Are You As Anonymous As You Think You Are?

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Do you have an anonymous account? If you do, you should consider this: 4 out of 5 people can be re-identified if only three facts about them are known at any one time, i.e. your zip code, age, date of birth.

Never mind the fact that Facebook has a “finger print” of your face, or that you probably already lost your identity at Target. Identifiers are fluid, so keep up with the trends. After all, Jack the Ripper didn’t worry much about finger prints being an identifier, but now it’s all but expected that you’d be identified by having your prints floating around on file. With that said, please don’t implicate me for motivation on your heinous serial killer plans.

So of course a lot of people have found a solution to being “found out”, by creating supposedly anonymous accounts. But, really there are even gradations when it comes to anonymity.

Anonymous (identifiers stripped) vs Anonymous (identifiers un-stripped)  

Your data, originally had identifiers, which subsequently have been removed, are considered stripped or anonymizing information/data. Whereas, if the identifiers don’t exist in the information to be released in the first place, then that’s considered truly anonymous — the information was never there in the first place, so there’s nothing to match it up to even if the source is leaked. You may wonder what’s the big difference. Consider this: if your cover photo is a cropped photo from a photo, hosted by a server, depending on how the picture is uploaded a savvy user can easily go back and go into the main directory of where the photo is hosted without any fancy hacking skills. If you think assigning psuedo names is a great way to go, think again as stated by the UK Royal Statistics Society, psuedonames (by themselves) are a poor means of identity protection. Really, the only way to ensure that you’ll never be identified is to never mention, or post most aspects about your life: where you live, your college, etc.

However, people don’t like to post online as if we’re all cold war spies.

Why do premeds (prenursing included)/medical students/doctors and nurses use anonymous accounts in the first place?

I post “anonymously” (more on that later), and I suppose people use anonymous accounts for multiple reasons. The first and foremost is likely privacy. Another reason is that health professionals, and students desiring to become them, usually don’t have a forum to voice their opinions without fear of retaliation. Premeds live in an openly competitive environment, and many have an unhealthy apprehensive about opening up about their struggles to succeed. Medical students and doctors usually assume they’d have to take a stiff upper lip or else seem like a wimp. Of course, no one is “weak” for needing a hand every now and then, but we more or less all settle for the paradigm’s consequences. This is probably one of the best benefits of social media combined with anonymity, i.e. the ability to “whistle blow” without having it go further than that. But, mind you, masking your rage or depression by passive aggressive posts online will never solve the root cause of the issue.

However, when people abuse the ability of online anonymity things can take a turn for the worse. Premeds, medical students and doctors (nurses included) can violate HIPAA by tweeting pictures or information about patients. Premeds suddenly have to try to redact, delete, and change as many privacy settings as possible because of the “questionable” material they may have posted while applying to medical school, surely in fear of being “outed”. Some people will tell you, “Schools don’t check Twitter”, well a school I was accepted into checked mine. I made a comment on how much I enjoyed the interview day at X, within a few hours, the school replied to me. If I had said something negative, and if they found out who I was, then that acceptance they extended would of likely been a rejection.

Confidential and Consequence

With that all being said, I think it’s really more reasonable to assume that you have a “confidential” account as opposed to an anonymous one. They are close in definitions, but disparate enough to talk about it. The main difference here is that the information held in confidence is identifiable to others — if they were so motivated to find out. Sure, there might be protections like data encryption and what not, but what happens when the server gets hacked and all of the data is released? In general, calling yourself an “anon” is a letter cooler than being a “conf”, but you ought to remember that you probably aren’t as Jason Bourne spy-like as you might like to think.

So here is one general idea that might help you protect your online reputation if it accidentally merges with your real life avatar:

Post things as if they may one day be tracked back to you. If you follow this rule, then you’re pretty good — I think that’s a backdoor way of saying execute professionalism. Assume one day it may be tracked back to you, before pressing post think “What if my grandmother saw this” (of course assuming your grandmother is not in a biker gang). Know that it’s okay to vent, but remember that it may come back to haunt you. So, if you want true anonymity, and if you haven’t started your accounts that way you ought not expect to be anonymous.


You may wonder why I brought this up in the first place, it’s not that I plan on stalking any of you. It’s rather, for my profession as an IRB (human research studies) I review informed consent forms, and they usually revolve around minimizing risks to potential subjects — for example, making sure their identity is non reveal in a supposedly anonymous survey. To prove a point, I sometimes identify the subjects from the data given to me by the investigators, so that I can demonstrate how easy it was to circumvent their “anonymizing of data”. From my experience with research, and how easy it can be to re-identify people, I consider my account to be a confidential account rather than an anonymous one — but again “anon” sounds more dapper.

Till next time!

Find me on twitter @doctororbust



One thought on “Are You As Anonymous As You Think You Are?

    My Medschool Personal Statement « doctororbust said:
    May 17, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    […] Well, time to be embarrassed now =), hope it helps!  (Some information has been replaced to maintain confidentiality) […]

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