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Pseudonymity woes Happy New Year,

Found at: zaibatsu.circumlunar.space:70/~solderpunk/phlog/pseudonymity-woes.txt

Pseudonymity woes
-----------------

Happy New Year, gopher folk!

This phlog entry has been a little while coming.  As I've mentioned I've been
using the holiday downtime to work a lot (some might say obsessively) on my Z80
project and this is why I haven't phloged since the 25th, even though I have
plenty to discuss (stay tuned).  I would really *love* to write more about my
Z80 stuff on my phlog because I know there are interested folk in SDFland, but
I'm blocked by an annoying issue which I wanted to discuss.

Sometime around 2001 or 2002 when I was seriously getting into Unix and hacker
culture I bought dead tree copies of the classic texts "Free as in Freedom" by
RMS and "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" by ESR.  In one aspect of my online
conduct from that point onward, I was unduly influenced in a way I regret by
ESR's "How to Become a Hacker" document (included in TCATB), wherein he says:

> The problem with screen names or handles deserves some amplification.
> Concealing your identity behind a handle is a juvenile and silly behavior
> characteristic of crackers, warez d00dz, and other lower life forms. Hackers
> don't do this; they're proud of what they do and want it associated with
> their *real* names. So if you have a handle, drop it. In the hacker culture
> it will only mark you as a loser.

Prior to reading this, I had typically, but not 100% of the time, used screen
names for everything I did online.  When I first started using the next
regularly around 1997ish as a young teenager, this was absolutely the done thing
among my circle.  It was absolutely the received wisdom that using your real
name for anything online was stupid and dangerous and had this aura of
irreversible weight associated with it.

After reading ESR before doing anything requiring a name online I would stop and
ask myself "am I proud of what I'm about to say/do?" (I think I actually
considered this from the slightly different perspective of "am I ashamed of or
embarassed of what I'm about to say/do", which is not the same thing), and being
a cocky self-assured young guy the answer was always "yes", and so I would sign
up with a username of the form "flast", from "First Last".

I confidently say now that in my opinion ESR's advice is bullshit.  Or, perhaps
to be kinder, it's not bullshit if you interpret it very narrowly and apply it
only to your online activities related to writing free software.  Perhaps to ESR
this limiting of scope was obvious.  But I interpreted the advice more broadly,
and now I regret it.

The idea that screen names and handles are for protecting the identities of
people doing things they should be ashamed of it is *very* close to the argument
of "if you're doing nothing wrong, you've got nothing to hide", which makes me
surprised that an old school hacker like ESR promotes it, because hacker culture
is famously hostile to that argument and has been for decades.

Online psuedonymity lets people talk - and, importantly, ask questions and
learn - online freely about issues related to e.g. sexuality, drug use, health
problems, religion, etc. which they might not be comfortable doing under their
true names, and that is a very important thing, which many people in the
phlogosphere take advantage of.

Beyond this, people change.  Their ideas and beliefs and behaviours change.
What one is proud enough to attach one's true name to today is not necessarily
what one wants their true name attached to in ten or twenty year's time.  Even
if your ideas and beliefs and behaviours do not change, society's attitudes
toward what you said or did in the past might.  What may have been seen as edgy
or in bad taste but ultimately acceptable when you did it might be branded by
many today as "toxic bigotry" and cost you a job or a friend - even if you
have changed your opinions on those matters in step with society.  People
change, and I think to some extent deserve to be able to escape their past if
they really want to.  Sadly, the internet is, in many ways, forever (except
when that one link you *really* want to follow is broken and wasn't picked up
by archive.org, of course), and people can be very bad at forgetting and
forgiving.

Even worse, and much harder to forsee circa 2001 before the modern surveillance
state had become as huge and pervasive as it now is, even perfectly innocuous
stuff you say and do which would not upset anybody is still, if attached to your
real name, valuable personal data for the big data inference engines of
marketing companies like Google, and even if the pictures drawn by the
activities of your individual accounts are vague, if you have an uncommon name,
they can be aggregated and add up to much more.  I am especially unfortunate in
this regard; my grandparents were immigrants to Australia from a non-English
speaking country.  My surname is very rare in Australia and my first name is
very rare in "the old country" and the combination of the two is, as far as I
know, globally unique.  Everything said and done online under that
name is almost certainly me, so it all adds up very easily.

My advice for people using the internet today would boil down to something like
this: your ideas and opinions and feelings as a person will change a lot
throughout your life, but your real name probably won't, and you don't
necesarily want your past to follow you around forever, visible to everybody.
And you *will* be followed around forever, by software bots attempting to build
shadow profiles of you for marketing purposes.  These profiles will be used
against you in some way or another, even if your ideas and opinions and
feelings remain beyond reproach.  This isn't paranoia, this is the reality of
the modern internet.  It is a hostile place.  As such you should use your real
name sparingly.  Not never, there will be times when it makes sense, but you
should treat the question of when and how to use it very seriously.  When in
doubt, use a handle.  Ideally, use several different handles for different
accounts, or at least for different aspects of your online identity, e.g. if
you have two big hobbies for which you are known online, use different names
for each.  Change your name regularly when it's convenient.  All of these
things will stop old ideas and behaviours following you around, and they will
inhibit aggregation of different parts of your life into one picture.

Joining SDF and GNUSocial (I forget the exact order in which I did these) in
2017 as "solderpunk" was my first serious use of an online handle in many years
and I am fucking loving it.  I have not been running around under the cloak of
this name spouting offensive and controversial political opinions or generally
acting like an asshole.  I have absolutely no desire to do that.  Even given
that I'm behaving myself, I feel a huge psychological weight lifted when I
interact with people under this handle.  I think it's a much healthier way to
exist online, not having to even subconsciously think every time I do something
"do I want to stand by this forever"?

The problem with making this change after many years of proudly doing everything
under my real name is that it forces me to disconnect from my past.  I designed
and built my Z80 computer many years ago, before "solderpunk" existed, and I
have discussed the details on my personal website under my own name.  If I link
to that site from my phlog, I connect my pseudonym to my real name.  If I even
describe my system in sufficient detail that I uniquely identify it out of the
dozens of other hobbyist Z80 systems, I make that connection, if somebody really
feels like figuring it out.  I'm not under the illusion that "solderpunk" is
100% untraceable right now; I've already phlogged, with datestamps, about moving
from one country to another, visiting my home town inbetween.  To a nation state
grade adversary with access to airline manifests, that's probably enough to pin
me down.  But I'm "anonymous enough" for me to be comfortable.  Discussing any
of my past hardware or software projects, even if I'm proud of them and folk who
know me only as solderpunk are interested in them, makes the connection a lot
easier, though, and that *sucks*.  Not only because I in some sense lose the
link to my past but because I also have to think very carefully about my future
projects.  If I decide to cooperate with somebody I meet on SDF or Mastodon on
some cool open source project, I'm forced to do it under the solderpunk handle
and therefore I don't acrue credit for that project under my real
name, even if I'm very proud of it and even if it might look very
good to prospective employers.

This is frustrating, it forces my main technical and creative outputs which I
*want* to claim to exist in a kind of vacuum, divorced from my more casual day
to day online existence, and I need to be constantly vigilant not to
accidentally break the barrier.  This is deeply unsatisfying, but I don't know
of any way around it.