Private Online Groups May Not Be Private

Child’s Playhouse, Bayreuth, Germany by Dave Shafer from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I was contacted by person who claimed to be a member of a private Facebook group. She asked if she had any options for recourse when another group member used statements from her post in another article online. This group member also used a pixelated version of the person’s Facebook profile picture. According to the person, she wasn’t recognizable in the altered image, but she feared people could figure it out if they compared to her profile picture to the pixelated one.

No Expectation of Privacy in Online Posts
To anyone in this type of situation, I’m sorry to dash your hopes for vindication, but in most situations, there is no expectation of privacy in what you post on the internet – especially on social media, regardless of the privacy settings. It’s too easy for someone to create a screenshot, save, and/or share a post. Moreover, you never know who is looking over a user’s shoulder or with whom they’ll share their screen when they’re viewing your post that is meant for their eyes only.

This is true even when an online group is labeled as “private” or “closed.”  In many private or closed Facebook group, other members can invite outsiders to join or a new person can join if their request to be added is approved by one member of the group. Even though a private group is meant for a limited audience, post with care. You never know where a post will end up. This is why one of my rules of thumb for the internet is “Don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t put on the front page of the newspaper.”

If You Want Real Privacy
If you want to have a private conversation, keep it offline with your closest confidants or someone with who you have a confidential relationship (e.g. doctor, lawyer, therapist, priest). In a professional setting, have a written non-disclosure agreement(NDA) where everyone is contractually obligated to maintained your confidences.

Even I use NDAs. I have certain people, where when we sit down for a drink, we start the conversation by saying, “Standing NDA” and we know nothing said between us will be shared with outsiders.

The Internet is Not a Place for Privacy
If there are times when you want to speak online while maintaining a level of privacy, you can reduce the risk of being connected to a statement by using an online alter ego. If you go this route, be prepared to be unmasked and live with the consequences at any time. You may use an IP address or post something that will give away your true identity.

If you want a resource regarding the legal dos and don’ts about the internet, including additional information about online privacy, please check out The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you need legal help regarding internet privacy, you can contact me directly or a social media lawyer in your community. I post about these issues on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

How to have an Anonymous LLC

Anonymous by Poster Boy NYC from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Here’s the easy answer: You don’t.

It may be impossible to own an LLC anonymously. There’s always a paper trail and financial records that eventually lead to you.

Burying Your Identity in Your LLC
Creating an LLC requires paperwork and money. The Articles of Organization that are filed with the State are public records. If you didn’t want to have your name on your company, you set up layers of companies that own companies that own your LLC so it would take longer to trace it back to you. You could also set up a blind trust where you are the beneficiary. That would keep your name off the public records, but there would still be documents somewhere that show the connection. (Because business filing are public records, I often recommend that clients not use their home address as their business address. There are many low-cost mailbox services.)

Even if your name is not on the company as an owner, there would still be the records of payments to you. It may require a court order for someone to gain access to this information, but it would be telling if the majority of payments from the company (or companies if you ran it through multiple entities) went to a single person.

When someone asks how to be an anonymous owner of a company, it raises a red flag for me about their motivations and their business activities. If a company or person is controversial or engaging in potentially malicious acts, it may raise enough eyebrows that someone will be motivated to take a closer look at its inner workings.

How to Run a Website Anonymously
Conversely, it may be possible to operate a website relatively anonymously. You would have to essentially divorce yourself from the website:

  • Use an email address for the website registration that isn’t otherwise connected to you. Don’t access this email using your phone.
  • Pay for the website with a pre-paid credit card.
  • Use a web hosting service that protects your information.
  • Only access the website using public wifi. Never access it from work or home.
  • Turn off your phone when working on your website – so the GPS in your phone will be turned off.
  • Consider using an app that masks or mocks your GPS location when you access the internet.

Even when you take all the precautions to be anonymous online, be prepared to be unmasked at anytime. Whatever you say anonymous, you best be ready to own it once your name and face are attached to it.

If you want a resource regarding the legal dos and don’ts regarding posts on the internet, please check out The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you need legal help regarding internet privacy, you can contact me directly or a social media lawyer in your community. I post about these issues on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

How to be Anonymous Online – John Huppenthal Shows What Not to Do

Anonymous by Thomas Leth-Olsen from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Anonymous by Thomas Leth-Olsen from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

It recently came to light that John Huppenthal, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, has been using various aliases to post comments on several blogs for years. Some of his comments have been described as racist and disparaging towards welfare recipients.  There were also times that he used his alias to write comments that endorsing himself and his position.

John Huppenthal, Image from the Arizona State Legislature

John Huppenthal, Image from the Arizona State Legislature

Allegedly Huppenthal said he used an alias to participate in the free exchange of ideas. To a degree, I get that. Before the internet, the best way to be heard was to write a letter to the editor. I knew of at least one public official who used an alias to express ideas as an individual rather than as a person holding political office. I also suspect that if this person was unmasked it would be a non-issue for them. (They also weren’t sending in letters dripping with discriminatory speech. They were just expressing themselves as a concerned citizen.)

So what can we learn from John Huppenthal’s mistakes about being anonymous on the internet . . .

Use an IP Address that’s Hard to Trace to You
According to the reports, Huppenthal made several posts from the Arizona Department of Education. If you want to be anonymous, make it hard to for people to track your internet connection. Don’t use the internet connection at work, home, or your personal hotspot. Use the public internet at a coffee shop, hotel, or library.

Protect Your True Identity
If you want to be anonymous online, take steps to protect your identity. Besides using a public internet source, create a dummy email address for your anonymous posts. Choose usernames that don’t reveal anything related to who you are, your job, your location, or your hobbies. Don’t use photos of yourself as your avatar.. That’s partially how Shashank Tripathi got caught as the man behind the fake tweets about Hurricane Sandy.

Carter Law Firm's Postcards

Carter Law Firm’s Postcards

Don’t Endorse Yourself
It’s one thing to use an alias to participate in public discourse and another to create a fake persona to endorse yourself when you’re running for or holding political office. If you want to respond to your critics, do it as yourself. It’s classier and it shows you have integrity.

Expect to be Unmasked
I frequently tell people, “Don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t put on the front page of the newspaper.” This includes everything you post anonymously. Act as if everyone you care about is going to see what you posted with your name and picture attached to it. That way if your identity is ever revealed, you can own it without any personal issues.

If you have aspirations of being or remaining anonymous online, this video may help.

Huppenthal said he won’t resign over these posts and he’s currently up for re-election. We’ll see if the revelation of this behavior will impact his career. If nothing else, he’s the living embodiment of the risks that come with an attempt to be anonymous and the mistakes you can make when you think no one knows what you’re saying.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to be anonymous online, please check out my books, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed and The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers. The latter includes an afterword by an anonymous award-winning legal blogger The Namby Pamby about the challenges he faces.

If you want to chat with me about anonymous speech on the internet, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
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