If the ongoing revelations of the massive Target data breach prove anything, it’s the necessity of being tightfisted and tightlipped with your data. What you do on your smartphone can haunt you at the checkout counter. Whenever you use services you don’t trust, are asked to fill out questionnaires, or participate in competitions, you should consider not using your real identity.
Instead, you should have two or more spare identities that you’ve made up to protect your real digital identity and to confuse the algorithms in this Big Data era.
We’re not saying you should trick your friends, or what passes as a “friend” online. There are people using alter egos and even taking over others’ abandoned fake identities to push the envelope. And we’ll soon see a market for fake and real identities.
We know from Facebook that up to one-fifth of its users don’t use their real names. We are among those users. We simply don’t trust Facebook, and we’re not alone, according to a recent poll by ad agency McCann. It revealed that 59 percent of U.S. users consider Facebook the biggest threat to privacy, followed by Twitter (40 percent) and Google (32 percent).
Revealing details about yourself should be a question of what you do on which service. In the real world, we are used to becoming more forthcoming as trust is established. There is little reason why this cautionary principle should be turned on its head online just to satisfy the business model of a service.
Until new and better tools are launched to help you work with multiple identities—with the caveat that they should not be another offering from the big identity stores like Apple or Google—you can do it manually. It requires a fair amount of work, though, and you can never be sure who’ll be digging up the alter ego you thought you had buried.
In the first installment of a two-part series, we’ll teach you how to create a new identity in six easy steps.
1) Settle on an alias
When creating a new identity, don’t ever steal somebody else’s name and pretend you are them. Identity theft is a serious crime. Do invent a new identity, e.g. by using a site like Fake Name Generator, which can help you with a full ID in every language: name, age, height, weight, eye color.
2) Create new emails
You’ll want a disposable email for each of your fake identities. You can set up new accounts pretty easily from Google or Hotmail, but there are countless other services out there, most notably Guerrilla Mail. It should go without saying that you should avoid giving out email addresses when shopping in real life. Cash is always the safer bet.
3) Block tracking scripts
Often without your knowledge, companies collect data on your Web activity, like the pages you visit and your recent searches. That information can then be repackaged and sold. There are a couple of sites that will help you block such tracking strips, including Disconnect.me or DoNotTrackMe from Abine.com.
4) Establish a virtual private network (VPN)
A VPN can help anonymize your activity by allowing you to connect to a proxy server, enabling you to send and receive data from a public network as if it were private. We recommend IPREDATOR and that you choose a different IP address when you use your alias.
5) Use Tor
Short for the Onion Router, Tor is a powerful software browser that directs Internet traffic through thousands of relays to anonymize a user’s activity. It’s free to download and should be in conjunction with your alias.
6) One alias, one device
Finally, if you want to take even better precautions so nobody can link your alias ID to your real ID, you should—no joke—use one computer or one gadget only for your alias, preferably with another operating system than the one you typically use. For iPhones, you can use the Tor-powered Onion-browser. For Android, try Orweb.
These different methods may not always work or seem outright silly. But remember what’s at stake. We’re in an arms race with technology companies that cater to well-funded security and commercial interests. Privacy might be on its deathbed, but making yourself a bit less machine-readable goes a long way to create a legitimate backlash and—as Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld calls it—preserve our right to anonymity.
Steffan Heuer and Pernille Tranberg are authors of the book Fake It: A Guide to Digital Self-Defense. They cover technology and privacy issues in San Francisco and Copenhagen. In this series, Digital Self-Defense, Heuer and Tranberg report with updates from the digital identity wars and teach us how to defend our privacy in the great data grab going on all around us. Follow them at @FakeIt_Book.
Photo by foxypar4 remix by Jason Reed (CC-BY 2.0)