Topic 2: Me, Myself and I – Multiple Online Identities

When we go online we leave behind a digital footprint; information about what we have accessed and posted. This can be used by individuals, organisations and governments, to assemble a picture of the persona we adopt on the web and, potentially, what we are like in the real world.

So, to what extent should we be concerned – and should we create different online identities to protect ourselves?

If a shop assistant remembers me, and recommends something that I might be interested in, then I’d regard this as good customer service. But when a computer does the same, people argue that it’s an invasion of their privacy.

Further, if a computer scans my e-mails looking for key words, such as names of chemicals used to make a bomb, then I don’t object because I know that this is done as a form of crime prevention but many see this as a perceived erosion of our freedoms.

Eben Moglen
Scull image from Fotolia, Artweaver used to add text.

So what are the threats that might persuade me to create duplicate online identies?

  • Identity theft – where criminals use spam, guess passwords and use computer viruses to access your bank accounts, or clone your identity. The FFA estimates that in the UK alone £247.6 million was lost to credit card fraud in the first six months of 2014.
  • Loss of privacy – where the information you post is used for purposes other than that you intended. However, work is being done to protect our privacy online, for example, new laws are imminent outlawing posting “revenge porn”.
  • Loss of religious and political freedoms – when authoritarian states track electronic communication to curtail protest.

The last point, while not a concern in the UK is emphasised in this Amnesty International posting. Also a number of Iranians were arrested for recording and posting a version of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy”:

Of course, in reality we can’t avoid creating different online identities; the persona you present on LinkdIn will be different from that on Facebook.  But should you go further and deliberately create separate, fragmented persona?

I have explored the advantages and disadvantages of having multiple online identities in a Slideshare presentation:

So, living the UK, should you deliberately fabricate separate online identities? Personally, I don’t think so, but I do follow these tips:

I agree with Costa and Torres: “If we are to encourage people to develop several personas, are we encouraging a responsible environment, or are we creating new playgrounds? Furthermore, how much can we trust a person who ‘owns’ different characters online?” Emphasising these concerns, this article by Awais Rashid talks about internet bullies hiding behind false online identities.

In a sense this is nothing new, we have always had the opportunity change the way that we behave to suit the situation. But pretending to be someone you’re not – online or in the real world – is, in my opinion, not genuine and therefore should not be condoned.

An interesting topic – I suspect we will see very different views.


Christopher Soghoian: Government surveillance — this is just the beginning

Cristina Costa and Ricardo Torres, To be or not to be, the importance of Digital Identity in the networked society, Revista Educação, Formação & Tecnologias, n.º extra (Abril, 2011): pp. 47‐53.p, (p. 51)

FFA, Customers Urged to be Vigilant as Fraudsters Increase Spam Attacks,

Awais Rashid, Director of Security, Lancaster Research Centre at Lancaster University, With the Right Tech, Online Bullies can be Outsmarted

Amnesty International, The Internet and Human Rights,

6 thoughts on “Topic 2: Me, Myself and I – Multiple Online Identities

  1. Interesting article, Tamara. It’s good to see you giving the example of the same thing when a human does it and when a computer does the same. It is like the same inputs but different outputs. I think this is because people are more generally okay with human interaction than computer. Besides, a computer is been operated by someone elsewhere who you have no idea of his/her intention with your data. Also another reason for this might be because of the recently revelations of what governmental agencies can do or have been doing with computer related devices, which is worrisome to the general public. The preventional steps you highlighted were indeed good but do you actually believe that there is privacy on the Internet likewise creating multiple accounts on the web doesn’t solve the problem of ‘hiding online’ although we have tools like tor, etc.


    1. Hi Aliyu,

      Thanks for your response. As you say, the computers holding our data can be accessed by lots of people. However, in 2003, there were 672,000,000,000 Gigabytes of accessible data world wide, with 43,639 Petabytes of internet traffic. So in reality the only way that these hidden humans (including those working for the Government) will access my personal data is if a computer first flags it as being of interest (hence my comments about computers searching for key words), otherwise it’s all automated – the computer decides if you might be interested in a product and automatically sends a link.

      Computers don’t scare me – they should with the number I have broken!

      In terms of privacy, we post what we post – that material is clearly not private. Otherwise, with care and the right software, I think I can keep out of the reach of ‘criminals’ – and to be honest they are the only people I want or need to hide from.


  2. Hi Tamara,

    You present a very interesting perspective on the issue. I agree with you that having just one online identity is possibly simpler and beneficial (in terms of visibility, for example). Furthermore, I think that the single identity is the future of human interaction on the Internet and I am glad you give good arguments for that opinion.

    Your comparisons between online and offline worlds are also very interesting (Paragraph 3 and 4). However, I think the problems lays in scale of operation. It is unlikely that a shop assistant will remember 1500 data points on each of their clients, including illnesses, your relationship status, or what you searched for on the Web for the last few years.

    Meanwhile, a company called Acxiom does just that:

    Similar concerns apply to the example on scanning emails. You are completely right that scanning emails for crime prevention is a good thing to do. However, no one may be sure what are the words that the government is searching for in a communication. Do you think the society should have at least partial control over which keywords are used and how these problems proceed? It probably is pessimistic, but one day instead of scanning for crime-connected words, someone may use the system to find e.g. all people connected to certain political option.

    It is not the fact that they are gathering any information that worries me, but rather the lack of control over how is it done and to which extent. In your opinion, are such concerns legitimate? Do you see a way to solve such issues, not by forcing people to anonymise their usage of the web, but providing a safer environment for a single online identity?


  3. Hi Bartosz,

    Thanks for your interesting feedback, I know it’s easy to think that faceless government employees are rummaging through things that they shouldn’t.

    But at the end of the day they are human beings like the rest of us, with too much to do and too little time to do it in, so, for me, the idea there is a group of people with sufficient spare time to look at e-mails that are dealing with the bland and everyday doesn’t seem likely.

    Is a GCSQ computer currently searching through millions of e-mail for the word Islamic? Probably, but on its own that will yield too many e-mails for humans to review. Whatever key-word string they are using will be much narrower and focused on issues of national importance.

    I’ve not worked at GCSQ, but the usual blurb says that they are subject to legal and parliamentary oversight:

    However, I suspect that the biggest control is the boredom associated with looking at anything that isn’t of any importance, together with the inevitable bureaucracy that stops anyone working in Government from doing anything without permission from 3 layers of management.

    That said, I’m sure that once a while an individual may search for something personal in a spare 5 minutes…but I’m also sure that there would be disciplinary action if someone were to find out.


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