Information Shadows, and the Difficulty of Anonymity

Chris Herot wrote a very interesting short post yesterday, with some of the ideas coming out of Foo Camp East.  Some of it will be unsurprising to folks here (most of whom, I think, have long since lamented how inadequate the word “friend” is for most social networks), but there are some neat references.

One point isn’t exactly surprising, but worth noting nonetheless: see this PDF, which argues for a formalism of “information shadows”.  (The PDF is 74 pages, but it’s actually not very long — it’s essentially a slide show, in the breezy Head-First style.  The file is large, but it’s mostly pictures.)

The initial argument is that, as we move into a world of ubiquitous computing, it will become more and more essential to have data that corresponds to real-world objects, and therefore we need ways to refer to those objects.  It’s not rocket science — indeed, it’s almost exactly why the URI standard is as ridiculously flexible as it is — but he makes a good argument that steam engine time is here for this idea.

Stick around to the final third of the document, though, which is where it gets really interesting.  He generalizes the concepts of “serials” and “services”, and explores how real-world and digital concepts are mushing together, to produce new models of ownership that simply couldn’t work before ubiquitous computing.  While the facts contained in it are well-known, it shows that there are some new emergent concepts in the air, and we should start thinking about what we can really do with them.

Also, Chris points to a paper that I’m sure will disturb a lot of people here (although, again, I suspect many will be unsurprised).  De-anonymizing Social Networks demonstrates that, if you simply know that somebody is on two different anonymous social networks (they use Twitter and Flickr), you can relate their handles together with a decently high degree of confidence simply by analyzing the topology of the social graph.

I haven’t read the paper in detail yet, so I’m not sure how well it generalizes, but it does illustrate that our cozy notions of anonymity aren’t as secure as we might wish.  Modern data-mining techniques are powerful, and keeping multiple identities truly separate is harder than it looks…

2 Responses to “Information Shadows, and the Difficulty of Anonymity”

  1. Jim E-H Says:

    I’ll have to look it over, but on the face of it, the de-anonymizing doesn’t bother me much. I realize this isn’t true for everyone, but when I post under a pseudonym, I only expect to protect my identity from casual observation (like someone googling me), not a concerted investigation. It’s similar to how anyone could break into my house with a brick, but I still lock the door. It’s deterrence, not a fortress, and in either case only likely to be breached by someone who is making a concerted effort, not casually or by accident.

  2. Justin Says:

    I can understand that, but I do worry that these attacks on identity are likely to become only more broad-based, and easier.

    It’s true that there isn’t a high likelihood of someone spending considerable effort rooting out *your* identity per se. But I can see someone spending a lot of effort to break *every* identity on Twitter in a mass attack, and then selling the information cheaply.

    To be fair, the commercial motivation for that isn’t yet clear, and it’s unlikely to happen until and unless such a motive arises. But I’d guess that, if someone comes up with a decent reason to de-anonymize the social networks — even if only a small fraction of those identities have value — then mass de-anonymization seems likely…

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