An Interesting Statistical Study

Popgun’s World was recently one of the subjects of a study done by a college student up in the northeast, and it was pretty interesting. For convenience, I’ll refer to this student as M.
The goal was to find out whether it is possible to positively identify an anonymous blogger by use of inadvertent hints dropped by the blogger in his blog entries. M was very polite, and secured my permission before beginning, as I secured his permission before writing this entry.
I’m not going to enumerate the clues he found on my pages. If you want to figure out who I am, you’ll have to be just as smart and diligent as he is.
M was able to deduce:

  • The town and zip code of my mailing address.
  • My gender.
  • My exact age and birthdate.
  • The fact that I live in a single family dwelling.
  • Probably some other things as well.

Then, M used a direct marketing tool to generate a list of people that match these criteria – there were 66 people in the list. At this point, he stopped short of actually identifying me because he would have had to pay a fee to get the actual list. M tells me that statistically, there is an 83.7% chance that only one person on that list was born on my birthdate.
So some of the facts are corroboration, whereas the key facts were my birthdate and my zip code.
The implication of this study is this; if the government (or anybody with a motivation) wants to know who you are, starting with your blog, they can probably find out without much difficulty.
Truthfully, I had always considered that this was possible by one means or another – probably by more direct means. If you want to protect yourself against being identified by this particular method, you just have to be careful about the clues you leave as you write. For instance, I might have caused misdirection merely by stating a different city; this might not be enough to stop the probe, but it certainly would have slowed it down.
I’m still thinking about what this means to me. I’m not especially worried about being identified; I don’t have anything to hide. My opinions and observations are protected by the First Amendment. But I do value my privacy. I will certainly be more careful about leaving these sorts of clues in the future.

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