On Wednesday at a leadership dinner, FBI Director James Comey dangled an irresistible carrot in front of reporters: he had recently acquired a secret Twitter account, he said, and he further let on that he had a private Instagram account with “nine followers.”
— Kevin Rincon (@KevRincon) March 30, 2017
When Comey spoke about his commitment to his own internet privacy and promised that “[n]obody is getting in” to find him online, that challenge proved irresistible to one journalist.
There is no such thing as a secret social media account
Many influential CEOs and celebrities maintain “secret” social media accounts. One of the most famous is the singer Adele, who has said her official account is now controlled by her managers because of her habit of “mouthy” drunk tweeting and she now has a private account she uses to lurk. Many celebrities are rumored to have secret Facebook accounts, and hedge fund managers are said to be lurking in undisclosed Twitter accounts, where they can see financial news quietly.
Let’s clear up one thing: there is no such thing as a secret social media account. If you’re on social media, you’re findable by anyone determined enough.
That was the case with James Comey.
We all leave digital breadcrumbs that reveal who we are
Gizmodo’s Ashley Feinberg described her path to discovering the FBI director’s secret Twitter account.
She started by looking up his family on Twitter, which led to his son’s locked Instagram account. Due to Instagram’s algorithm, all it took was four hours of internet sleuthing for Feinberg to follow Brien Comey’s Instagram to his father’s anonymous account, exposing @projectexile7.
How Feinberg knew it was Comey: even the head of the FBI can’t resist leaving breadcrumbs on social media, and he had linked his secret account to his real-life interests. Feinberg wrote there was only one Comey account that matched the FBI Director’s description of having only nine followers: reinholdniebuhr. Hmm! Comey wrote his senior thesis on theologian Reinhold Niebuhr at the College of William and Mary. HMM!
From there, the coincidences kept piling up. A tweeter using the name Reinhold Niebuhr was living at the handle @projectexile7. Project Exile was the name of a federal program to deter criminals from gun offenses that Comey helped create. This “Reinhold Niebuhr” was only following reporters covering the FBI and a notable friend of James Comey.
Case closed. The FBI said it had no comment, but for me and all the Nancy Drews of the internet, the evidence was convincing enough.
Comey himself has not publicly commented on his alleged outing, but according to one journalist, before @projectexile7 went underground and locked his account, he tipped his cap to Feinberg, sending her a link to the FBI job boards site. If it is Comey, the response is light and clever.
— sick transit, gloria (@samknight1) March 31, 2017
Of course, Comey’s case has an important lesson even for those of us who don’t run federal agencies: treat social media very carefully, because your colleagues, your bosses and maybe even the whole world could get to see it. There is no such thing as true privacy in a public forum.
On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog—but algorithms already know everything about you
You can be the nation’s top executive in charge of protecting our cybersecurity and you can still get foiled by an algorithm.
It didn’t matter that the account of Comey’s son was locked down and private. Once you sign up for social media accounts, you open up your contact lists — including family members — to their algorithms. An algorithm working under Instagram’s “open and connected” mandate can innocuously reveal to others your friends and families’ accounts that it thinks you might want to follow. The intent is benign: like Facebook and Twitter algorithms, Instagram’s “Suggestions” feature is assuming we all want to be more connected with everyone.
Techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci explains how Instagram’s business argument wars with users’ privacy concerns: “[P]rivacy and boundaries around information are not stable—they are not stable because networks leak information; because your acts reveal deeper dynamics; because people like you give hints about what you will do; because this is all asymmetric: there is a business model, and then there is us, in the middle of all of this, connecting to one another because that is what people do.”
Nothing is secret
Comey is the latest high-profile case in a long line of people who thought they could get away with a private social media account. In 2012, an Obama aide thought he could badmouth his boss under the secret handle of @natsecwonk. For more than two years, it worked and Jofi Joseph could snarkily tweet: “‘Has sh—y staff.’ #ObamaInThreeWords.” But using Joseph’s travel and shopping habits, the White House eventually pinned the account to Joseph and fired him.
There is one notable success story: in 2011, the National Labor Relations Board sided with an ambulance driver who got fired after she vented about her boss on Facebook. Because the woman was part of a union, the NLRB got the woman’s employer to settle and revise its “overly broad rules” on employees discussing wages, hours, and working conditions outside of work.
How to keep some privacy online
The big takeaway? Nothing is secret once posted on a public network. If you do want to protect your privacy, your best bet is not to be on social media, and certainly not to talk about your secret accounts.
You can also take these steps for digital privacy endorsed by the Electronic Freedom Foundation.
As James Comey himself once said, “There is no such thing as absolute privacy in America; there is no place outside of judicial reach.” No wonder that, after Feinberg’s story came out, @projectexile7 locked his account.