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How Unique and Traceable are Usernames?

February 15, 2011 Comments off

How Unique and Traceable are Usernames?
Source: French National Institute of Computer Science (via Cornell University Library

Suppose you find the same username on different online services, what is the probability that these usernames refer to the same physical person? This work addresses what appears to be a fairly simple question, which has many implications for anonymity and privacy on the Internet. One possible way of estimating this probability would be to look at the public information associated to the two accounts and try to match them. However, for most services, these information are chosen by the users themselves and are often very heterogeneous, possibly false and difficult to collect. Furthermore, several websites do not disclose any additional public information about users apart from their usernames (e.g., discus- sion forums or Blog comments), nonetheless, they might contain sensitive information about users. This paper explores the possibility of linking users profiles only by looking at their usernames. The intuition is that the probability that two usernames refer to the same physical person strongly depends on the “entropy” of the username string itself. Our experiments, based on crawls of real web services, show that a significant portion of the users’ profiles can be linked using their usernames. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that usernames are considered as a source of information when profiling users on the Internet.

+ Full Paper (PDF)

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