Lie to me

Present at the Parliament and Internet conference, Wendy Grossman explains the reactions after the tone of the discussion revolving around cybersecurity was set following Andy Smith’s, PSTSA Security Manager, Cabinet Office suggestion to lie online to protect against identity theft.

Image: CC BY-NC University of Maryland Press Releases

I thought her head was going to explode.

The discussion that kicked off this week's Parliament and Internet conference revolved around cybersecurity and trust online, harmlessly at first. Then Helen Goodman (Labour - Bishop Auckland), the shadow minister for Culture, Media, and Sport, raised a question: what was Nominet doing to get rid of anonymity online? Simon McCalla, Nominet's CTO, had some answers: primarily, they're constantly trying to improve the accuracy and reliability of the Whois database, but it's only a very small criminal element that engage in false domain name registration. Like that.

A few minutes later, Andy Smith, PSTSA Security Manager, Cabinet Office, in answer to a question about why the government was joining the Open Identity Exchange (as part of the Identity Assurance Programme) advised those assembled to protect themselves online by lying. Don't give your real name, date of birth, and other information that can be used to perpetrate identity theft.

Like I say, bang! Goodman was horrified. I was sitting near enough to feel the splat.

It's the way of now that the comment was immediately tweeted, picked up by the BBC reporter in the room, published as a story, retweeted, Slashdotted, tweeted some more, and finally boomeranged back to be recontextualized from the podium. Given a reporter with a cellphone and multiple daily newspaper editions, George Osborne's contretemps in first class would still have reached the public eye the same day 15 years ago. This bit of flashback couldn't have happened even five years ago.

For the record, I think it's clear that Smith gave good security advice, and that the headline - the greater source of concern - ought to be that Goodman, an MP apparently frequently contacted by constituents complaining about anonymous cyberbullying, doesn't quite grasp that this is a nuanced issue with multiple trade-offs. (Or, possibly, how often the cyberbully is actually someone you know.) Dates of birth, mother's maiden names, the names of first pets…these are all things that real-life friends and old schoolmates may well know, and lying about the answers is a perfectly sensible precaution given that there is no often choice about giving the real answers for more sensitive purposes, like interacting with government, medical, and financial services. It is not illegal to fake or refuse to disclose these things, and while Facebook has a real names policy it's enforced with so little rigor that it has a roster of fake accounts the size of Egypt.

Although: the Earl of Erroll might be a bit busy today changing the fake birth date - April 1, 1900 - he cheerfully told us and Radio 4 he uses throughout; one can only hope that he doesn't use his real mother's maiden name, since that, as Tom Scott pointed out later, is in Erroll's Wikipedia entry. Since my real birth date is also in *my* Wikipedia entry and who knows what I've said where, I routinely give false answers to standardized security questions. What's the alternative? Giving potentially thousands of people the answers that will unlock your bank account? On social networking sites it's not enough for you to be taciturn; your birth date may be easily outed by well-meaning friends writing on your wall. None of this is - or should be - illegal.

It turns out that it's still pretty difficult to explain to some people how the Internet works or why . Nominet can work as hard as it likes on verifying its own Whois database, but it is powerless over the many UK citizens and businesses that choose to register under .com, .net, and other gTLDs and country codes. Making a law to enjoin British residents and companies from registering domains outside of .uk…well, how on earth would you enforce that? And then there's the whole problem of trying to check, say, registrations in Chinese characters. Computers can't read Chinese? Well, no, not really, no matter what Google Translate might lead you to believe.

Anonymity on the Net has been under fire for a long, long time. Twenty years ago, the main source of complaints was AOL, whose million-CD marketing program made it easy for anyone to get a throwaway email address for 24 hours or so until the system locked you out for providing an invalid credit card number. Then came Hotmail, and you didn't even need that. Then, as now, there are good and bad reasons for being anonymous. For every nasty troll who uses the cloak to hide there are many whistleblowers and people in private pain who need its protection.

Smith's advice only sounds outrageous if, like Goodman, you think there's a valid comparison between Nominet's registration activity and the function of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (and if you think the domain name system is the answer to ensuring a traceable online identity). And therein lies the theme of the day: the 200-odd Parliamentarians, consultants, analysts, government, and company representatives assembled repeatedly wanted incompatible things in conflicting ways. The morning speakers wanted better security, stronger online identities, and the resources to fight cybercrime; the afternoon folks were all into education and getting kids to hack and explore so they learn to build things and understand things and maybe have jobs someday, to their own benefit and that of the rest of the country. Paul Bernal has a good summary.

 

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series.

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By Wendy Grossman on Oct 30, 2012

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