Wednesday, July 8, 2020
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A fake identity can protect online data

As recent hacks have told us, a fake identity can often be set up online and protect online users from the theft or exposure of personal information.

A fake profile suspended by Google, which required real names. (Opensource Obscure/Flickr Creative Commons)

As shown above, setting up a false identity is easy, but companies don’t always approve of these online personas.

Lauren Weinstein wrote on his blog, “I am a strong supporter in general of the right of persons to be anonymous so long as they aren’t using that anonymity in fraudulent, criminal, or similarly antisocial ways. For example, I am very concerned that the Facebook commenting system now used on many sites may allow for the unnecessary and potentially dangerous linking of (for example) users’ public, work, and personal lives by external parties.”

On our Answer Maryland system, we advise students to use pseudonyms and we warn teachers that the names of students in the classes they set up on our system probably aren’t their students’ real names:

If you are under 13, you are not allowed to provide personal information on any Voxitatis website, including without limitation Answer Maryland! Teachers of young children should be aware that names provided by students for building class rosters will not be the real names of their students, and arrangements should be made for informing teachers of the made-up screen names used by their students who are 12 or younger.

Other sites do the same thing for kids. The New York Times, on its Learning Network, advises students to use only their first names, and our own policies strictly prohibit the first publication of student names if those names aren’t already a matter of public record for the purpose we’re publishing them.

But companies like ours take great care in protecting the identity of our users. Sites like Ashley don’t even check the identity of users, meaning it would be easy to set up a fake identity on those systems without getting a warning message or profile suspension from the system the next time you log in.

Here’s what Farhad Manjoo advises in his Personal Tech piece for the Times: “When you’re online, act as if everything you do is public. If you’re engaging in anything that may one day come back to haunt you, take precautions: Create a fake name, fake email address, perhaps use a different device, and try to separate your underground identity from your true identity.”

I couldn’t agree more, and data about student performance, since most of them are going to get better and the data are only useful during a learning process that we don’t wish to be part of their 60-year online permanent record, is especially vulnerable to “coming back to haunt them.” Fake identities, known to their teachers and parents, would be nice.

But when it comes to school data, there’s no such thing as a fake identity. This is why we reiterate, again and again, don’t trust corporations with any information about students that might one day be exposed in the public domain by unscrupulous corporate criminals or incompetent I/T staff members.

Suggest ways to protect the identity of students online when you, for instance, log in to take a test administered by PARCC or some other entity. Describe the specific details of the process testing companies or states could use to accomplish this. See Common Core high school writing standard WHST.11-12.2 for more information.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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