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 443.

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

    I don't trust the government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 442.

    helen's reaction is typical of her caste;they will argue a sensible point just becasue they didn't think it up and the opposition said it.
    I think it's totally outrageous that MP's don't have any maturity when it comes to sensible ideas and cooperation.
    this is the reason most of us can't stand the governing classes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 441.

    You shouldn't give your details out because criminals aside, the likes of Google and Facebook sell your details to people.

    Ms Goodman has only claimed Smith is talking rubbish to protect multi billion dollar tax-avoiding multi-nationals have built their business models on collecting your data.

    PS - My real name isn't SwampPuppet. And I don't even live in a swamp! Always one step ahead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 440.

    He said"said people should only give accurate details to trusted sites such as government ones."
    Sites such a Facebook, Twitter and so on hardly come under the heading of "Trusted sites"- they are leakier than the Titanic.

    I use FB but I would not put personal details there.

    His advice is good - use a nom-de-plume (ie a screen-name)

  • rate this

    Comment number 439.

    Now here is a coincidence. Just been called up from a blocked number bya gentleman called George from a bank with a serious Asian accent asking me to confirm my name and asking for security questions of DoB and mothers maiden name. I asked to be able to call him back but suprise suprise, not allowed.For all I know, he could have been phishing for info to use elsewhere. Lie I say

  • rate this

    Comment number 438.

    Those saying that it's "common sense":

    Using false DoBs is not *that* helpful in preventing online fraud, unless you use a different false DoB for everything. Spyware doesn't really care if the DoB it gets from your computer is accurate as long as it works. Your fake DoB might stop someone who knows you breaking into your Facebook, but that's about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 437.

    "Trusted sites such as government ones"??? Considering the number of laptops and usb sticks that get left on trains,in bars and other public places,by ministers and government employees, that's the last place to leave personal information.

  • rate this

    Comment number 436.

    If some passing Herbert can hack into the Pentagons computer network then hacking into a social network server would obviously not be very hard.
    I have worked in the computer industry since you had to wear a white coat and I would never use my real details over an IP network.
    I would much rather write a letter and post it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 435.

    I think it's a brilliant idea.

    Just for those that are saying how terrible he should be giving out such at advice, are you all really using your real names on here.

    I'm surprised labour are not calling for his resignation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 434.

    Best advice is not to go on social networking sites.

    The rest is nonsense; how does anonymity contribute to child abuse? It's perfectly possible for the authorities to find the ISP of any computer and given there are plently of places with net access I don't see how anyone would have major problems setting up an account under false details if they wanted to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 433.

    It's what I do. Seems like an eminently sensible way to proceed.

    Not sure about government sites being trusted though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 432.

    I am surprised at the controversy over this.

    As media teacher, I advise my students in the USA to beware of leaving a trail on the internet. Do you have any idea of the computing power devoted to tracking you, for good, evil, and grey reasons? And it is getting more extreme - soon to constitute a near videotape of your past life, available for sale. Why is one obligated to cooperate?

  • rate this

    Comment number 431.

    Well to be fair i already do that. Always give the minimum information and never give your correct birthdate. You would be mad to do otherwisw. Oh and one other thing i don't go on social network sites!

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    I go one further than providing fake details to social networks; I provide none at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    This is why Andy Smith is the CO internet security chief and Helen Goodman and Ed Vaizey are clueless, out of touch MPs who will probably soon have hacked Twitter/Facebook accounts.

    This sums up whats wrong with Government; the experts with the knowledge and skills are shouted down by silly MPs who actually know sweet FA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    Anyone who uses 'real' personal information online is exposing themselves to be targeted by whoever looks for this information online with crime in mind. Whether a public body rep says it or not, it is good advice. Don't make it easy for the idiots please :)
    Just my opinion says Jessica or should I say Simon, or maybe Rebecca, John, Derrick, Jane :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    Where is the balance in this report? There is a photo of the labour MP but not the Government official.

  • rate this

    Comment number 426.

    Some details, like date of birth are vital in identifying you, especially if you have a name you share with many others. It is only a matter of time before you make a mistake on facebook or other social networking site and your personal details are then available to the world including the criminals. Heed Mr Smith, ignore our well meaning but ignorant politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    Strikes me as good advice, I never put my true details unless I have to- what's the point; just fill in random stuff- why play their little data gathering games?

  • rate this

    Comment number 424.

    Anyone who puts their ful,l true information on the Internet esp. social networking sites is a complete fool who deserves to be hacked. Again people like Helen Goodman who know very little about the issue and are on the usual save the children bandwagon. These are the same idiots who think porn should be blocked as standard to help stupid useless parents bring their kids up the 'right way'


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