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Academics Reveal Online Anonymity Is Impossible To Achieve When Using Social Media


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Online anonymity is a topic of substantial debate. Some experts feel there is no need for such a trait, whereas others feel user privacy needs to be protected by all means. But new academic research goes to show there does not seem to be such a thing as online anonymity. Digital breadcrumbs can be found everywhere on the Internet, even for people who use Tor or VPN connectivity.

Anonymity on the Internet is all but an illusion these days. While there are tools that offer additional privacy and masking, these networks become the target of state-sponsored hacking attempts. The FBI infiltrated Tor quite some time ago, and they continue to use undisclosed tools to bring down onion-routed platforms on a regular basis.

Social Media Is The Downfall of Online Anonymity

New research by a team of academics goes to show they can reveal a user’s identity by using the links clicked on their Twitter feed. Even when people use anonymity tool relying on social media can be a downfall. The researchers put together a Google Chrome extension – aptly called Footprints – which looks through user’s browser history for these Twitter links.

All of the information aggregated over the past 30 days is then sent through Footprints. It only takes a minute – or sometimes less  – for Footprints to list 15 possible Twitter profiles. While this is still not accurate per se, it narrows down the possible results by quite a margin. After the “dirty work” is done, Footprints will automatically delete itself.

Stanford Assistant Professor Sharad Goel, who co-developed Footprints, stated:

“We were interested in how much information leak there is when browsing the Web. We want to raise awareness and inform policy. his is more of an academic demonstration. We’re not trying to make the tool available to other people, it’s mostly about raising awareness.”

Despite the extension working as intended, there are two challenges that still need to be addressed. Quantifying the similarity of a social media feed to a web browsing history is wet fingerwork for now, although there is some science to it as well. However, this approach does not take into account users who may be followed by various social media bots. Particularly with accounts who have tens of thousands of followers, there will be quite a few bots involved.

Secondly, this tool can only operate whenever the sought after individual has a Twitter feed to begin with. Those who stay away from this platform will not be identified by Footprints, as it is one of the few networks where all conversation is public.A more detailed whitepaper regarding this project will be unveiled in the coming weeks, though.

Header image courtesy of Shutterstock

JP Buntinx
JP Buntinx
JP is a freelance copywriter and SEO writer who is passionate about various topics. The majority of his work focuses on Bitcoin, blockchain, and financial technology. He is contributing to major news sites all over the world, including NewsBTC, The Merkle, Samsung Insights, and TransferGo.


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