The illusion of anonymity


“… But our sense of anonymity is largely an illusion.  …” [-2]
     “… To avoid problems, I’m going to have to assume that everything
     I say is public not private like I used to think. …” [-1]

Earlier in the year I decided to re-activate my Facebook account. [0] It was in response to Black Saturday. [1] Till then I was quite content living in my own Internet bubble. The past was the past and I could pick and choose how I interacted with it. You could find me if you looked. I’ve been on the Web since ’94, the Internet longer. [2]

The Black Saturday fires [3] forced me to change the way I interact online. I had to quickly adapt.

“… It’s been a strange start to the year so far. I’m running across 

people I haven’t seen or heard of for many years and I’m not sure 

quite why. Now it seems every time I run into someone and I 

mention are they online they respond more than likely with, “yes on Facebook”. 


I’ve had an account for a long time, but I never use it. Why? 

I’m certainly not that interested in having to learn the ins 

and outs of the interface and permissions. But faced with an 

increasing number of people I know using it I’ve come up with 

a plan.

It’s pretty simple. Grab all my open content and funnel it back

to Facebook. Just find a content aggregation site, Add all the 

sites you want to collate and point the RSS file to Facebook. 

Instant content without having to touch the site.


“… Facebook is to the Internet, what Microsoft was to the PC …”

This solves a couple of problems in one hit. Firstly it means I 

don’t have to worry about my *stuff* being sucked up and dictated 

by any one company. The other is I still appear on Facebook to 

anyone I know who lives there. Facebook reminds me of the large 

shopping malls. You can see people walking around at a lower level, 

call them over if you want to or simply ignore them if you feel 

like it. That kind of behaviour is creepy. I know it happens but… 

Even creepier is closed pages. People want to exist in Facebook 

(or travel through the mall) yet remain anonymous. Anonymity in a 

computer system is an illusion.


Pumping my open content into Facebook has some interesting side 

effects. Because the information is search-able on the open web, 

I don’t need to close access to most things. I don’t bother putting 

phone contact details. I simply use phones for outgoing calls. The 

rest of the time it’s turned off. So what else is there to put up?

Anyone can view my page. They just can’t edit or comment without 

my permission. Pretty my much as it exists on the Open Web. The 

only thing exposed is my friend network. Have to think about that. 

On the other hand these networks are exposed on other sites but not 

to the same degree. …” [4] 


Small worlds

 At the time I didn’t understand why I was all of a sudden being contacted by people I hadn’t seen or heard for many years. Now I do. Technology like Facebook, Flickr and Twitter cut across my small world networks [5] allowing me to contact people I hadn’t seen for years but it also let me find lost people by virtue of knowing friends of friends. [6] Social software really did make a difference.

A balancing act

But there is also a downside. I’d also have the potential to run into people I didn’t want to interact with. [7] How do I balance the two competing demands? The solution was to use the advantages of the Open Web [8] with a few tweaks. I’d self censor posts, but leave the bulk of the content open for all to see. This is the future. You decide what kind of presence you want on the Internet, not someone else.

So I decided just how would I interact with people that I’d shared a past with. I could close everything off and whisper to them. This represents how face to face conversations happen. I see someone but unless all my other friends, friends of friends are privy to the conversation they’ll only get it second hand.

Social software changes the rules. Now all your friends, friends of friends, strangers can see your conversations all at once if you choose. Facebook is no different in this respect. But Facebook isn’t a real conversation with your friends.

Sold a fairytale

"... Anonymity in a computer system is an illusion ..."

To think your conversations in a social software setting are the same as real life will remain private is naive. Total privacy is a pretense. Anonymity in a computer system is an illusion.

So what happened this week? Facebook decided to force users to be more open. [9] The advantages of thinking about the idea of friends, privacy and networks and how this effects my electronic social networks has allowed my privacy settings on Facebook pretty painless.

I’m not trying to be too smug here. I could still be bitten. But if I do, it won’t be through sheer ignorance. For those who are lamenting their lost anonymity, yes it is a betrayal of sorts. But it also required a suspension of belief in the reality of how software works [10] and how companies operate. [11]


[-2] Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Carr, Tracking Is an Assault on Liberty, With Real Dangers: Pretty much everything we do online, down to individual keystrokes and clicks, is recorded, stored in cookies and corporate databases, and connected to our identities, either explicitly through our user names, credit-card numbers and the IP addresses assigned to our computers, or implicitly through our searching, surfing and purchasing histories.” Note this quote was written after this article was posted. [Accessed Monday 9th August, 2010]

[-1] ComputerWorld,  Mike Elgan, “The five stages of Facebook grief”, [Accessed July 17, 2010]

[0] Facebook, “My Facebook account”

[1] Flickr, *”Bushfires, Black Saturday Flickr collection”

[2] Flickr, “2006JUL261050: blast from the past… 10 Years on the Internet”

[3] Flickr, “Black Saturday Bushfires set”

[4] Flickr, “Facebook: Why the end of the line is my destination, not the city”

[5] Wikipedia, “Small world network”

[6] Wikipedia, “Six degrees of freedom: friends of friends phenomena”

[7] Flickr, “Highschool set”

[8] Flickr, “Facebook: Why the end of the line is my destination, not the city”

[9] EFF, “Facebook’s New Privacy Changes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”

[10] Flickr, “Iz killd miselfz on fuzzbook und livded to tel da tail”

[11] Flickr, “Roach Motels ( announces shutdown)”


Sydney: A view from the mono-rail

On Cup day I went for a quick holiday in Sydney. It’s been a long time between trips to Sydney so I was interested to see what the self appointed capital of Australia was like.

Shots at Tulla waiting for the plane. Doing my bit for the environment and burning some excess CO2. Next lot of shots shows the plane coasting downhill towards Sydney and landing. Took a cab to the city, checked-in and started to take a walk at the ferry terminal. Later on went for a walk around the city. Certainly different, hilly and sandstone.


The Strand

A stroll later in the day uncovered an arcade called, The Strand Arcade. Built in 1891, the arcade houses numerous shops and really is delight to see developers have enhanced the original Victorian era fascade and interior rather than modernise or pull it down.

2009DEC081423 2009DEC081424 2009DEC081426 2009DEC081428 2009DEC081429

Off like a bondi tram

Coming from Melbourne I miss the Trams. Sydney once had trams[0] where are they now? Why did the get rid of them? Where the Sydney Opera house now sits was sited the Sydney Tram depot. One cultural item replaced with another. So going on the monorail was a bit of unexpected fun. But why such a small track?

2009DEC151106 2009DEC151107 2009DEC151115 2009DEC151116 2009DEC151117 2009DEC151118

Why not extend the rail right around the entire city? Had it not been for the monorail I don’t think I would have got such a good idea of what the city of Sydney looked like. Perched up above the streets you get quite a different view. What I saw I liked. The streets aren’t very wide. Glass and concrete tower over the Sandstone.


  • ABC

  • HN

    • The perfect way to slice a pizza (submitted)

    • What is a Turing Machine? (submitted)

    • All 32mil RockYou accounts hacked. Passwords were stored in plaintext (commented)

      “… How do venture funds not do better technical due diligence(or any at all)? … How do we make sure companies don’t do dumb things like this? …”

      Because it’s not seen by “management” or “VC’s” as a priority. Extra programming is seen as a time and monetary cost, not a necessity. One company I worked for used plain-text for customer passwords and mandated Microsoft technology in the same breath. When I talked to the lead tech, I got a shrug. Not because of lack of technical smarts but politically tied hands from management. When I contacted the MBA minted CEO I got a blunt – “it’s not a problem, don’t worry about it”.

      A physical loss is perceived more tangible than something ephemeral.

      Things did happen when people walking off the street stole “stuff” from the office. Swipe cards were quickly introduced. I’d broached such arrangements before the incident but that wasn’t seen as a problem either.

  • Facebook

  • Twitter

    • “federal government’s #internet #f will go ahead” yay #australia joins #iran #china & #saudiarabia in trying to hold back moores law #

    • ♬ Strangers down the line / Lovers out of time / Memories unwind / So far I still know who you are / But now I wonder who I was ♬ #

    • ♬ lamented and assured / to the lights and towns below / faster than the speed of sound ♬ #

    • ♬ we feel the pull in the land of a thousand guilts and poured cement ♬ #

    • ♬ I will breathe / For the both of us / Travel the world / Traverse the skies / Your home is here / Within my heart ♬ #

    • ♬ You’re everything that I want and ask for / You’re all that I’d dreamed / Who wouldn’t be the one you love / Who wouldn’t stand inside your love ♬ #

  • Misc

    • j = s.split(“n”) for item in j: print “%s %s” % (n, item)

    • bootload 2009 2009OCT 2009OCT31 2009NOV 2009NOV03 2009NOV08 2009NOV09 2009NOV22 2009DEC 2009DEC08 2009DEC15 thestrand shops sell display packing customers trip sydney qantas fly jet travel airport circular monorail mono sydney city view viewabovecity viewabove sunny blue sky bluesky



  • created 2009DEC15

Peter Renshaw Copyright 1994 – 2009 for all text and images using the Creative Commons ‘Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Australia’ License.


2 thoughts on “The illusion of anonymity

  1. <i>"… But our sense of anonymity is largely an illusion. Pretty much everything we do online, down to individual keystrokes and clicks, is recorded, stored in cookies and corporate databases, and connected to our identities, either explicitly through our user names, credit-card numbers and the IP addresses assigned to our computers, or implicitly through our searching, surfing and purchasing histories. …"</i><b><a href="">Tracking Is an Assault on Liberty, With Real Dangers </a></b>, Nicholas Carr, Wall Street Journal, 7th August, 2010.

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