Cloak of Invisibility

Season 2: Episode 4

On the Internet no one knows you’re a dog, as the old joke goes. But does anonymity truly exist on the web anymore? And when it’s taken from us, what else do we lose? So Sad Today talks about the value of anonymity for women and self-care. Jonathan Hirshon shares his personal battle to keep his face off Facebook. New Yorker cartoonists Peter Steiner and Kaamran Hafeez discuss the evolution of memes and digital anonymity, in dog years. And Alison Macrina and Morgan Taylor reveal what’s underneath the surface of the searchable web.

Published: February 16, 2018

Show Notes

The most famous cartoon in New Yorker history is about a dog on the Internet. Makes sense. Cartoonist Kaamran Hafeez revisits the OG doggo meme, with an update for the post-privacy era. Check out his new cartoons, inspired by this very episode.


Veronica Belmont: Hey, it’s Veronica and I want to know, do you have a friend with a secret identity? Of the people you know, who is most likely to wear a Halloween costume when it isn’t Halloween? On a scale of 1 to 10, who do you know who scores an 11? Just a few of the hard hitting questions an app called TBH is asking you to answer.

Carissa Orlando: So the best vote that I think I’ve probably gotten was best advice, or best listener.

Veronica Belmont: Carissa is 14 years old. She goes to high school in Minnesota. She started using TBH in October. TBH is short for “To be honest”, BT-dubs.

Carissa Orlando: The weirdest vote I’ve gotten was probably, “Has convinced me of the most conspiracy theories”. It’s not even that weird because I’m into them, but it was kind of funny that would show up.

Veronica Belmont: The app is aimed at high school teens mostly.

Carissa Orlando: A lot of kids nowadays, we’re so invested in social media and our phones, that when it comes to in real life, sometimes we all get a lot of anxiety around socializing face to face, whereas it’s just easier through the phone.

Veronica Belmont: TBH helps teens get around that anxiety by turning the power of compliments into a sort of game. Users of the app answer polling questions about each other. In return, they get to see what classmates enjoy about them. And it works, because it’s an anonymous platform.

Carissa Orlando: We have positive things to say to people who we might not know so well, so being able to be anonymous on this app is allowing us to spread this positivity to other people without them thinking, “You’re weird for saying that.”

Veronica Belmont: The kids, they like TBH. Actually, I do too. We’ve been playing around with it at work. Oh, and Facebook also likes it. They already bought it. The internet as we know it, as we love it, thrives on anonymity. Part of the joy of being online is our ability to share and explore things we might not be able to share or explore in public. Every day, in ordinary and extraordinary ways, we benefit from being able to choose when and how our identities are revealed online. And yet, there are forces determined to uncover every one of us. Internet traffic is tagged, tracked, blogged, and metadataed like never before. People get outted just because they have a different opinion, or stand for something controversial. You and me, we’re findable, identifiable, commodifiable. Even when we think we’re anonymous, we’re usually not. When our anonymity is taken from us, what else do we lose in the bargain? This is IRL, online life is real life, an original podcast from Mozilla. And I’m, well, you know who. Or do you? I want to start by picking up a thread from the previous episode about facial recognition and the web. It can take a lot of work to master online identity. Jonathan Hershon certainly knows. He decided he didn’t want his face on the internet. He knew that’d never be enough to make him completely anonymous, but Jonathan was more stubborn than most, and he wanted to make a point.

Jonathan Hirshon: It was actually, believe it or not, a game. Keep my photo off the internet. And then a year passed, didn’t have it. Another year passed, still didn’t have it. Five years passed, still nothing. And then suddenly, I realized that it’s been quite a while and there is nothing of my photo anywhere on the internet, at all.

Veronica Belmont: And so this has been 20 years now?

Jonathan Hirshon: Actually a little bit more at this point, almost 23 years.

Veronica Belmont: That’s absolutely incredible. You obviously see value in anonymity because your face can’t be found on the internet at all. I’m actually Google searching your face right now. Walk me through what exactly I’m seeing here.

Jonathan Hirshon: What you’re seeing are basically hundreds if not thousands of different photos of different men, different women, different objects, plants, piles of manure, you name it. All of them have been tagged as me. So I came up with this hack where I asked people to tag people, objects, anything, as me. So Facebook and Google, and others, have no idea which of those images is really correct. So I’m still anonymous, even if a photo or two slips through.

Veronica Belmont: So for those of us who don’t have a 20 year head start, could it be time to give up on the idea of anonymity altogether?

Jonathan Hirshon: Truth is that the level of anonymity that people get, is an illusion. It’s like trying to reach light speed, you can get arbitrarily close, but you’ll never actually reach it. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to go as fast as possible to get as close as you can to what light speed actually is. So just because you can’t achieve true anonymity doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to do it, if it makes sense for you and you have a reason to do it. You have to assume that basically the major tech companies already know more about you than you can possibly imagine. It’s about giving them less information moving forward, not about erasing your digital footprint already, because that’s almost impossible to do.

Veronica Belmont: And how long do you think you’ll be able to keep your face off the internet? When is it going to stop being a fun game for you?

Jonathan Hirshon: Never. At some point somebody will do it and it’ll get tagged and that’ll be the end of it. But it’s a hell of a ride. But most importantly, if it gives me a chance, and this conversation’s a perfect example, if my performance art anonymity gives me a chance to educate people on why they should care, then my work is done.

Veronica Belmont: Who knows how long this game of his can continue? But for now, Jonathan remains a stubborn little question mark, where everyone else has a faceprint. Like I mentioned earlier, the last episode was all about your face and the internet. If you missed it, check out the show feed and go have a listen. Or, find it on our website, It’s the most human thing in the world to want to draw a few borders around your identity. Even something as basic as a pseudonym can be a game changer.

Sosadtoday: I can never tell if I’m fighting my demons, or just hanging out with them.

Veronica Belmont: The woman you just heard from has suffered from depression and anxiety all her life. Had suicidal obsessions from the age of 12. In 2012, she was holding down an office job but was wracked with panic attacks.

Sosadtoday: Even my fantasies reject me.

Veronica Belmont: And there was no way she was going to share all this. Not with anyone, except, maybe through an avatar. She picked up her phone, signed up for a Twitter account, her first Tweet also became her new fake name.

Sosadtoday: Sad Today.

Veronica Belmont: Using the handle, SoSadToday, she started spilling her mind. It was painful, and beautiful, and funny.

Sosadtoday: Iwantyoumorewhenyoudon’

Veronica Belmont: Something about her posts resonated. Quickly, sosadtoday gained hundreds of thousands of followers.

Sosadtoday: I was going through a period of anxiety and depression, and I didn’t really know what to do with all those feelings. And all of the things that I had used in the past, like therapy and medication, had kind of stopped working. So I created this account and I just started Tweeting into the void, as a means of sort of assuaging my own feelings.

Veronica Belmont: Can you help me kind of picture what was going on in your mind at that time?

Sosadtoday: Really, just I guess, the desire for dopamine that comes with sending a Tweet. There’s something different about tweeting versus writing in your journal. And I think honestly, it was just a last gasp effort to feel better.

Veronica Belmont: What surprises you most about how writing anonymously perhaps, helps you in your day to day life?

Sosadtoday: It’s just so freeing to be able to take off the mask. And it’s really fun to have a secret and a place to go to release things that you might not otherwise have an outlet for in waking life. You’re not just writing it into your journal, you’re being heard, you’re being witnessed. For the first three years I didn’t tell a single soul. Nobody knew it was me. And then I think it was the fourth year, was when I started telling some people on a personal basis.

Veronica Belmont: Was there anyone that you told that you were like, “Oh God, this person is gonna spill the beans.” Were you worried about that?

Sosadtoday: No, because the people, I like swore them to secrecy. And also, by the time I started telling people, I think by then I had started writing the book. A friend of mine had introduced me to an editor who liked the essays online. She didn’t know I was sosadtoday, but she really wanted my name to be attached. So I knew that in about a year and a half I was gonna be coming out, and so that was why I felt like, “All right I’ll start telling people.”

Veronica Belmont: Was that decision made easily, or was it difficult to decide to do?

Sosadtoday: I really didn’t want to, I was kind of scared. But then once I decided to do it, I was like, “Okay, it’s coming.” And so I spent like multiple visits at my therapist. I don’t have the greatest self esteem so I was like, my followers, I just won’t be enough somehow. Like when they find out who I am, they’re gonna be like, “She’s too old, she’s too this, she’s too something.” So the way I came out was I came out in Rolling Stone, which announced the book. But an hour before that I wanted to do it on my own terms, so I had been at a doctor’s office a few weeks prior and I filled out this slip and it was like, “Do you suffer from blah, blah, blah”, and I checked off depression and anxiety and my name was on the form. So I took a picture of the form and the form was sitting on my leg, and there was a sliver of my knee in the picture, and I tweeted that out. Some kid wrote back, “You have a disgusting knee.” It was just such a funny, bizarre, internet type comment and I was like, “Kneegate”. I was like, “If this is all I get, a commentary about my knee, this is great. I will take the knee.”

Veronica Belmont: I guess, is there anything you miss about being anonymous?

Sosadtoday: I do miss being completely anonymous, it was really nice. But there was a bigger difference between no people knowing, and than one person knowing, and everyone knowing, in a very strange way. Because when no one knew, I felt like I had complete freedom. When one person knew, I felt like, “Oh God are they judging me?” Like it was a judgment of one person equaled the judgment of all people in some strange way.

Veronica Belmont: And how do you think sosadtoday would have been different if your name had been attached to it from the very first day?

Sosadtoday: I think people wouldn’t have trusted it, because it would have seemed like I was using it as some platform to boost my name. When in reality I was really using it as a platform to feel better.

Veronica Belmont: I feel like now, hearing this, I’m like I should make an anonymous account about something. Do you think that everyone should have some kind of anonymous life to feel more free in?

Sosadtoday: I think anyone who has the desire to do it should do it. I think it’s really nice to be naked. You know and it’s nice to be naked with others, in a state of faux intimacy that the internet lends.

Veronica Belmont: Being naked with others has helped Sosadtoday find her real voice. She now has a column for Vice Magazine and has published books of poetry. And oh yeah, if you really want to know her real name, you can find it easily enough. It’s on the cover of her debut novel, The Pisces, which comes out in May. Sosadtoday chose to put her real name on that novel. Lots of authors can only publish because their identities are hidden. Think of political insider books, like Primary Colors, or erotic thrillers written in more conservative times. You might know about the blockbuster Neapolitan Novels. The author used the pseudonym “Elena Ferrente”. She was outed by a journalist who thought readers deserved to see the author unmasked. But readers didn’t thank the journalist for his work, because they got it. Nobody owes you their identity. In some cases, the force revealing identities is seen as a vigilante justice, it’s called doxxing. That’s when someone publishes your name, your phone number, your home address, or other identifying info online. It’s a tool of intimidation used to silence you, by stripping you of whatever anonymity you have left.

Peter Steiner: Oh, this cartoon is the most successful cartoon I’ve done. It’s probably, if I have an obituary, what will be in my obituary.

Veronica Belmont: Have you seen that famous internet dog’s cartoon from the New Yorker?

Peter Steiner: The cartoon is a drawing of two dogs, and one of them is sitting on a chair in front of a computer. And he’s saying to the other dog, “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”

Veronica Belmont: Peter Steiner drew that cartoon in 1993. It’s since become the magazine’s most reprinted cartoon. You can find it on the IRL website if you want to look it up,

Peter Steiner: I really didn’t know anything about the internet, and really didn’t give much thought to the idea that anonymity was such a big issue. I was more or less looking for a joke, and that one seemed to work.

Veronica Belmont: The thing that works about Peter’s comic is that we all want this to be true. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, nobody knows you’re you. Not in 1993 anyway, when the internet was still shiny and new. Much has changed since then. The web evolved, and it’s much harder to be invisible. So a couple of years ago, another New Yorker cartoonist named Kaamran Hafeez thought Peter’s iconic cartoon needed an update.

Kaamran Hafeez: I was reading an article in the New York Times, you know it was all about how the internet is capturing data whenever you’re browsing or shopping or whatever. And I guess what struck me was how there’s no anonymity anymore, when you go online just about anything you do is being recorded or followed or tracked, even your location. So I did the 2015 version of that cartoon. The scene is a man sitting at his computer desk, working on his computer, and he has two dogs who are sitting on the floor next to him. One dog is saying to the other, “Remember when on the internet, nobody knew who you were?” To me, it’s not really a laugh out loud cartoon, it’s doing what a lot of successful cartoons do, which is simply to state the truth.

Veronica Belmont: How funny, ha ha, more funny, hm. Those intrusions into your privacy might feel like random annoyances on the personal level, but, and we don’t like to admit this I know, for the most part we’re usually willing to take the trade off, convenience and all that. In Germany, they’ve got this awesome term, because of course they do, and I’m totally going to butcher this,“Digital slime” (in German). We can’t help but secret data everywhere we go. Even when you think you’re being anonymous, you’re using a picture of your dog for your profile say, or you’ve got a really clever handle, well that’s only pseudo-anonymity.

Alison Macrina: I think that privacy is an essential human right. And the ability to use the internet privately, I think is even more important than the way we’ve thought about privacy in the past, because there are so many ways that we are being surveilled and tracked when we use the internet. Too many to even know. This is Alison, Alison Macrina, I am the community team lead at the Tor Project.

Veronica Belmont: If you’re looking to spend some time online without being tracked, there’s a few ways that you can do it. One of the most popular is to use a browser built to mask your trail, like the Tor browser, where Allison works.

Alison Macrina: Tor is a network of computers all over the world that help millions of people access the internet anonymously and privately.

Veronica Belmont: I won’t go into the nuts and bolts of how Tor works, but basically it distributes everything you do online through a random, hard to follow route.

Alison Macrina: It forwards traffic all over the world in order to make it impossible for your originating location to be discovered. And anybody who observes your network activity, or people who might want to see the websites that you visit, won’t be able to see what websites you visit.

Veronica Belmont: So there’s a lot of ducking and dodging to lose whoever’s trying to steal a look. For the average internet user something like Tor can be a useful option, or it can be a bit of overkill. For others, Tor is the only option.

Alison Macrina: So let’s say I live in the United States, and let’s say I am an undocumented immigrant and I want to conduct some communication with my attorney about my immigration status. I would want a method of speaking to my attorney without our communication patterns being uncovered. Another use case for Tor would be for disseminating information about reproductive access in countries where abortion is illegal. Some people use Tor just to visit the regular, vanilla internet, if you want to call it that, because they live in countries where they are subject to nation state level firewalls that block even seemingly innocuous content, like Facebook or Twitter, or WhatsApp, or things like that.

Veronica Belmont: Tor is useful if you treasure your anonymity. But even it can’t promise total, absolute invisibility. It can hide where you go when you land on a website, sure. But if someone really, really wants to, they can see when and where you dip in and out of the network, that way they get a clue on what you might be up to. It’s a bit like being followed into a busy shopping mall. They know you’re in there but can’t figure out what shop you went into. Online, a true cloak of invisibility, well it’s hard to come by. To completely disappear from prying eyes, or even get close to disappearing, you and I would have to dive into parts of online life we might not have visited before. I’ve always been curious about what lies beneath the visible surface of online life. Most of the internet in fact, makes up what’s called the “deep web”, which is really just anything online that the general public can’t access. That includes your email, your Dropbox, stuff like that. Then there’s also the “dark web”, that place online where things are carefully, intentionally hidden.

Morgan Taylor: Right now I’ve pulled up Dream Market, which is one of the popular market places. On their homepage, on the shop right here, we have everything from ecstasy pills, and PayPal hacked accounts.

Veronica Belmont: Morgan Taylor actually teaches people how to find and use both the deep and the dark web. He took me on a bit of a digital scuba dive to places my browser has never been.

Morgan Taylor: You can also get a book about essays on embracing masculinity, and those are just some of the first few in all of these vendors. It shows reviews on the vendors, this one guy has 4.9 stars out of 240 reviews selling some amphetamines shippable all around the world and things like that.

Veronica Belmont: Wow. What I’m really cracking up about is it’s so varied. I mean we have ecstasy and then we have school books.

Morgan Taylor: Yeah, it’s pretty much anything you want to sell. I mean even right here you can get passports, they have some passports. Or counterfeit Euro bills, or American bills as well. So it’s just anything that people want to buy, without putting their name and real address to the purchase.

Veronica Belmont: What do you buy at these marketplaces?

Morgan Taylor: Oh man, I tried everything. I’ve purchased things from psychedelics to hacks, Hulu accounts where you can watch Hulu pretty much unlimited for two dollars, and they share it with a bunch of different users from the dark web.

Veronica Belmont: And what would you say is the weirdest or most interesting thing that you’ve seen there?

Morgan Taylor: Some of the more popular sites are more graphic, violent content. Sites that would be taboo on the normal internet, and maybe scratch this weird part of someone’s brain to view and to look at these pictures or images. Sometimes they’re about war, sometimes it’s violent car crashes, things like that. I’ve seen a lot that, that people hide behind the anonymity as a way to look at that and consume that content.

Veronica Belmont: And so just how anonymous is this space?

Morgan Taylor: Depends on what you do. If you post your name or your address somewhere, people are gonna be able to see that. Even things like your keyboard layout, if your keyboard layout is set to English they can help track and narrow you down. It’s kind of a lot, you need to know a little bit more about technology and security to get a good understanding of how to be secure.

Veronica Belmont: Do you ever worry that someone you’ve taught how to access the dark web will then go on to do something really awful?

Morgan Taylor: I hope they don’t, but of course that’s what comes with anonymity and freedom, and everyone makes their own choices. I can’t be responsible for what they do, and I hope they use these tools for good. I think being anonymous is your right, but how you use it is up to you.

Veronica Belmont: Through his work at the Deep Web Academy, Morgan Taylor gives people a few more tools so they can choose for themselves how anonymous they want to be. In a free and open internet we should all get to make those choices for ourselves. A huge portion of our identities is formed in the Internets public arena, under the watchful eye of whoever decides to track us. We’ve grown so used to being monitored, we sometimes forget there’s another self, a totally private one, that needs space too. There are those who’ll tell us we don’t really need those private selves. The Russian and Chinese governments are setting up real name registration laws to ban online anonymity. And right here in the United States there are higher ups in Homeland Security who argue that universal monitoring is necessary for, go figure, security reasons. Online anonymity will never be useful to governments, and it won’t be of much use to corporations either. But, it might be useful to you. There was a dream when the internet was born, of a cartoon dog who could be anything he wanted to be when he barked online. That’s a dream worth protecting. There are things you can do to minimize your online footprint. Check out the show notes to the episode to learn more, On the site we’ve also got a bonus treat for you. It’s a custom commissioned Kaamran Hafeez cartoon, created just for this episode. Go have a look and maybe a chuckle. IRL is an original podcast from Mozilla, the non-profit behind the all new Firefox browser. I’m Veronica Belmont, except when I’m not, but you’ll never know, I hope. See you online, until we catch up again, IRL.

[Veronica trying to pronounce a German word].