Setting Up and Safeguarding An Online “Alter Ego” Identity

by Brett Borders

Not too long ago it was fashionable and normal to go by a pseudonym like “CyberBabe” or “Warlord” – even on professional blogs or forums. Around 2008, when Twitter started to take off, a critical mass of people became more aware of the branding advantages of using your real name. While using your real name is best for branding and business, there can be some hefty privacy disadvantages. You’ll have to be very conscious about what you say — and about what others say about you — when using your real name… as it goes on your long-term, digital “permanent record.”

It’s absolutely normal to have “something to hide.” Not everyone is a squeaky clean, vanilla, boring professional. Maybe you dabble in alternative sexuality, radical politics or you’ve got a sensitive health issue you’d like to discuss on a forum? If you go the “real name” route, you are sure to create a set of digital tracks. Here are some tips for keeping your online shadow identity secret and private:

  • Use a Proxy or VPN.
  • No matter what username or e-mail you use, the administrators of sites and blogs you post on will able to see your IP address, which is associated with your real name (in many cases). For non-casual cases that require extra security, use a proxy server or a virtual private network (VPN) to create an extra layer your real IP address. Then it will often take a legal subpoena for third-parties to track down your real IP address.

  • Establish a root e-mail account.
  • Don’t register for forums or social sites using your normal e-mail account – because the administrator will know your real identity. Make a secondary e-mail address on a free e-mail service. GMail or Lavabit – and register all your alter ego’s accounts under it. This will help keep things organized and your real e-mail address safe. Don’t log into sites with OpenID, Twitter or Facebook connect – as this shares your real ID credentials with the site you’ll be using.

  • Choose completely unrelated pseudonyms and avatars.
  • Don’t be tempted to use an image or name that offers any possible clue to your real identity, no matter how subtle or oblique. Pick something totally random and avoid puns or unconscious associations that may offer evidence as to who you really are. Don’t use real people’s images as avatars, as this can attract unwanted conflict or attention. Use a cartoon avatar or a non-copyrighted picture of something.

  • Be really, really careful about who you are logged in as.
  • The easiest way to blow you cover is to be accidentally logged into Twitter under your real name, thinking you are logged in as your alter ego, and post something identifying that blows your cover. Before you post anything as your alter-ego, make double sure you are logged into the correct account — before clicking “send” or enter.

  • Never confess your true identity, even in private messages.
  • If you want your online alter ego to be secure, don’t let anyone know who is really behind it. Loose lips sink ships. Each person who knows the true owner of your alter-ego account makes your security much more vulnerable.

  • Monitor your typing, grammar and spelling style.
  • It can be easy to roughly identity someone by their digital “handwriting” – their typing style and certain words they frequently use or consistently misspell. When posting under your alter ego, either make sure your spellchecking and grammar is perfect… or write in a completely different style of punctuation and sentence structrue than you normally do. Be consistent.

  • Beware of “psychic” residue.
  • I have seem things that were posted completely anonymously, but someone “energetically” picked up on who it was and called them out for it – without any proof or evidence – and the community believed the accusation. If you are the only one griping loudly about this one small issue, and suddenly you quit and some other name / avatar resumes right where you left off – people will assume you are the same person. So watch your timing, tone, typing and energy signature so you’ll be able to fly under the radar.

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    Disclaimer: This post is not legal advice. It is written as free resource by a well-meaning IT consultant, not an attorney. All information on this site is for informational & inspirational purposes only, and it is NOT a replacement for qualified legal conunsel. Please seek the advice of a qualified attorney who specializes in internet law before proceeding or acting on important online legal matters.

  • Mike Hanbery

    Brett, yours is the best ORM stuff out there, bar none, and I love reading you but man, game this out. The reason we have, “something to hide,” is because we're human and we make mistakes. We're going to keep making them. When–not if–we make them when trying to conceal our identity, we've compounded the error and established ourselves not as careless but duplicitous, which is far worse. Your advice, which makes for a fascinating and thought-provoking blog post, quite necessarily contains words like, “never,” and establishes as a prerequisite the ability to write in a consistent yet different voice, which is a talent few can acquire and even fewer can sustain.

    The days of being Ron the Respected Realtor by day and Zeke the Cross-dressing Death Metal Maven by night are past. Better for Ron/Zeke to use Web 2.0 to target the death metal real estate market.

    Or maybe stay in and watch The Simpsons. I dig the show too.

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