Web 2.0

Twitter and identity theft

Last week I was sent a message on Twitter from a strange new follower: my beard. Visiting its home page on Twitter I discovered someone had set up an account using my picture and linking to my blog.

Initially I took this in a light hearted manner and even sent a jokey message to it saying it had better watch its step or I’d shave it off. The person behind this identity however then followed around 38 twitter users, all of whom looked like they were in the UK elearning community, and began to send a series of bizarre tweets.

I have just been at the JISC CETIS Conference in Birmingham for a couple of days and was approached by several people with greetings such as “hello your beard”. All of these people had been convinced that it was me behind this new character, a fair assumption when it carried my picture and linked to my blog. All thought it was bizarre behaviour, and one person I spoke to said he had actually wanted to avoid me at the conference because he thought I’d gone mad.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever find out who is behind the account and I did take some satisfaction from blocking this part of my anatomy from following me, and reporting it for spam. After mentioning the incident to a few people the number of people followed by the account was strangely reduced from thirty-eight to one. In some ways it’s fairly innocuous, and has given some people a laugh, but it’s made me think about a few things. Twitter has become an increasingly useful tool for finding out about innovations, developments and news of the things you’re interested in, and for networking with a wide range of colleagues. It’s enabled people to build their professional identity and blend this with information about what they do in their personal lives. This combination of the professional and personal helps to make the medium more engaging.

It’s also risky. Living aspects of your personal life in the public arena makes a new, more insidious form of identity theft possible. This isn’t grabbing your credit card details and your date of birth. It’s using an image of your face, inventing a name which you could plausibly have come up with yourself and then gathering together a few aspects of your personal life and character which are in the public domain instantly to create a new you. Anyone the character follows is then inclined to believe unquestionably that it is you.

The situation in my case has been fairly harmless but it makes me question just how much of my private life I should expose in this way and just how vulnerable one’s twitter persona is to impersonation. Someone with a grudge against you could potentially wreak havoc with your professional identity and cause real damage to work and personal relationships. For the time being the advantages of the medium outweigh the risks as far as I’m concerned but I’ve noticed a number of valued Twitter contacts leave recently and there are of course various celebrities such as Stephen Fry who are tempted to quit.