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This Man Has Managed to Remain Anonymous on the Internet for the Past 25 Years

Jonathan Hirshon, a public relations professional, has managed the rather astonishing feat of staying completely anonymous online for the past 25 years. Although he is a pro at building publicity for his clients, he is dead-set against images of himself appearing online.

This is no small feat in a world of social media where major tech companies are pushing facial recognition technologies, and people are always photographing the world around them on their phones. It is easy to pop up in the background of a photo taken in a public place, but Hirshon is vigilant. He has been successful in his efforts as a google search of his name doesn’t turn up a single picture of his face. So far, he has been successful in his quest to remain anonymous, as a google search of his name doesn’t turn up a single picture of his face.

Photo: Jonathan Hirshon/Facebook

Hirshon is by no means a hermit, however, as he is very active on social media. He has over 3000 Facebook friends and frequently updates his status and profile with personal information from dinner plans to the state of his health.

“I choose to share virtually everything about myself on social media, but my face is the essence of me individually, and this is about refusing to give up the last piece of identifiable information that I can control,” Hirshon told the BBC.

“When the [web] started, I decided to play a game with myself: How long could I keep my picture off the Internet,” Hirshon told Daniel Terdiamn of Fast Company. “It’s turned into a 20-year trek….There’s only been two instances where pictures were taken of me [and posted] without my permission, and they both took them down.”

Hirshon’s anonymity is increasingly becoming an anomaly in a data-driven world. Facebook began using facial recognition technology in 2010 to identify and tag users whenever a photo of them is uploaded, by any user, to the site. The service helps users manage when and where their picture shows up online. Credit card companies are considering the use of selfies to allow customers to pay for things, and many schools are also looking into using the technology to check attendance. Law Enforcement agencies already use it to track down offenders.

Photo: Jonathan Hirshon/Facebook

The latest Apple phone, the iPhone X, uses facial recognition to identify the owner, an idea that Hirshon is open to, telling the BBC, “I trust Apple with my data. Many of the points of facial recognition are kept locally on the phone. Apple doesn’t get that information.”

Hirshon regularly speaks at conferences around the world, which has proven to be the biggest challenge in the quest to keep his face offline. His first slide, regardless of the topic at hand, is always of a camera with a red slash through it. He also asks the organizers of the event to remind the audience that no one is allowed to photograph him.

He regularly searches the internet for pictures that may have slipped through, but in 25 years he has only ever found two. The incidents occurred after events in Serbia and Croatia, and the pictures popped up on Twitter.

“I raced to find bilingual friends in both instances to send an urgent tweet respectfully asking on my behalf to take the picture down,” he told the BBC. “Both were happy to do so and apologized profusely for the error. Nothing done out of malice, just language issues.”

Photo: Jonathan Hirshon/Facebook

Hirshon is realistic, however, about maintaining anonymity and is aware that it could end soon. He has put into place a small hack that he hopes will extend it though, based on the 1960 film Spartacus. The slave’s identity was protected in the famous scene when many of his fellow slaves stood up and declared: “I’m Spartacus.” Hirshon has adapted the concept to the modern era by asking his friends to tag him in random photos of people and animals.

“If you’re so inclined,” he wrote in a private Facebook post, “take a moment and tag me in some random picture or image. A leaf on the wind, a howler monkey, geometry equations, George Clooney, a large steaming pile of excrement—select an image that you think best suits me or [is] based solely on your whim.”

The collection of images under the tag “Jonathan Hirshon” could confuse Facebook and Google’s algorithms and potentially bury any real photos of Hirshon that might eventually turn up. As to why he is so intent on keeping his anonymity secure, Hirshon told Fast Company, “You’ve probably noticed that I have a fairly decent grasp of facial recognition technology. I have worked for a number of companies in the (information and security) space. You can leave it at that, and let people draw their own conclusions.”

 

“When people ask me why I do it, I give them four options. One: I am shy. Two: I used to work as a spy. Three: I am on the witness protection programme. Four: all of the above. I refuse to confirm or deny which one is the truth.”

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