Give social networks fake details, advises Whitehall web security official

Helen Goodman Helen Goodman described the comments as "totally outrageous"

A senior government official has sparked anger by advising internet users to give fake details to websites to protect their security.

Andy Smith, an internet security chief at the Cabinet Office, said people should only give accurate details to trusted sites such as government ones.

He said names and addresses posted on social networking sites "can be used against you" by criminals.

His advice was described by Labour MP Helen Goodman as "totally outrageous".

Ms Goodman, shadow culture minister, told BBC News: "This is the kind of behaviour that, in the end, promotes crime.

"It is exactly what we don't want. We want more security online. It's anonymity which facilitates cyber-bullying, the abuse of children.

"I was genuinely shocked that a public official could say such a thing."


Mrs Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland, in the North-East of England, said she had been contacted by constituents who have been the victims of cyber-bullying on major social networking sites by people hiding behind fake names.

Mr Smith, who is in charge of security for what he described as the "largest public services network in Europe", which will eventually be accessed by millions of people in the UK, said giving fake details to social networking sites was "a very sensible thing to do".

Start Quote

Don't put all your information on websites you don't trust”

End Quote Andy Smith Cabinet Office

"When you put information on the internet do not use your real name, your real date of birth," he told a Parliament and the Internet Conference in Portcullis House, Westminster.

"When you are putting information on social networking sites don't put real combinations of information, because it can be used against you."

But he stressed that internet users should always give accurate information when they were filling in government forms on the internet, such as tax returns.

"When you are interacting with government, or professional organisations - people who you know are going to protect your information - then obviously you are going to use the right stuff.

But he said that fraudsters gather a lot of personal information "from Google, social networking sites, from email footers, all sorts of places".

He added that they were "bringing this information together and cross-correlating information and then they are using it against you".

'Be cautious'

Mr Smith's comments were backed by Lord Erroll, chairman of the Digital Policy Alliance, a not-for-profit policy studies group which claims to speak for industry and charities, who was chairing the panel. He said he had always given his date of birth as "1 April 1900".

The crossbench peer later told BBC Radio 4's PM programme Mr Smith had given people "a very good bit of advice" - particularly as banks used date of birth as a means of verifying identity.

He said cyber-bullying was "a different issue". There were "technological ways" of discovering the true identity of bullies and, he added, they could also "use your details to pretend to be you".

Asked by BBC News to clarify his remarks, Mr Smith, who is head of security at the Public Sector Technical Services Authority, said there was a "balancing act" to be struck between giving details to reputable sites and posting them on websites where the need to confirm identity was not so vital.

He said: "Don't put all your information on websites you don't trust.

"If it's somewhere you trust - and obviously with government you really do need to put accurate information. Large commercial sites you are going to put the right information.

"If you are not sure about something then just be very, very cautious of what you put up, what you expose if you really don't want to be used against you."

'Educating consumers'

Culture minister Ed Vaizey said he had not seen Mr Smith's remarks but told the BBC that he "wouldn't encourage people to put false identities on the internet".

"The way of viewing this issue is that we should work with Facebook to ensure people feel secure using those sites and that there is not a threat of identity theft," he said.

"It's also important for the government to work with consumers, to educate consumers about the threat of identity theft and what kind of details we should and shouldn't put online."

Citing an anecdote about novelist Salman Rushdie - who won a battle last year to use his commonly used middle name rather than his actual first name Ahmed on his profile page - he said: "Facebook doesn't allow you to put on false details and they will take you off if they discover you have."

Simon Milner, Facebook's head of policy in the UK and Ireland, who was at the conference, also took issue with Mr Smith's comment.

He told the audience of industry experts and MPs he had a "vigorous chat" with the Cabinet Office official afterwards to persuade him to revise his view.



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  • rate this

    Comment number 943.

    Small wonder Politicians lie all the time if she's one of their advisors...

  • rate this

    Comment number 942.

    Helen - Study your subject before you give opinions. I've spent my life in IT, no way would I recommend real details online unless you fully understand what you are doing & you are forced to. Consider: What is identity fraud? Ironically it's fairly difficult to hide your identity now, only people that seem to be good at it are paedophiles, but they hide behind protection from the state IMO :(

  • rate this

    Comment number 941.

    It's a very suitable comment to start GetSafeOnline week. . It's not about telling lies, just don't give websites your date of birth when they don't NEED to know it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 940.

    Anyone stupid enough to use face book or twitter and then think that they have 100's of friends shows not only how shallow they are but how stupid also. Both sites are full of holes even Microsoft has security problems with just about every version of Internet Explorer. Hence the numerous "security" updates.

  • rate this

    Comment number 939.

    someones never been burgeled and have had a witness too afraid to make a statement, but who will name off the record, only for the police to state they cant knock on doors accuesing people, then reprimanding you when you do it yourself, whoever neg rated me, get a realistic view of life and the state of justice in britain circa 2012. at least for the working class.

  • rate this

    Comment number 938.

    I agree with others who say that you just do not need to put your information on there at all, use a pseudonym, let your friends and family know what it is and don't give out any details to anyone online, on the 'phone, on the doorstep, on the bus or even at work.

    There's nothing new in that, it was NEVER safe to give out our details willy-nilly! I don't see why we should bother lying though!

  • rate this

    Comment number 937.

    Over-reaction from Labour MP Helen Goodman which makes her look ignorant of the online world.

    Andy Smith makes sense, and its a practice any sensible person has been using online for years. With regular stories of sensitive data being leaked or hacked only an idiot would submit sensitive personal data onto social media sites such as Facebook.

  • rate this

    Comment number 936.

    932.Rotherham Lad "PINs, passwords, etc are used all over the place and we are advised to use different PINs everywhere.

    What are we supposed to do? Write them down?"

    Got a favourite book? Try page numbers of the 1st 4 chapters for one PIN, then the next 4 for another, or letters from the first 8 lines of 1st paragraph for passwords, then you just need the page number/book name noted somewhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 935.

    An obvious phishing scam that people keep missing is the "your calendar" type of app that requests you to input all your friends' birthdays so it can "send reminders". Think!!!!! This permits someone to check out your mates and scam them if they have revealed enough on their social networking profiles, so don't put your friends' birthdates online either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 934.

    Been supplying inaccurate birthdate info since joining the 'www' in 1995 in the clear knowledge it is one less element for those who wish to attempt to impersonate me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 933.

    Brunes I'm not really sure you understand the computer misuse act. Breaking a websites terms of service is not an offense under the act.

    Hiding your identity on a social network is not illegal even if its against the websites TOS not putting your real details is good advice. More practical advice may be to be more selective about what you place online rather the lie outright.

  • rate this

    Comment number 932.

    When someone from Facebook takes issue with advice given to protect security, the obvious conclusion is - IT IS GOOD ADVICE!

    Personal data is extremely valuable, but the problem comes when using it as on-line validation of your ID.

    PINs, passwords, etc are used all over the place and we are advised to use different PINs everywhere.

    What are we supposed to do? Write them down?

    We can't win!

  • rate this

    Comment number 931.

    I wish he would follow his own advice, the Cabinet Office, The Home office, The MOD, are examples of how not to appy security to IT systems. The same offices of state also need to look at the physical security of IT assets that they "lose". No Laptops containing data above Conditential should be allowed outside of secure government offices. far too many are left on trains & in taxis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 930.

    May be good advice for social networking. But I'm quite sure the Government would be the first to take me to court for fraud for lying on any email/ internet claim form. claiming any sort of government benefit. Hipocrasy in my eyes.!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 929.

    Some folk simply think it’s the police & govt’s job to protect them: in fact in the first instance YOU have a moral duty to take reasonable precautions, to not be reckless & to be alert to possible threats

    Even if you hate entering false data remember others have no scruples & you have a duty to not be a passive consumer of justice – be a responsible citizen &don't give scumbags any breaks!

  • rate this

    Comment number 928.

    dont ever believe the internets safe, they can't police the land in which we live, so what hope does cyberspace have, been a victim of real world crime in the last 10 yrs, you'll know what i mean, human rights END THE MOMENT YOU VIOLATE SOMEBODY' ELSE'S, or thats how it should be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 927.

    Seems to me that Labour MP Helen Goodman is living in a world that no-one else lives in.
    Unless you are using a site for booking airline travel, your bank, or for claiming government benefits, pubishing your full and accurate details is never safe. Identity theft is real and increasingly common.

  • rate this

    Comment number 926.

    Given how many people DO seem (incorrectly) to believe it's illegal to enter false details, no wonder "phishing" is still so successful - all you guys trustingly thinking everyone's as honest as you & nothing can possibly go wrong.

    I'm not saying that to mock, just PLEASE get educated here & remember you don't leave your front door unlocked, so why recklessly splurge your full personal details?

  • rate this

    Comment number 925.

    It is a good idea - I already do that but HEY WAIT A MINUTE...the only time I have had my personal details stolen was from a GOVERNMENT site....the time the HMRC site was compromised I had all my details stolen and people were claiming money supposedly as me! Hmm!

  • rate this

    Comment number 924.

    I certainly would never use my birthdate, I even omit it from CVs. With someone's birthdate a criminal can totally steal their identity. Birthdates are certainly one of the most important bits of data.


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