One of Puzzled's posts from the early days of GC:
How NOT To Accidentally Out YourselfFirst: Information That Can Be More Revealing Than It Seems
[Note: This is a revised version of a post I made on January 22, 2000 to BoyChat. With some of the recent discussions about security and the fact that there are a lot of new posters since the last time I posted this, I thought it would be appropriate to submit it again. Here it is.]
Some of you, I know, have no interest in reading posts about security paranoia issues. If you are one of those people, I suggest you skip the rest of this. For anyone, like me, who finds himself thinking from time to time about how safe it is to divulge fact X or Y, here are some thoughts.
I have noticed a lot of information posted from time to time that can be very revealing, but it seems to me that people are often unaware of just how revealing it is. That information includes the following:
1. Birthdays and ages. Lets suppose that you live in the U.S. There are close to 300,000,000 there, so acknowledging that does not seem like much of a risk, right? Well, if you say exactly when your birthday is, (as in an Its my birthday today post), you limit that to only 800,000 people who share that birthday with you. This is even more revealing than posting I live in Pittsburgh, but while people who do the latter are usually cautioned about how much they give away, people who do the former are not.
But lets go one step further. Suppose you also post your exact age along with that birthday announcement. Well, lets say that about 1 in 80 people share your age. That means that you are now not just one of 800,000 you are one of 10,000. Factor out all of the women and you are 1 of 5,000. Thats a pretty small pool, and this is without using any other possibly identifying information, which most give out freely.
I remember one poster becoming quite angry when his state of residence was alluded to in a post. This same person also has made his date of birth and his age well known. There is a degree of risk to each, but your age and date of birth are statistically more risky than posting your state of residence. And doing both narrows you down to 1 of 500 in one of the largest states and 1 of 100 in an average sized state. Add information about your race that many give away by having sig pics, and the numbers get smaller. Given that the government has the exact date of birth and age of all citizens in several different ways, this information about us could help law enforcement agents who choose to track us.
2. Your time zone. Now this might not seem like a big deal, but if you have given out your birth date, adding your time zone information further limits who you are to about 1/4 as many people (for Americans, again) as you started with. So from 1 in 5,000 you are now 1 in 1,250.
Remember that there are inadvertent ways of posting your time zone. Discussing the television schedule is one. Different people see Malcolm In The Middle at different times, so if you are too specific (like 45 minutes to Malcolm! or Malcolm just ended and ...) you will give this away. Also remember that schedules (especially PBS) can vary from region to region. You might get something on television that is only being shown (or only on that day) in your area. This, then, goes beyond merely posting a time zone. It could identify a specific city.
Another giveaway is discussing sunrises and sunsets. Once I was easily able to locate someone to within 100 square miles of where he lives simply because he posted the time that it was where he was and the fact that the sun had just set. This was in one post. Fortunately for this poster (or perhaps by design ... more on this later) some of that information was false.
3. The weather. If you post that it is snowing, well there is publicly available weather information and it is only snowing in so many places in the world at the same time. If you say that it is snowing, you also limit yourself to certain climates as well. Watch my posts all winter and you will never see me write anything that tells you if I live in a tropical island in the Pacific or in Siberia. Posting about weather can have the same effect as posting about time zones. But doing both can be a compound problem as time zones run north/south and climates run east/west (roughly). To indicate that you are in the eastern time zone and that it snows where you are makes it much more likely that you are a Yankee than a Southerner.
But dont forget, posting the weather in several posts over long periods of time (through discussions of rainy days, windy days, hot days, cold days, etc.) gives a data base that, when cross-referenced could say a lot about where you are. And this is not a difficult task for anyone who takes the trouble to do it.
4. Posting about specific events. I have read posts about concerts, for example. If you say, that Rolling Stones concert last night was great! then you place yourself. Even the Stones only play one city each night. To even say you are going to see some band in concert lets people know you are within reach of one of the several cities of the tour. Some bands tour regionally and many would not justify long trips to go see (even if all of us could afford to do that). So when you post about these kinds of events, you need to be aware what it tells the prying eyes.
Sporting events would be the same, although the wide televising by satellite of games can make this safer unless you post that you actually attended the game. Once a poster mentioned that he was going to see the local NBA team play that night in a post. I emailed him to point out that by checking the schedule of games I now knew that he lived in (or just outside) one of ten cities, as those were the ten where games were being played. If he had ever posted age, birth date, time zone, or weather information, the possible range of cities and people in those cities who he could be would shrink quickly.
5. Posting real life information. Some (few) are not reluctant to post their real first name. Even if it is John, the most common name, it is not a name shared by even 10% of all males, so you reduce by 90% and more the possible people you might be. You also give a very useful piece of information that can be used to find someone. Your name is an easy way to track you, even if it is John.
How about your marital status? When I first posted on BC I was reluctant to say if I was married or not and whether or not I was a father. My reluctance was because of how such admissions narrow the pool of possible people I could be. If you acknowledge your marital status remember that this helps eliminate people cannot be you.
More broad information about family (number of children, brothers, sisters, etc. you have) can also say a lot about who you are. I have never posted anything about my family except that I do have at least one brother. I have not even posted about how many (if any) brothers and sisters my YF has. Dont think that you cannot be traced by someone finding your YF first and then you through him. Another reason not to post real names of YFs or anything else that you should not say about yourself.
Some of us have adopted children or are foster parents. Governments have good records of who has done this. Post the age(s) of the children and the noose tightens. Post that you are single and that the children are boys and it gets tighter still (and the desire of LEOs to strangle you becomes stronger).
Talking about your occupation can be a danger as well. I have posted that I am a teacher. Well, teachers are licensed and so there is a big list of all teachers in some bureaucratic office somewhere. My real name is on one such list. The same goes for doctors, lawyers, engineers, and many other professions. Acknowledging your occupation can help to narrow a search for you. Even if you say no more than that you work in an office or are in retail sales. Every bit helps those who are searching.
Second: How To Minimize The Risk
There are a number of ways to avoid the problems that potentially revealing information can pose. Here are a few of them.
1. Dont ever post any of this information. OK, so Im stating the obvious. But the point should be made that what might be a momentary thought that you share that has no great importance to you over the long haul (like a post about the weather) could have great consequences. If a detail might be revealing and is unimportant, leave it out. I have scrapped more than one already written post because I decided that the information in it is too risky to post for the sake of a comment on a discussion I will have forgotten in a couple of days.
2. Lie. There are a lot of details that can be changed harmlessly for convenience. If you are 43 years old for real, pretend to be 41. If your birthday is September 23rd (Happy Birthday!!), wait until September 25th before posting, Its my birthday today!. Or wait until March. No one here is going to feel betrayed if you lie about this stuff. I know of many posters who have deliberately posted false information (and I have done it myself - often). If simple lies help to keep you invisible, then they are worth doing every now and then.
You can do the same with concerts, sporting events (by waiting many days before posting about going last night), time zones (by pretending to be in the central time zone if you are in the eastern time zone), and weather (by posting about the rainy day today a week later when the sun is shining). But this requires a bit more thought and planning.
3. Be vague. I always ask myself if what I say could be equally true in both India and Japan when time is involved. I ask if what I post could be equally true in Siberia and a tropical island when weather is involved. I dont try the impossible of never saying anything about time or weather, but I do build a secure bubble of possibilities around me as much as I can.
4. Keep track of potentially revealing information. If someone is trying to track you (and if we are going to worry at all about security, then it is best to act as if someone is), a good protection is to play that game as well. If you are aware of how bits of information in combination can identify you, keep track of which ones you have given away (even if it was only once and a long time ago assume the trackers have kept good records on you) and which ones you have not. Over a long period of time you might forget (especially passing comments about weather). You should know this simply for self-protection. If you see another poster reveal something that seems more than they might think they have said, email them to let them know. We need to have each others backs covered when it comes to security.
Third: Does It Really Matter, Or Is This Too Paranoid?
Youre on your own here. I cannot tell you anything specifically about why someone would bother to track any of us, especially if we say nothing that makes us sound remotely criminal (although acknowledging a sexual attraction to children is seen as making us all potentially dangerous criminals). But there are stories of innocent BCers being harassed. For me, as a pedophile who is a teacher, I can imagine someone assuming that I am a danger just from that. But also, given how so few of us post our real full names and given how even first names are not posted by many, Id say that security is taken by most to be a serious issue. I certainly think that it is, but then again, who didnt already know that?
In the end we each need to make our own choices about what to say about ourselves. I agonized for weeks about whether to acknowledge that I live in Asia or whether I should pretend to still be in the States. I also agonized over whether or not to acknowledge being a teacher. It was easier for me to decide to acknowledge that I am single and have no children. But beyond these things, I dont see any reason to pinpoint myself to onlookers any more than that. And if you read section 2, subsection 2 of this post carefully, you will know that even the information I have just given here and before might not all be true.
I once wrote that if you ever see a picture of a boy as my sig pic, assume that it is not me. That is still how I feel today. As cute as I was [:-)], I have no need to share it with the eyes of our enemies. So make your own choices, but make them carefully and with the knowledge that every piece of information can have consequences.
For those of you who think that I exaggerate the risks, what the hell are you doing still reading this post?
For those of you who share my security concerns, I hope this helps.
Original post here /OldMessages/109616.htm
(be careful with links in the archive; some of the old posts still have links containing the old domain name annabell.net; apart from that, replace the "/messages/" part with "/OldMessages/").