Anonymity in Computer Use

This document addresses the question of anonymity in computer use at Mount Holyoke College, with specific emphasis on blogging and other web pages.

Anonymity of computer use has elements similar to that of privacy in computer use that is discussed in the "Conditions of Account" document. However, when using computer and network resources at Mount Holyoke College, anonymity cannot be assured.

Access to College computer resources such as email or web pages, including blogging, is done by the username assigned to an individual. The relation between the username and the individual real name is transparent.

In extraordinary circumstances, the College has taken steps to reduce the transparency of the username to real name relation. Most commonly this involves omitting the individual name and username in the College phone directory, but on rare occasions this has involved providing a more obscure username. (This measure has been taken when there has been a court order relating to harassment or stalking.)

In email, there may be privacy issues relating to email interchanges, but there is no anonymity in the interchange. As noted in our "Acceptable use Unacceptable Use Policies" document, we do not permit the "forgery or other misrepresentation of one's identity". This does not preclude someone attempting to hide one's identity as long as there is no misrepresentation or attempt to defraud. (For example, email from the "MHC Today" newsletter comes from a special address rather than from the username of the individual who sends it.)

In 2009, Blogging on the College website was implemented. Blogs are assigned by username and postings are related to username by the computer.

The blogging tool does allow the user to display a "screen name" and the underlying username is not displayed unless the individual chooses to display it. Having a screen name that hides the identity is not prohibited unless that screen name is seen as misrepresenting the individual as someone else. (For example, it would not be appropriate to have a screen name that appears to be someone else's identity.)

Identity may be obscured, but that cannot guarantee anonymity. As mentioned above, in an extraordinary circumstance determined by Public Safety or appropriate Dean, the assignment of a different username for a particular computing purpose might be deemed prudent. However, there can be no certainty that anonymity will be maintained.

Here are just a few of a number of things that could compromise anonymity. Even if a username is obscured, there are ways it may be discovered.

Blogging in particular is a very public behavior. Anonymity when blogging cannot be guaranteed, although identity may be obscured. When blogging, the individual needs to be aware that what they are writing may be attributed to them, even when steps are taken to obscure the identity.