Pseudonymity will increasingly disappear

Once we accept a new technological reality, we can come to grips with what to do about it.

This post originally appeared in Tim O’Reilly’s Google+ feed.

A recent article in The Atlantic sums up why I thought the whole #nymwars thing was misguided. Remember that face recognition is only going to get better. Pseudonymity is increasingly going to disappear.

In their most recent round of facial recognition studies, researchers at Carnegie Mellon were able to not only match unidentified profile photos from a dating website (where the vast majority of users operate pseudonymously) with positively identified Facebook photos, but also match pedestrians on a North American college campus with their online identities.

My thought is that once we accept the new technological reality, we can start coming to grips with what to do about it.

I don’t know what to do about it. But I do know that acknowledging a problem is always better than pretending it doesn’t exist.

See comments and join the conversation about this topic at Google+.


  • Justin Grimes

    Not sure I fully understand this post. Are you advocating for technological determinism?

    It seems to appear that your argument is that technology we create as society will eventually make pseudonymity impossible and since we have no control over how technology is built, designed, or used then it is inevitable that pseudonymity will disappear. Therefore due to the inevitable of technology we should stop discussing the issue pseudonymity and move on. Am I understanding this right?

  • gregorylent

    it will have to work two ways then .. security forces, anonymous bankers, cia, lobbyists …

    transparency is a two way street

  • Biometrics, like any system, can be gamed. They’re not infallible. If someone really wants to hide, they will have to go to some effort to do so, but it will still be possible.

    That said, Google+ and Facebook hold the same amount of fascination for me – none.

  • DavidS

    What if, for example, I’d like to participate in this conversation on Google+ but cannot because Google+ is not anonymous?

  • Julian Sanchez

    This is a compelling argument that people who wish to remain pseudonymous would be wise to refrain from using genuine photographs of themselves with their aliases, which I’d have thought would be rather a no-brainer regardless of the state of the art in face recognition technology. Unless online interactions are about to become webcam-mandatory, I’m not sure why this supports the far more sweeping claim in the headline.

  • pseudonymity is not an issue for the powerful/principled look at Silvio Berlusconi and DSK.

  • bryan rasmussen

    My facebook picture is a gray silhouette, very similar to my linkedin picture. Perhaps they were taken within the same time period, at any rate face recognition would totally be able to tell that it was the same featureless person.

  • Gary R

    As much as you try to avoid posting any pictures in association with locations carrying your ID, that wont stop others. I noticed in a Google Image search of my name that someone had ID’d me in their photos they took and uploaded to their personal gallery. At some point they opened the door to share to the public and the information is out as examples of a few different angles of my face all ID’d as me. Do I, like the head of security at a global corporation did when he saw the same for his name, attempt to have the images removed? There is no way I will be able to stay ahead of all the possible places a image/ID match can be made. Better to plan to manage to the exposure going forward…

  • Paul van Dinther

    Anonymity online had always been artificial. Photos, writing style and content will identify you. Just like it does on the street.

    The desire to speak anonymous is on the increase. It would make a great study to find out what factors play a role in that.

    I suspect that society pressures that don’t match your own beliefs would be a big factor.

    Anonymity online was easy during the early days of the internet and easy to obtain. It has become an unreasonable expectation.

    People were never before bothered about photos taken in public spaces. Now google faces resistance against streetview in various places.