[blogs] This is a reblog of Brooke Magnanti’s terrific how-to guide on blogging anonymously. I gather that someone is trying to get this post removed from Blogspot
. I have no doubt that Brooke has every right to publish it and that she wrote this based on her unique blogging experiences as Belle de Jour. I read recently about a British publisher that has started a legal action against Twitter
to discover the individual behind an spoof account that parodied their CEO
. In situations like this Brooke’s guide is useful, timely and deserves a wide audience. – Darren/LMG.
How To Blog Anonymously (and how not to)
by Brooke Magnanti
Further to yesterday’s post
, this is a list of
thoughts prompted by a request from Linkmachinego
on the topic
of being an anonymous writer and blogger. Maybe not exactly a how-
to (since the outcome is not guaranteed) as a post on things I did,
things I should have done, and things I learned.
It’s not up to me to decide if you “deserve” to be anonymous. My
feeling is, if you’re starting out as a writer and do not yet feel
comfortable writing under your own name, that is your business and
not mine. I also think sex workers should consider starting from a
position of anonymity and decide later if they want to be out,
please don’t be naive. Statistics I made up right now show 99 out
of 100 people who claim ‘if you have nothing to hide you have
nothing to fear’ are talking out of their arses.
The items in the list fall into three general categories: internet-
based, legal and real-world tips, and interpersonal. Many straddle
more than one of these categories. All three are important.
This is written for a general audience because most people who blog
now do not have extensive technical knowledge, they just want to
write and be read. That’s a good thing by the way. If you already
know all of this, then great, but many people won’t. Don’t be
sneery about their lack of prior knowledge. Bringing everyone up to
speed on the technology is not the goal: clear steps you can use to
help protect your identity from being discovered are.
Disclaimer: I’m no longer anonymous so these
steps are clearly not airtight. Also there are other sources of
information on the Web, some of which are more comprehensive and
more current than my advice. I accept no responsibility for any
outcome of following this advice. Please don’t use it to do illegal
or highly sensitive things. Also please don’t use pseudonyms to be
This is also a work in progress. As I
remember things or particular details, I’ll amend this post. If you
have suggestions of things that should be added, let me know
1. Don’t use Gmail, Yahoo,
Hotmail et al. for your mail.
You will need an email address to do things like register for blog
accounts, Facebook, Twitter, and more. This email will have to be
something entirely separate from your “real” email addresses. There
are a lot of free options out there, but be aware that sending an
email from many of them also sends information in the headers that
could help identify you.
When I started blogging, I set up an email address for the blog
with Hotmail. Don’t do this. Someone quickly pointed out the
headers revealed where I worked (a very large place with lots of
people and even more computers, but still more information than I
was comfortable with). They suggested I use Hushmail
instead, which I
still use. Hushmail has a free option (though the inbox allocation
is modest), strips out headers, and worked for me.
A caveat with this: if you are, say, a sex worker working in a
place where that is not legal and using Hushmail, you could be
vulnerable to them handing over your details to a third party
investigating crimes. If you’re handling information some
governments might consider embarrassing or sensitive, same. Google
some alternatives: you’re looking for something secu
re and encrypted
There are a few common-sense tips you can follow to make it even
safer. If you have to bring people you know in real life in on the
secret, don’t use this email address for communicating with them
even if only about matters related to your secret (and don’t use
your existing addresses for that either). Example: I have one
address for press and general interactions, one for things related
to my accountant and money, and one for communicating with my
agent, publisher, and solicitor. I’ve also closed and opened new
accounts over the years when it seems “too many” people are getting
hold of a particular address. Use different passwords for each,
don’t make these passwords related to your personal information,
and so on.
I unwisely left the Hotmail address going, and while I did not use
it to send mail, I continued to read things that arrived there.
That led to this failed attempt by the Sunday Times to
. It was an easily dodged attempt but something I would
have preferred to avoid.
Over the years I have had about two email account changes every
year and have changed my mobile number five times (eventually, I
just stopped having one). If you change email addresses it’s a good
idea to send people you need to stay in contact with a mail from
the old and the new address so they know it’s not someone else
trying to impersonate you. And to have a password so you know the
response is from the right person – a password you did not exchange
via an email conversation, of course. Example:
send an email to your editor from email@example.com and
from firstname.lastname@example.org at the same time, and the one from
new_address contains Codeword1. They respond with Codeword2,
indicating they acknowledge the change.
It sounds silly, but people can and do scam personal info
time. Often they do so by pretending to be in on a secret so
someone reveals something they did not mean to say. Play it safe.
It can feel a stupidly cloak-and-dagger at first, but you soon get
You can register internet domains while staying anonymous but I
never did. Some people registered domains for me (people I didn’t
know in person). This led to a couple of instances of them
receiving harassment when the press suspected they were me. In
particular Ian Shircore
got a bit of unwanted
attention this way.
Because all I was ever doing was a straight-up blog, not having a
registered domain that I had control over was fine. Your needs may
be different. I am not a good source for advice on how to do that.
But just in case you might be thinking “who would bother looking
there?” read about how faux escort Alexa DiCarlo
unmasked. This is what happens when you don’t cover your tracks.
2. Don’t use a home internet
connection, work internet connection, etc.
Email won’t be the only way you might want to communicate with
people. You may also want to leave comments on other blogs and so
forth. Doing this and other ways of using the Web potentially
exposes your IP
, which could be unique and be used to locate you.
Even if you don’t leave comments just visiting a site can leave
traces behind. Tim Ireland recently used a simple method
confirm his suspicion of who the “Tabloid Troll” twitter account
belonged to. By comparing the IP address of someone who clicked on
to a link going to the Bloggerheads site with the IP address of an
email Dennis Rice sent, a link was made. If you go to the trouble
of not using your own connection, also make sure you’re not using
the same connection for different identities just minutes apart.
Don’t mix the streams.
The timing of everything as it happened was key to why the papers
did not immediately find out who I was. The old blog
in 2003, when most press still had to explain to their audience
what a blog actually was. It took a while for people to notice the
writing, so the mistakes I made early on (blogging from home and
work, using Hotmail) had long been corrected by the time the press
Today, no writer who aims to stay anonymous should ever assume a
grace period like that. It also helped that once the press did
become interested, they were so convinced not only that Belle was
not really a hooker but also that she was one of their own – a
previously published author or even journalist – that they never
looked in the right place. If they’d just gone to a London blogmeet
and asked a few questions about who had pissed off a lot of people
and was fairly promiscuous, they’d have had a plausible shortlist
After I moved from Kilburn to Putney, I was no longer using a home
internet connection – something I should have done right from the
beginning. I started to use internet cafes for posting and other
activities as Belle. This offers some security… but be wary of
using these places too often if there is a reason to think someone
is actively looking for you. It’s not perfect.
Also be wary if you are using a laptop or other machine provided by
your workplace, or use your own laptop to log in to work servers
(“work remotely”). I’ve not been in that situation and am not in
any way an expert on VPNs
, but you may want to start reading about it here
for starters. As a general principle, it’s probably
wise not to do anything on a work laptop that could get you fired,
and don’t do anything that could get you fired while also connected
to work remotely on your own machine.
3. There is software available
that can mask your IP address. There are helpful add-ons that can
block tracking software.
I didn’t use this when I was anonymous, but if I was starting as an
anonymous blogger now, I would download Tor
and browse the
Web and check email through their tools.
If you do use Tor or other software to mask your IP address, don’t
then go on tweeting about where your IP address is coming from
today! I’ve seen people do this. Discretion fail.
I also use Ghostery
block certain tracking scripts from web pages. You will want to
look into something similar. Also useful are Adblocker
, pop-up blockers, things like that. They are
simple to download and use and you might like to use them anyway
even if you’re not an anonymous blogger. A lot of sites track your
movements and you clearly don’t want that.
4. Take the usual at-home
Is your computer password-protected with a password only you know?
Do you clear your browser history regularly? Use different
passwords for different accounts? Threats to anonymity can come
from people close to you. Log out of your blog and email accounts
when you’re finished using them, every time. Have a secure and
remote backup of your writing. Buy a shredder and use it. Standard
Sometimes the files you send can reveal things about yourself, your
computer, and so on. When sending manuscripts to my agent and
editor, they were usually sent chapter by chapter as flat text
files – not Word documents – with identifying data stripped. The
usual method I used to get things to them was to upload to a free
service that didn’t require a login, such as Sendspace
. When writing
articles for magaznes and papers, the text was typically appended
straight into the body of the email, again avoiding attachments
with potentially identifying information. This can be a little
irritating… having to archive your writing separately, not
altogether convenient to work on. But for the way I worked, usually
not sharing content with editors until it was close to the final
draft, it was fine.
When exchanging emails with my agent and editor, we never talked
about actual meeting times and locations and threw a few decoy
statements in, just in case. Since it has been recently revealed
journalists were trying to hack
bloggers’ email addresses
after all, in retrospect, this seems
to have been a good thing.
Another thing I would do is install a keystroke
on your own machine. By doing this I found out in 2004
that someone close to me was spying on me when they were left alone
with my computer. In retrospect what I did about it was not the
right approach. See also item 7.
5. Be careful what you post.
Are you posting photos? Exif data
people, among other things, where and when a picture was taken,
what it was taken with, and more. I never had call to use it
because I never posted photos or sound, but am told there are loads
of tools that can wipe this Exif data from your pictures (here’s
The content of what you post can be a giveaway as well. Are you
linking to people you know in real life? Are you making in-jokes or
references to things only a small group of people will know about?
Don’t do that.
If possible, cover your tracks. Do you have a previous blog under a
known name? Are you a contributor to forums where your preferred
content and writing style are well-known? Can you edit or delete
these things? Good, do that.
Personally, I did not delete everything. Partly this was because
the world of British weblogging was so small at the time – a few
hundred popular users, maybe a couple thousand people blogging
tops? – that I thought the sudden disappearance of my old blog
coinciding with the appearance of an unrelated new one might be too
much of a coincidence. But I did let the old site go quiet for a
bit before deleting it, and edited archived entries.
Keep in mind however that The Wayback Machine
everything you have written on the web that has been indexed still
exists. And it’s searchable. Someone who already has half an idea
where to start looking for you won’t have too much trouble finding
your writing history. (UPDATE
: someone alerted me that it’s
possible to get your own sites off
Wayback by altering the robots.txt file
– and even prevent them
appearing there in the first place – and to make a formal request for removal using reasons
. This does not seem to apply to sites you
personally have no control over unless copyright issues are
involved.) If you can put one more step between them and you… do
6. Resist temptation to let too
many people in.
If your writing goes well, people may want to meet you. They could
want to buy you drinks, give you free tickets to an opening. Don’t
say yes. While most people are honest in their intentions, some are
not. And even the ones who are may not have taken the security you
have to keep your details safe. Remember, no one is as interested
in protecting your anonymity as you will be.
Friends and family were almost all unaware of my secret – both the
sex work and the writing. Even my best friend (A4 from the books)
didn’t know. ;
I met very few people “as” Belle. There were some who had to meet
me: agent, accountant, editor. I never went to the Orion offices
until after my identity became known. I met Billie Piper, Lucy
Prebble, and a couple of writers during the pre-production of
at someone’s house, but met almost no one else
involved with the show. Paul
and Avril MacRory
met me and were
absolutely discreet. I went to the agent’s office a few times but
never made an appointment as Belle or in my real name. Most of the
staff there had no idea who I was. Of these people who did meet me
almost none knew my real name, where I lived, where I was from, my
occupation. Only one (the accountant) knew all of that – explained
below under point 9. And if I could have gotten away with him never
seeing a copy of my passport, I damn well would have done.
The idea was that if people don’t know anything they can’t
inadvertently give it away. I know that all of the people listed
above were absolutely trustworthy. I still didn’t tell them
anything a journalist would have considered useful.
When I started blogging someone once commented that my blog was a
“missed opportunity” because it didn’t link to an agency website or
any way of booking my services. Well, duh. I didn’t want clients to
meet me through the blog! If you are a sex worker who wants to
preserve a level of pseudonymity and
link your public
profile to your work, Amanda Brooks
has the advice you need. Not me.
Other sources like JJ
write about how to do things like get and use credit cards
not tied to your name and address. I’ve heard Entropay
credit cards that are not tied to your credit history, although
they can’t be used with any system that requires address
verification. This could be useful even for people who are not
involved in sex work.
Resisting temptation sometimes means turning down something you’d
really like to do. The short-term gain of giving up details for a
writing prize or some immediate work may not be worth the long-term
loss of privacy. I heard about one formerly anonymous blogger who
was outed after giving their full name and address to a journalist
who asked for it when they entered a competition. File under: how
not to stay anonymous.
7. Trust your
I have to be careful what I say here. In short, my identity became
known to a tabloid paper and someone whom I had good reason not to
trust (see item 4) gave them a lot of information about me.
When your intuition tells you not to trust someone, LISTEN TO IT.
The best security in the world fails if someone props open a door,
leaves a letter on the table, or mentally overrides the concern
that someone who betrayed you before could do so again. People you
don’t trust should be ejected from your life firmly and without
compromise. A “let them down easy” approach only prolongs any
revenge they might carry out and probably makes it worse. The
irony is that as a call girl I relied on intuition and having
strong personal boundaries all the time… but failed to carry that
ability over into my private life. If there is one thing in my life
I regret, the failure to act on my intuition is it.
As an aside if you have not read The Gift of Fear
already, get it and
See also point 9: if and when you need people to help you keep the
secret don’t make it people already involved in your private life.
Relationships can cloud good judgement in business decisions.
There is a very droll saying “Two people can keep a secret if one
of them is dead.” It’s not wrong. I know, I know. Paranoid. Hard
not to be when journos a few years later are digging through the
rubbish of folks who met you exactly once when you were sixteen.
Them’s the breaks.
8. Consider the consequences of
If you find yourself being offered book deals or similar, think it
through. Simply by publishing anonymously you will become a target.
Some people assume all anonymous writers “want” to be found, and
the media in particular will jump through some very interesting
hurdles to “prove” anything they write about you is in the public
In particular, if you are a sex worker, and especially if you are a
sex worker who is visible/bookable through your site, please give
careful consideration to moving out of that sphere. Even where sex
for money is legal it is still a very stigmatised activity. There
are a number of people who do not seem to have realised this, and
the loss of a career when they left the “sex-pos” bubble was
probably something of a shock. I’m not saying don’t do it – but
please think long and hard about the potential this has to change
your life and whether you are fully prepared to be identified this
way forever. For every Diablo Cody
there are probably dozens of Melissa Petros
. For every Melissa Petro there are
probably hundreds more people with a sex industry past who get
quietly fired and we don’t ever hear from them.
If I knew going in to the first book deal what would happen, I
probably would have said no. I’m glad I didn’t by the way – but
realistically, my life was stressful enough at that point and I did
not fully understand what publishing would add to that. Not many
bloggers had mainstream books at that point (arguably none in the
UK) so I didn’t have anyone else’s experience to rely on. I really
had no idea about what was going to happen. The things people wrote
about me then were mainly untrue and usually horrendous. Not a lot
has changed even now. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t have an
Writing anonymously and being outed has happened often enough that
people going into it should consider the consequences. I’m not
saying don’t do it if you risk something, but be honest with
yourself about the worst possible outcome and whether you would be
okay with that.
9. ; Enlist professional
help to get paid and sign contracts.
Having decided to write a book, I needed an agent. The irony of
being anonymous was that while I let as few people in on it as
possible, at some point I was going to have to take a leap of faith
and let in more. Mil
emailed me to recommend Patrick Walsh
he was one of the few people in London who can be trusted. Mil was
Patrick put me on to my accountant
(who had experience of
clients with, shall we say, unusual sources of income). From there
we cooked up a plan so that contracts could be signed without my
name ever gracing a piece of paper. Asking someone to keep a secret
when there’s a paper trail sounds like it should be possible but
rarely is. Don’t kid yourself, there is no such thing as a
unbreakable confidentiality agreement. Asking journalists and
reviewers to sign one about your book is like waving a red rag to a
bull. What we needed was a few buffers between me and the press.
With Patrick and Michael acting as directors, a company was set up –
Bizrealm. I was not on the paperwork as a director so my name
never went on file with Companies House. Rather, with the others
acting as directors, signing necessary paperwork, etc., Patrick
held a share in trust for me off of which dividends were drawn and
this is how I got paid. I may have got some of these details wrong,
by the way – keep in mind, I don’t deal with Bizrealm’s day-to-day
There are drawbacks to doing things this way: you pay for someone’s
time, in this case the accountant, to create and administer the
company. You can not avoid tax and lots of it. (Granted, drawing
dividends is more tax-efficient, but still.) You have to trust a
couple of people ABSOLUTELY.
I’d underline this a thousand
times if I could. Michael for instance is the one person who always
knew, and continues to know, everything about my financial and
personal affairs. Even Patrick doesn’t know everything.
There are benefits though, as well. Because the money stays mainly
in the company and is not paid to me, it gets eked out over time,
making tax bills manageable, investment more constant, and keeping
me from the temptation to go mad and spend it.
I can’t stress enough that you might trust your friends and family
to the ends of the earth, but they should not be the people who do
this for you. Firstly, because they can be traced to you (they know
you in a non-professional way). Secondly, because this is a very
stressful setup and you need the people handling it to be on the
ball. As great as friends and family are that is probably not the
kind of stress you want to add to your relationship. I have heard
far too many stories of sex workers and others being betrayed by ex-
partners who knew the details of their business dealings to ever
think that’s a good idea.
So how do you know you can trust these people? We’ve all heard
stories of musicians and other artists getting ripped off by
management, right? All I can say is instinct. It would not have
been in Patrick’s interest to grass me, since as my agent he took a
portion of my earnings anyway, and therefore had financial as well
as personal interest in protecting that. If he betrayed me he would
also have suffered a loss of reputation that potentially outweighed
any gain. Also, as most people who know him will agree, he’s a
really nice and sane human being. Same with Michael.
If this setup sounds weirdly paranoid, let me assure you that
journalists absolutely did go to Michael’s office and ask to see
the Bizrealm paperwork, and Patrick absolutely did have people
going through his bins, trying to infiltrate his office as interns,
and so on. Without the protection of being a silent partner in the
company those attempts to uncover me might have worked.
I communicate with some writers and would-be writers who do not
seem to have agents. If you are serious about writing, and if you
are serious about staying anonymous, get an agent. Shop around,
follow your instinct, and make sure it’s someone you can trust.
Don’t be afraid to dump an agent, lawyer, or anyone else if you
don’t trust them utterly. They’re professionals and shouldn’t take
10. Don’t break the (tax)
Journalists being interested in your identity is one thing. What
you really don’t want is the police or worse, the tax man, after
you. Pay your taxes and try not to break the law if it can be
helped. If you’re a sex worker blogging about it, get an accountant
who has worked with sex workers before – this is applicable even if
you live somewhere sex work is not strictly legal. Remember, Al
Capone went down for tax evasion. Don’t be like Al. If you are a
non-sex-work blogger who is earning money from clickthroughs and
affiliates on your site, declare this income.
In summer 2010 the HMRC started a serious fraud investigation of
me. It has been almost two years and is only just wrapping up, with
the Revenue finally satisfied that not only did I declare (and
possibly overdeclare) my income as a call girl, but that there were
no other sources of income hidden from them. They have turned my
life and financial history upside down to discover next to nothing
new about me. This has been an expensive and tedious process. I
can’t even imagine what it would have been like had I not filed the
relevant forms, paid the appropriate taxes, and most of all had an
accountant to deal with them!
Bottom line, you may be smart – I’m pretty good with numbers myself
– – but people whose job it is to know about tax law, negotiating
contracts, and so on will be better at that than you are. Let them
do it. They are worth every penny.
11. Do interviews with
Early interviews were all conducted one of two ways: over email
(encrypted) or over an IRC chatroom from an anonymising server (I used xs4all
). This was not
ideal from their point of view, and I had to coach a lot of people
in IRC which most of them had never heard of. But again, it’s worth
it, since no one in the press will be as interested in protecting
your identity as you are. I hope it goes without saying, don’t give
out your phone number.
12. Know when les jeux sont faits.
In November 2009 – 6 years after I first started blogging
anonymously – my identity was revealed.
As has been documented elsewhere, I had a few heads-ups that something
, that it was not going to be nice, and that it was
not going to go away. We did what we could to put off the
inevitable but it became clear I only had one of two choices: let
the Mail on Sunday
have first crack at running their sordid
little tales, or pre-empt them.
While going to the Sunday Times
– the same paper that had
forcibly outed Zoe
a few years earlier, tried to get my details through
that old Hotmail address, and incorrectly fingered Sarah Champion
as me – was perhaps not the most sensitive choice, it was for me
the right move. Patrick recommended that we contact an interviewer
who had not been a Belle-believer: if things were going to be hard,
best get that out of the way up front.
So that is that. It’s a bit odd how quickly things have changed.
When I started blogging I little imagined I would be writing books,
much less something like this. Being a kind of elder statesman of
blogging (or cantankerous old grump if you prefer) is not an
entirely comfortable position and one that is still new to me. But
it is also interesting to note how little has changed: things that
worked in the early 2000s have value today. The field expanded
rapidly but the technology has not yet changed all that much.
As before, these ideas do not constitute a foolproof way to protect
your identity. All writers – whether writing under their own names
or not – should be aware of the risks they may incur by hitting
‘publish’. I hope this post at least goes some way to making people
think about how they might be identified, and starts them on a path
of taking necessary (and in many cases straightforward)
precautions, should they choose to be anonymous.