The Internet is awash with security issues, none more so than the social networking sites that so many users place considerable amounts of trust and belief. Today, users can sign up on such sites as Facebook and Twitter (to name two that I use) without any form of secondary credential check, i.e. you can sign up and be whoever you want to be. Evidence of this kind of impersonation can be found in my earlier blog entry where I discussed the “celebrities” who appear to be on Facebook.
From social networking to micro-blogging, the impersonation continues. During October the Twitter community was delighted to see Stephen Fry appear in the “Twitterverse”. Our delight continued when Stephen chose to follow a vast horde of us. John Cleese enjoyed similar celebrity status. However, Stephen and John were accepted into the Twitterverse without a second thought regarding their authenticity. It didn’t take long to spot that Stephen and John were standing on the “I am who I say I am” side of the fence. Their writing style is most eloquent and is rather recognisable.
Enter Sarah Silverman…on Twitter:
I read the Twitter stream reasonably carefully, checking a few things along the way. The stream mentioned London as a destination – true – the real Sarah Silverman did a gig at the Hammersmith Apollo last Sunday. A few other things checked out. What caught my eye was the fact that she was riled by the fact that she had lost a follower…so I suggested a web-site that might help her in the future. At that point the fake @sarahsilverman started to follow me, I was 1 of 23 folks she was following. And I remained 1 of 24 folks she was following whilst her followers grew from a handful to over 600 – this is most odd and served as a clue to something fishy.
The clue trail…
There’s not much to report about the profile picture or the user-name. Over the course the period 23/10/2008 to 26/10/2008, @sarahsilverman used at least two profile pictures – these were probably sourced from a variety of on-line photo repositories. If there were any clues to be found in the profile picture, I didn’t spot them.
Next up, the Biography and web-site details:
This is where it gets amusing. Silverman’s TwitterJacker made every effort to make the biography as real as possible. She (or he, more about why I say this shortly) even provided a link back to the real Sarah Silverman’s “Unofficial” web-site: http://sarahsilvermanonline.com/. Ironic, but still nothing hugely obvious there – anybody could obtain this information and set it up as it was here. However, even before I started following @sarahsilverman, I had my doubts about the authenticity of the textual content and writing style. I took the liberty of questioning the authenticity of celebrities in general. This prompted a rapid change in the biography text, previously it didn’t contain the text “and omfg i’m not going to say if i’m real or not”. OK, not really clues, however the use of “i’m” is a small clue. As is the use of “not” twice – the second “not” should really be replaced with “otherwise”.
I took the bait “Leaving for a bit. again! ~ as said ~ you should follow @imKM … see… isn’t that weird.” Prior to that bait finding its way on to the fake @sarahsilverman’s Twitter stream, a request for follow @imKM had arrived via a direct message: “…twitter friend ~ imKM?” What I found interesting about this approach was @imKM’s background image. I can’t be sure, but it does look like Sarah Silverman is in the background of this photograph:
I don’t know, perhaps @imKM happened to be using the cash point ahead of the real Sarah Silverman and decided to grab a photograph? Who knows for sure? Whatever the truth, when I mentioned this to the fake @sarahsilverman in a direct message, she responded “Yes, people say Photoshop but, he corrected me. It is actually faded with “LiveQuartz”. neat huh. say. are you not following my best… “
Connected to the background image challenge, during 25/10/2008, as the truth started to unfold, this tweet was a further clue to feathers being ruffled:
@imKM needs to stop using my photoshoped image. [http://www.youtube.com/videosbykm] he set it as his background.
Still at 24/10/2008, I had confirmed that both the fake @sarahsilverman and @imKM were using Apple Mac’s for their tweets. Both Twitter streams exhibited over-use of the tilde character “~”. Via a direct message, I challenged the fake @sarahsilverman about the use of the tilde – oddly I am unable to lay my hands on that direct message, I can’t see it in my sent items stream. However, the fake @sarahsilverman replied: “or a creative thing”. It’s a small thing to notice, however two people who instant message each other a lot will pick up on each other’s habits. Or, a single person using two Twitter accounts will make the mistake of following the same habits.
On Sunday 26/10/2008, it became evident through a self-confession that @sarahsilverman wasn’t the real Sarah Silverman. Prior to the self-confession, a few blogs picked up on it, here and here. The @sarahsilverman feed vanished and was replaced with @fake_sarah_silv. The first post truthful post announced:
“My name is Sarah Ascher, friend of @imKM; not @imKM. I am sorry. This started as a joke, I guess people can’t take it.”
For a few minutes the @fake_sarah_silv continued to use the same Twitter background. This was probably an oversight as he or she was too busy undoing the web of deceit that had unfolded so rapidly:
Very soon after the confession tweet, @fake_sarah_silv finally changed the background image:
Of course, at the time of writing, it hasn’t been confirmed that Sarah Ascher even exists. As many Twitter users predicted, @fake_sarah_silv and @imKM could be the same person. Whatever the case, it was a shameful cry to drive traffic to @imKM’s content. KM himself (we must assume that it is a he!) eventually wrote a lengthy piece attempting to distance himself from the whole quagmire. Amusingly, @imKM was rather quick to quash any thoughts that he had a crush on the real Sarah Silverman! I must admit, the crush thing was first on my thoughts once the @imKM follow request appeared – that and the fact it appeared to be Sarah Silverman in @imKM’s background image.
Anyway, not surprisingly, it seems @imKM was somewhat disturbed by some of the tweets he was receiving:
I hope your parents have a good lawyer little boy.
heaven forbid your take responsibility for your actions
I don’t imagine that this will go away in a hurry, there’s probably a few more days of fall out to be had whilst bloggers and Twitterer’s around the globe pick up on it. In the meantime, @sarahsilverman is at 23:22 in the UK on 23/10/2008 is strangely still available. If the real Sarah Silverman reads this (hey, it’s possible surely?) perhaps it’s time you grabbed your presence on Twitter before somebody else does this all over again? Other micro-blogging sites are available.
@imKM was attempting to drive web traffic to his blog and video site by relying on the hard work and goodwill of other folks. Whether you like the real Sarah Silverman or not, it had an effect: 600 followers for the fake @sarahsilverman within a short space of time. @imKM received a few extra followers, however now his reputation has taken a serious beating. Small mistakes, and failing to follow accepted Internet etiquette and Twitterquette led to the downfall being as rapid as it was. If @imKM was patient and exercised some care, he could have kept this charade running for weeks or months.
The moral of this blog post is still the same as it was when I wrote about impersonation last year. There are many places on the Internet where it is necessary to verify who you are and in some way prove that you are who you say you are (authenticity), however very few places actually implement them – even some of the big banks struggle to do this properly.
It’s difficult to offer any guaranteed advice that can help you spot fakes, hopefully this post provided a few things to look out for. In social networking and indeed, in micro-blogging situations, it’s always worth checking out the friends/followers of the person you are about to connect with. Take a look at the people that person connects with, do they look like the kind of people who would connect with each other?
Oh, 23:25 in the UK on 26/10/2008 and http://twitter.com/fake_sarah_silv does not exist!
Finally, it was lovely to write this blog post as if I was on first name terms with Stephen and John. I am, of course, not and I will convey my apologies to Mr Fry and Mr Cleese when I next meet them.