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 423.

    So the BBC have followed up and put further questions to Andy Smith.

    Based on the clear and obvious response from your readers on her that Ms Goodman is talking utter googles, will the BBC be following up and asking her more questions?

    Corse not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    Do it all the time!

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.

    Everybody with any sense at all does this already. Far too many websites asked for details such as date of birth even though they have absolutely no need to know.

    It's unfortunate this advice had to be given, but I'd give the same advice myself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 420.

    No matter what you might believe is the 'right' thing to do, the sensible thing to do is protect as much of your identity as possible online. The more accurate data about yourself that you put online (including on 'secure' sites) the more likely you are to have your identity and money stolen. I'm afraid that anyone, like Goodman, who thinks this can be stopped by regulation is in cloud-cuckoo land

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    I'm a Labour supporter, but I also work in web security and as a result Ms Goodman is really testing my support. These comments make me fear for the future of net neutrality under a Labour government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 418.

    It is not possible to interact on the internet anonymously...anything said or browsed online can be traced by in tech sav individuals and organisations, both benign and malign, very easily. Not all of them simply want to sell you something.....once released online, info can never be withdrawn even if users think they have unsubscribed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.

    The problem is so many sites insisting on having lots of details about users that they really don't need and have no right in demanding.

    As for cloud computing.. talk about a frausters fantasy.

    I work designing electronics and embedded computing, so I have some idea about this.

    notice I don't use my real name here!.. there's a reason.

  • rate this

    Comment number 416.

    Andy Smith is right to an extent; people who put all of their personal details on sites like Facebook are leaving themselves wide open to identity fraud but what he should have said is just don't put all of your info on there, not tell people to lie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 415.

    I adopted a false persona 10 years ago to use online when accurate details are not needed, and have never regretted it.
    I have also noticed an increase in unwanted phone calls after entering my number on some website forms, in spite of TPS registration, so I always enter a false number now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 414.

    172.Phil Kingsbury

    When companies ask for my telephone number I always Google their head office number and put that in. That ensures that the only people that they'll annoy on the telephone will be themselves.


    utterley brilliant

  • rate this

    Comment number 413.

    Err, this is basic common sense.

    Someone needs to whack the 'shocked' shadow culture minister round the head with the clue-stick.

    The less you give out your details the less they can be used in undesirable ways - marketing, identity theft, stalking etc

    Does Ms. Goodman walk around with a name-tag with her full address, phone number, D.O.B and bank account number on it everywhere she goes?

  • rate this

    Comment number 412.

    Oh dear - I've been found out. I do this already because it is so easy for others to use the info if I give correct d.o.b.. Also I was advised by my bank that if I get a call claiming to be from them to give three postcodes and ask which is the correct one. It worked with one call - phone put down instantly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 411.

    I reckon I get at least one phishing scam email a day, so good on Andy Smith. he is advocating common sense.
    For Helen Goodman to criticise his comments on the grounds it promotes cyber bullying show an acute lack of understanding on her part.
    Cyber bullying only exists in the minds of the PC, control freak , brigade. To the rest of us it is simply people with alternative views or laughable trolls

  • rate this

    Comment number 410.

    Way ahead of you, Andy Smith, been doing this ever since I was younger than 18 years old.

  • rate this

    Comment number 409.

    I agree with Andy Smith. People are far to easy to hand over personal details these days and this facilitates crime. Also Cyber criminals hack into databases all the time. This is only an issue if your details are correct.

  • rate this

    Comment number 408.

    Eh?Where does law breaking come in to this?

    Helen Goodman is the totally outrageous one here!

    Why should I give a private organisation any real details about me, especially that really arent needed - or be that precise about?

    What guarantees do I have they will not snoop and share/copy my information? In short-I dont!

    Be sensible, be real, don't give away information thats not required!

  • rate this

    Comment number 407.

    He's right. It's not breaking the law to log into Twitter as bertie Broom shank because you don't want your accounts robbing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 406.

    All this from a government and civil service that brought in an anti money laundering system that requires all sorts of organisation to insist on originals and then copies passport driving licence, birth and marriage certificates which are then held in filing cabs ready to be stolen.
    But he does have a point interesting to see how this plays as a defence in court??

  • rate this

    Comment number 405.

    *dons conspiracy hat*

    This story makes me wonder why our politicos would be concerned with the accuracy of our Facebook data. Planning on using it yourselves, are you?

    *doffs conspiracy hat*

    So far, facebook uses my data to bombard me with gay dating site ads. If that's the extent of their evil plans, I say, it's a small price to pay for funny cat photos.

  • rate this

    Comment number 404.

    Another good piece of advice I was given is to use multiple e-mail accounts. I use one for friends and family, a different one for work and a completely separate one when buying stuff etc. This last one is a hotmail account and I register a new one every year and just junk the old one, that way I get little a by way of SPAM. It sometimes pays to be paranoid, the gullible deserve what they get.


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