As we discussed last week, some social media users strive to gain greater privacy with their communications online. While some users have been protecting their online communications for some time, there is currently a shift to a more private online existence happening in some demographic groups, mainly with teens and young adults. This can be seen in trends throughout Internet-based activity, whether it is a switch to private browsing using Tor, the increasing usage of mobile messaging applications, or backlashes against violations of privacy laws. These savvy social media users can prove to be a challenge for online researchers and analysts. By using privacy-centric platforms, privacy settings, and fake or obscured identities, users can problematize online research of their identities and patterns of behavior.
In many cases, it can be almost impossible to locate a subject’s information due to the sheer nature of the platform itself. Many mobile applications do not have a corresponding website, browser accessible profiles, or search-indexed content. Additionally, many of these apps do not push content to other social media platforms, which restricts outside access to hidden content. These apps often require users to be connected in order to access information. For analysts, this would require us to use the application and request a connection to the person of interest. As many investigations are done without the knowledge of the subject, this can be highly problematic and may cause the user to delete their information. When these situations arise, the most complete information can only be obtained by accessing the device itself or through the use of surreptitious techniques, such as shadow accounts and device cloning.
A major hurdle for all investigators is privacy settings. While each social media site is different, in many cases, users can leverage four types of settings to make locating their social media profiles and content more difficult. First, whether by design of the social media platforms themselves or user settings, many social media profiles are removed from search indexes. This makes broad searches more difficult to execute and requires investigators to dig deeper into each individual social media site. Second, some social media sites allow users to remove themselves from the internal search feature and from friend/connection lists unless the person searching for them is connected to them. This means you either need to establish a connection with the individual or find a static link on another location or social media site. Additionally, users can restrict access to their profiles as a whole and the content contained on it. Finally, users can also restrict how unconnected users see their content posted throughout the rest of the social media site. All of these privacy settings can increase the manual work necessary to locate relevant profiles and content.
Obscured and Fake Identities
To hide their online activities, a user may opt to either obscure their real identity or create a fake persona. Obscured identities can take many forms. Users can employ false names, nicknames, unique usernames, or misleading profile information to hide their true identity. They can also choose not to link social media profiles together and use photos which conceal their faces and are not used on any other site. Users can also opt to use fake personas online. By using a fake identity, many users can break the connection from their real identities. In addition to some of the methods used to obscure their identities, many of these users will create completely new identities that are disconnected from their real social networks. Often, they will also use a variety of other means (i.e. VPNs, proxies) to conceal their actual physical location and network connection to prevent doxing.
Making the Information Work for You
It is important to always understand the limitations of social media data and the challenges you will face during open source research. Every social media site and application has its own limitations either through design or the use of privacy settings by savvy social media users. Before you dive into your online investigations, it is important to learn as much as possible about your subject and take note of the issues you might face along the way. Each piece of data will help you find potential obscured or fake identities and better assess the corners of the Internet to explore to find your person of interest.