by Gavin Haynes
Tuesday, 22
February 2022
Explainer
13:27

If they can identify Q, they can identify you…

Forensic linguistics are chipping away at internet anonymity
by Gavin Haynes
Credit: Getty

Forensic linguistics is fast becoming the solvent of internet anonymity.

In the end, it was forensic linguistics that did for the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. The former university professor made the mistake of publishing his manifesto. Industrial Society and Its Future. Armed with a large enough a data set, an FBI team used the fingerprints of his verbal style in the same way that a forensics team would use real fingerprints.

One member of the same team went on to identify ‘the longest serving attorney in the US Department of Justice’ as a notorious anonymous poster. And JK Rowling was ‘unmasked’ as Robert Galbraith by the decision to publish a data set in the form of Galbraith novel, A Cuckoo’s Calling.

In recent years, as more and more computers have been added to the mix, the identities that can be winkled out has become uncanny. This week, no less a shadow than Q himself was rumbled.

“Q” is the supposed Trump White House operative with top secret “Q-level” security clearance at the heart of the QAnon movement, who posts gnomic messages, ‘Q Drops’, on far-flung Internet message boards.

Using text samples with more than 100,000 words written by Q, and at least 12,000 words by each of the 13 other candidates who they analysed, two independent teams said their computers had honed in on two prime suspects: Paul Furber and Ron Watkins.

The conclusion itself is perhaps the least interesting part. Many hours of both podcast and documentary have already been spilled on establishing that Furber wrote early-Q before being superseded by Watkins in around 2018.

Much more gripping is how easy it has become to perform this kind of detection, as high-end computing and machine learning systems enter the picture. In a way, Q is just a high-profile version of a general use case. If one particularly infamous message board user can be found, why not all of them?

The forces of Something Must Be Done have long yearned for a de-anonymised internet. Even leathery everyman Adrian Chiles is a fan. Just a few months ago, a British MP was stabbed 17 times by a deranged Islamist, who didn’t have so much as an Odyssee account. Somehow, this morphed into yet more calls for an end to internet anonymity.

Rather than ending internet anonymity by fiat, it may be easier to end it by X-Ray. The principles remain the same. First, find a data set of someone’s utterances — Twitter is normally a good start. Next, match it against a dataset of a mysterious internet anon. Assess the correlation.

After all, we already live in a world where ‘anonymous trolls’ are regularly brought before the courts under the Communications Act 2003. Often, these people are found through their own carelessness — as with the autistic woman who was jailed for twelve weeks for sending offensive messages to feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez.

Now, the new Online Safety Bill that is about to go through Parliament will make it an offence to ‘knowingly distribute seriously harmful misinformation’. The steppingstones to a total dragnet over the “chans”, some parts of reddit, and the lowest tiers of Twitter hell, are clear.

Don’t imagine this would only be applied in a forward-going way. Just as the advent of DNA sequencing led to a rash of convictions for historical cases, so too, the capacity to induct from your casual misuse of the Oxford comma will be fodder for historians, employers, and police ‘anti-hate’ squads, in equal measure. Be careful what you wrote.

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Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
5 months ago

I remain to be convinced. One of the Shakespeare “candidates” is Christopher Marlowe based on the fact that, linguistically, it’s almost impossible to tell the two apart. It’s only the fact that Marlowe couldn’t write female parts and had no sense of humour whatsoever that separates them. Oh, and Rowling was “unmasked” as Robert Galbraith when the sales of the Galbraith novels turned out to be…ahem…disappointing..

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
5 months ago

I know a North American professor who never uses definite article in peer-review. Academic will write “methodology used in paper is flawed, paper must be rejected”. Author then thinks reviewer is Russian. Extra anonymity for reviewer.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
5 months ago

Is it you?

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
5 months ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Nyet!

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
5 months ago

Извините, просто я не мог не заметить вашего нежелания употреблять определенный артикль.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
5 months ago

I have become resigned to spending my later years in some camp/gulag because of my commenting, my guess is my style is rather distinctive, and my words provocative; but one must do what one must do…..

Bret Weinstein had a good youtube on the new definition of being a ‘Domestic Terrorist’ just released by USA Homeland Security, and remarkably scary as it lists Domestic Terrorism as including the three below words “And, with a law Barack Obama signed on New Year’s Eve 2011, this allows the state to ‘disappear’ you without any due process at all.” if you are a Domestic Terrorist, which doing the three below may be sufficient.

Mis-information, (“false or misleading narratives, not necessarily to cause harm”)

Dis-information (False or misleading to cause harm)

Mal-information (based on fact, but out of context, to mislead, harm, or manipulate)

The video, ‘Don’t Say Anything At All’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nfhg1PcTync By Weinstein

This is real – what just happened in Ottawa, under Biden’s Urging, apparently, shows great deal on the post covid world. If you watch the section on the video (it is clearly marked) it shows the actual link to Homeland Security saying this…..

And Jungian Synchronicity appeared today – I ended up having a long talk about ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ with someone out of the blue, discussing the – of all things – the positive side of the story and of his life in the gulag…..and they were quite convincing – an argument I am sure I will repeat here one day, as it was quite good….

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
5 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I play a game with people I meet which goes where would the be in Nazi Germany. 95% would buy in to the regime, much as they have bought in to the Covid regime. Many if not most would become active advocates and enforcers. Again, much the same as with Covid. Me, I always end up in the camp not because I am particularly righteous bur because I can’t help saying but this odes not make sense.

Jason Highley
Jason Highley
5 months ago

I love playing that game! I’m always one of the first ones gassed because I suck at not wearing my contempt for authority on my sleeve.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
5 months ago

Many, perhaps most, of us on any type of forum, can work out who it is when a prolific poster reappears with a new handle.
We don’t need deep computing to have that kind of “forensic intelligence”.
I guess the difference, when you do have the deep computing, is that you can search the whole online world in a short time. It’s not “what they can do” which is new, but the scale and speed of it.

Mark Duffett
Mark Duffett
5 months ago

Supremely ironic that an article on linguistics uses the misbegotten nonsense yet increasingly common phrase “honed in”. “Homed in”, yes. “Honed”, yes. But “honed in”, never, no, no.

Andrea X
Andrea X
5 months ago

And I thought the article was going to talk about qu€€r theory (and I would have had more of a clue what it was about…)

John Riordan
John Riordan
5 months ago

Lucky I don’t post stuff anonymously and that everything I say is defensible then, isn’t it?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
5 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Don’t you understand? The world is now ‘Post Truth’. Nothing is defensible if They say it is not.

“In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offence. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called. — George Orwell”


Ingsoc, bellyfeel doubleplusgood.

John Riordan
John Riordan
5 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

The world has never been post-Truth, or indeed pre-Truth. What is true equates to what is real, and reality cannot be escaped.

Don’t overstimate the comparisons between modern life and Orwell’s 1984. The paroxysms we are presently witnessing are not the triumph of totalitarianism, but its death throes.

Last edited 5 months ago by John Riordan
Mike Smith
Mike Smith
5 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

I think you are right. We are no tuned into their mind tricks and can see what they are doing – just as George Orwell intended us to be.