How to Run a Rogue Twitter Account with an Anonymous Email Address and a Burner Phone
by Gaius Publius
Thanks to the dark dawn of the Age of Trump, I suspect, we're seeing a bloom of Twitter accounts purporting to be either Alt-Agency accounts of current government employees, or more likely, Alt-Agency accounts of former employees of the department named in the account.
One rather large list of alt or rogue accounts is this one — Rogue Federal Tweeter. I've started a much smaller one here — RogueGovt — just to see what was going on in the alt-twitter world.
No one here wants anyone to break the law, but not all "rogue" or anonymous Twitter activity is unlawful. In fact, many would argue that the ability to be anonymous, if one chooses to be, is a right.
This got me wondering, in theory, what the process might look like if one wanted to be completely anonymous on Twitter, independent of the purpose. How would one do that? Could one even succeed at it?
As it turns out, there are indeed ways to do that, and yes, if one is careful, once can even succeed. One such guide recently turned up at The Intercept by the always-good tech and security writer Micah Lee.
So consider this an introduction, if only for the academic purpose of demonstrating that anonymous twittering is indeed possible. The purpose could be completely unrelated to politics. Let's say, for example, you are a Red Sox fan, so adamant a fan, in fact, that if people at work knew the depth of your passion and commitment, they might shun you at your regular Friday Happy Hour outings, or even cost you devoutly wished opportunity to make very good friends with, say, Janice in Accounting, sadly, an equally rabid Yankees fan.
Let's also add that, for example, like some people much more famous than yourself, you suffer from a terrible modern failing — you can't stay off of Twitter, especially when rattling around your lonely pad at night, and especially when your dander is up.
Micah Lee's piece offers these suggestions, including a step-by-step process, to create and use successfully an anonymous Twitter account, @Alt-RedSox, say. (Note the two parts to the problem — creating the account successfully so that your ownership can't be traced; using the account successfully so that your activity can't lead back to you. More on the second problem in a bit.)
Creating an Anonymous Twitter Account
Lee starts this way. (Note that his theoretical example involves the government, whereas me, I'm just theoretically worried about the Red Sox, my coworkers, and Janice in Accounting. The problem is the same in both cases.)
How to Run a Rogue Government Twitter Account With an Anonymous Email Address and a Burner PhoneThe article then details the process, and frankly, if you're a Jack Reacher fan, you may find some of it thrillingly familiar. I'll send you to the piece for the highly readable step-by-step detail, but in general the process Lee outlines is this:
One of the first things Donald Trump did when he took office was temporarily gag several federal agencies, forbidding them from tweeting.
In response, self-described government workers created a wave of rogue Twitter accounts that share real facts (not to be confused with “alternative facts,” otherwise known as “lies”) about climate change and science. As a rule, the people running these accounts chose to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation — but, depending on how they created and use their accounts, they are not necessarily anonymous to Twitter itself, or to anyone Twitter shares data with.
Anonymous speech is firmly protected by the First Amendment and the Supreme Court, and its history in the U.S. dates to the Federalist Papers, written in 1787 and 1788 under the pseudonym Publius by three of the founding fathers.
But the technical ability for people to remain anonymous on today’s internet, where every scrap of data is meticulously tracked, is an entirely different issue. The FBI, a domestic intelligence agency that claims the power to spy on anyone based on suspicions that don’t come close to probable cause, has a long, dark history of violating the rights of Americans. And now it reports directly to President Trump, who is a petty, revenge-obsessed authoritarian with utter disrespect for the courts and the rule of law.
In this environment, how easy is it to create and maintain a Twitter account while preserving your anonymity — even from Twitter and any law enforcement agency that may request its records? I tried to find out and documented all my steps. There are different ways to accomplish this. If you plan on following these steps, you should make sure you understand the purpose of them, in case you need to improvise. I also can’t guarantee that these techniques will protect your anonymity — there are countless ways that things can go wrong, many of them social rather than technical. But I hope you’ll at least have a fighting chance at keeping your real identity private.
For this exercise, I decided to pick a highly controversial political topic: Facts. I believe that what we know about reality is based on evidence that can be objectively observed. Thus, I created the completely anonymous (until publishing this article, of course) Twitter account @FactsNotAlt. Here’s how I did it.
- Download and install the Tor Browser, which anonymizes Internet activity.
- Using Tor, get an anonymous email account (Lee offers suggestions).
- Get an anonymous phone number (here's where you'll feel the Reacher blood in your veins).
- Using Tor Browser, create the Twitter account of your choice (for example, @Alt-RedSox) and associate it with your anonymous phone number.
- Using your anonymous email address and anonymous phone, confirm the account to Twitter's satisfaction.
Interesting exercise, isn't it, if a little academic. You could even call it a literary exercise if you're working on a novel about a mad Red Sox tweeter who has managed to score a friendship with Not-Janice in Accounting (who, it turns out, runs an equally anonymous Alt-Yankees account — shhh).
Maintaining Your Anonymity
The easier part of the process is creating the account. Just follow Lee's advice about which locations and networks you use while doing it. The harder part is maintaining your anonymity as you tweet away about the rotten management of your favorite team, its personnel and new budget policies, and so on.
About that part of the problem, Lee has some excellent, indeed vital, suggestions. Again, these aren't in general difficult to do; it's that they must be done always — no slippage, in other words. I'll send you to the piece for all of it, but for example:
- Be careful how you interact with people, both in real life and online. Especially, don't brag. The most common way operations like this fail is the old one — loose lips. Other Lee suggestions include not uploading images (of documents, say) unless they are screen grabs, since many images contain metadata. To upload a document, take a screen grab of it first, then upload that.
You don't even want to write in a style that "sounds like you." Some people can ID writers by style (I'm one of them — shhh).
- Stay very compartmental. This means, use Tor for all tweeting from that account. Tweet from public networks only. Never use your anonymous phone number for anything but to create the account; then turn it off, record the number in case you need it for later verification, and destroy it. Don't tweet from work, especially if Janice is hovering nearby. Don't "follow" your anonymous account, or even read it outside of these restrictions (using Tor in a coffeeshop). And so on.
If someone is out to find you — the off-the-leash FBI in Lee's example; Janice's brothers in mine — the chain of connection can't ever lead from your Twitter account to anything that touches you or your friends. In other words, complete lockdown compartmentalization of this small part of your life; zero traceability of its activity.
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