, and countless ways of deriving valuable information without a target noticing.
Children face a more personal risk here, and the danger comes from someone who knows enough about the parents to gain their trust. Unfortunately, the ones posing a danger in this context are allegedly pretty active on Google. Although that particular problem wouldn’t be the fault of the company, it’s unwise to force anyone into providing their real name when child exploitation and identity theft are two of the most prolific Internet-related crimes, and after so much time and resources have been put into prevention through education.
It’s also organisations that benefit from both anonymity and the use of pseudonyms. Countless people out there discuss a wide range of things online while making an effort to ensure none of the content is associated with their clients and organisations they might be working for. This would be next to impossible on something like Google+, where everything’s attributed to a real-world identity and anything they post could be used against them, especially if they’re expert witnesses or involved with stuff the media takes an interest in.
To quote Hinckley: ‘Your name is not a suit jacket. It is the key that places your resume next to your position on gay marriage, your technical papers next to your statements about legalizing marijuana, and your career history next to your medical problems.’