Why I don’t do real names online…

28 07 2011

I was reading an article on the BBC news website, Why Does Google+ insist on having your real name? where its claimed that Google will delete your account if you do not use your real name.

This raises many issues with regard to “real names” and what real names are. For me, my online names are my real names…online.

What’s in a name anyway?

If I used my real-life name online, no one would know it was me. I have been using the internet for over 15 years and have rarely used my real-life name. The many friends I’ve made on the internet would have no idea who I was or how to find me on sites like Google+. And I like it that way too.

What you see is what you get. Who I am online, is very much who I am offline too… but they are two separate entities. One where I have a small degree of control over who knows I exist and where I exist, and the other where I don’t actually care who knows I exist because they don’t know where I am.

The reason I care so much about people knowing, or not, where I am in the world is because I’ve had some horrible experiences with stalkers. 2 quite serious and one just creepy and relentless.

My first stalker appeared before the days of internet. He was a man 12 years my senior who stole my details from a luggage label. He was obsessive, on a different planet, cruel and very creepy.

I was 15 years old.

I happened to see him 11 years later by chance while I was on a bus from Manchester and he was walking in the street. The fear resurfaced and by then dial-up internet was in many households, so I realised there was a way he could find me, if he ever felt the need. Internet anonymity became imperative.

My second stalker “found” me on the internet. Having discovered a photo of me, no face or whole body. he decided he was in love with me. It doesn’t take much investigation to link a username with an online person or their friends. It doesn’t take many naive internet users to give away someone’s real identity to a new online “friend”. It only took one idiotic BT employee not doing as I asked repeatedly, to not include me in the phonebook, despite already being ex-directory and this guy knew where I lived and my phone number.

This guy travelled  for hours to hang out in the places I may be. Based on what he could find out about me online and off, in the hope I may turn up. One night his luck was in, I innocently walked into an event and he approached me.  I had no idea who he was and found his knowledge of me rather creepy. He then regularly turned up to events I would be at, regardless of the city they were in. How he knew was beyond me, but he did and was always there. All he needed was my real-life name to find out more about me.

Then gifts started to turn up, silent phone calls, longing text messages. The same car would be seen outside my home, he was just sitting in the dark. He followed me wherever he could on the internet too. He tried to befriend me using a variety of accounts and by now “mutual” friends were happy to give him details of my different usernames etc because he claimed we were an item. They even knew I had this creepy stalker but because he referred to this entity in 3rd person, they assumed it wasn’t him. I changed my phone numbers. I shut down online accounts, set up new ones. He always appeared.

This was creepy. This was verging on serious.

The police will do nothing until the stalker does “something”. Internet investigations and joining social networks isn’t considered “something”, regardless of how it makes you feel. The text messages were always “friendly” and phone calls were from unknown numbers.

I don’t doubt this guy would have smooth talked his way out of any situation with the police anyway. I was getting scared to leave the house alone. Thankfully he eventually found a new muse and moved on… but not without checking up on me from time to time to let me know he still knew where I was. When the new muse went out of favour, he returned very angry, but soon lost interest.

I still wonder when people ask specific questions about me, whether it could be him. Last I heard, he was trying to become a she. This could open a while new episode of avoidance.

I don’t have many real life friends on any social network I’m involved in now as a result.

Third guy was just creepy and a bit of a joke. We laughed at this one. He didn’t take no for an answer but was impotent so at least I was safe in that respect. He was from real life and didn’t know my internet username. He would sit outside my house too, although no car this time, he used a bicycle. He would phone and text at odd times of day and night saying he loved me. Even years after I threatened him with the Police. He would get his friends to phone or text too. He found me on a social network and he and his friends tried an online campaign to convince me that I was just evil for ignoring him. I should add, not once did I give this guy the impression I was interested in him. I had to bin that particular and favourite username after that.

I should add that I’ve left out some particularly creepy and identifiable detail from the stories above so that they remain somewhat anonymous and the situations are relatively unidentifiable – hence, I hope, I am.

So back to the point… When networks like Google+ are demanding real names only, they are opening up innocent and naive people to any number of internet weirdos and worse. Those who have had stalkers they are still trying to avoid, will be affected. People who have experienced domestic abuse and are trying to hide from abusive ex’s, will be affected. People who have been speaking out against repressive regimes, will be affected. People who just don’t want advertisers knowing everything about their lives, will be affected.

There needs to be choice for people to hide their real-life identity online if they so wish. Just like there needs to be an option to hide location too.

Google say they will discuss cases individually, so should someone not wish to use their real name they just need to tell them why. Now to me this is an even worse breach of data. Google who know everything about everyone will suddenly also know why you need to hide your real name from the public and they get to decide whether or not your case is serious enough to merit allowing you to do so.

Add to that, most people using these networks are so data-naive that they happily supply a potential of almost 7 billion people anything they want to know from mothers maiden name and first pets name (both used in security questions and porn star name memes) to their date of birth (commonly used to individualise common usernames). By checking in places on the likes of Facebook or 4square, people can find out your location or address.

This builds up a very powerful profile of an individual.

Facebook will show anyone who your friends are, what you like and dislike, your hobbies, your photos… Then the likes of linkedin gives away business or employment information. They too won’t allow you to use anything other than your real name. You can gather very useful information about people through their CV.

When passwords and usernames are rarely varied between different sites, it’s quite easy to map a person’s entire life online. I fell victim to it, despite my perceived safeguards.

Obviously the answer is not to use social networks and aside from Twitter, I don’t. I did set up a Google+ account but expect it to be shut down soon. I now have different usernames for different sites. I don’t tell people my other usernames unless they need to know. I don’t allow photos of me online. I don’t do facebook or linkedin.

For all the things I love about the internet, there are a growing number that I’m learning to despise.

I’m often told if I have nothing to hide, why be so secretive?

The answer? Because you never know who’s watching. Personal life privacy should be my right.

I may not have anything to hide but I’m also not particularly famous, good-looking or interesting – it hasn’t stopped me picking up three rather creepy and persistent stalkers.

It could happen to anyone.

Thankfully since taking my real-life self out of my internet life, I’ve had fewer troubles.

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