Pseudonymity: An FAQ for Bitcoiners

By Modus Bronens & Heady Wook, 2023


As of this writing, there is a dearth of literature on pseudonymity for Bitcoiners. Our goal with this document is to fill in that gap. Additionally, we hope this document paves the way for future work on this subject. While the document is structured in a way that it can be read straight through, it can also be read in any order you wish.




Basics

What is a pseudonym?
Why should I use a pseudonym?
How far should I go with my pseudonym?
How do I achieve perfect security for my pseudonym?

Becoming Pseudonymous

How do I get started with a pseudonym?
How much information should I disclose?
How realistic should my pseudonym be?
How many pseudonyms should I have?
When should I retire a pseudonym?
How can I start using my pseudonym in person?
Can I change my existing online accounts to reflect my pseudonym?
What if I want to take credit for something that I used a pseudonym for?

Pseudonyms and privacy: Mail, phones, and online

How can I use a pseudonym through mail?
How can I use a pseudonym with my phone?
How can I use a pseudonym online?

Further Reading

References




Eric Blair, who wrote under the
pseudonym George Orwell





Basics

What is a pseudonym?

A pseudonym, or nym for short, is a false or fictitious name. Therefore, to be pseudonymous, you can provide others with a fake, or pseudo, name. In contrast, to be anonymous you would not provide a name to others, so you would be labeled as having an unknown name (Kabay, 1998). Satoshi Nakamoto, the individual or group that created Bitcoin, is the most well known pseudonym in the bitcoin community.

Why should I use a pseudonym?

Basic privacy

Privacy is natural and humans have enjoyed a basic level of privacy in their everyday lives for thousands of years. However, rapidly advancing technology has significantly reduced the everyday privacy of the average person. Having a pseudonym can help you take back a basic level of privacy that you would otherwise lose in this digital age.

Independence

If you are already a public figure known by a certain name, using an alternative pseudonym can free you from the clout of the original name. One person who did this was Joanne Kathleen Rowling, or better known by her pen-name, J. K. Rowling. Wanting independence from the clout of her well-known name, Rowling published a book under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. She did this because she wanted her new book to stand on its own, above and beyond the hype of her previous work (i.e., the Harry Potter series) (Bury, 2013). Another example of a well known author who used a pseudonym is Eric Blair, or better known as George Orwell–author of the dystopian social science fiction novel 1984. Lastly, using a pseudonym from the get-go can be helpful if you become well-known in the future. This way your nym is independent from your identity from the start.

Protection

A pseudonym can be used to protect you in several ways, including in sharing controversial ideas, avoiding threats, and from negative social evaluation. For instance, the Journal of Controversial Ideas (JCI) protects authors by allowing them to submit articles for publication pseudonymously. The JCI does this because, “without such an opportunity, some potential authors might be deterred from publishing ideas or arguments that could improve our understanding of issues of great moral, political, or social significance” (Journal of Controversial Ideas, 2023). Therefore, under the protection of pseudonyms, society can indirectly benefit from the free and open discourse of society's most pressing issues.

Pseudonyms can help you avoid threats. In a more mild example, using a pseudonym can protect you from the threat of a data hack, such as the infamous Ledger hack (Gauthier, 2020). People who used their real names, emails, and home address in the Ledger hack had their information dumped on the internet and, shortly thereafter, people reported receiving phishing attempts, extortion and threatening emails, including threats of kidnapping and violence, such as murder (Wook, 2022b). In a more extreme example, if there is hyperinflation in the future, the minority of Bitcoiners may be better off than the majority of no-coiners. No-coiners may then become angry, aggressive, or violent against Bitcoiners. A pseudonym, like a mask, hides your identity and separates it from your bitcoin-related activities, thereby protecting your life, property, and family from any threats that Bitcoiners might face in the future (Frost, 2021). This is the reason why many bitcoin developers choose to remain pseudonymous (Hertig, 2020). Therefore, using a pseudonym can protect you from a range of threats.

Lastly, a pseudonym can protect you from fear of negative social evaluation. Without the fear of negative social evaluation, it can make you more comfortable expressing thoughts and feelings. When you feel comfortable expressing unhindered thoughts and feelings, it acts as a sort of emotional purging which can have positive effects (Christopherson, 2007). Therefore, a pseudonym can improve your wellbeing by allowing you to freely express yourself with little to no concern of what others might think of you.

Symbolism

A pseudonym can be used as a symbol. This symbol can serve several functions, such as sending a message. One example of this is the publication of the Federalist Papers in 1787 under the pseudonym Publius. The Federalist Papers were published in a direct attempt to persuade the anti-Federalists to adopt the constitution (Ramos, 2009). Prior to the publication of the Federalist Papers, the anti-Federalists published a series of letters under the pseudonym Brutus, after the Roman who attempted to save the republic by assassinating Julius Caesar. Publius was a Roman who was central in the establishment of the early Roman republic by leading the overthrow of the Roman monarchy. Using the name Brutus referenced how the constitution would lead to the creation of a unitary government (i.e., Julius Caesar who became a dictator) rather than a federal or republican government. The name Publius referenced how the constitution would lead to the creation of a republican (and federal) government (i.e., Publius was central in the establishment of the Roman Republic). The pseudonyms used by each group signaled the authors’ opinions on whether readers should be wary of or have faith in the proposed constitution.

How far should I go with my pseudonym?

You don’t have to go very far at all! You can use a pseudonym simply as a fun nickname, as a secret identity that is hidden from everyone else in the world, or anything in between. Your goal(s) and your threat model (see “How do I get started?”) should dictate how you should go with your pseudonym.

How do I achieve perfect security for my nym?

You can't. There is no perfect security.



Becoming Pseudonymous

How do I get started with a pseudonym?

To answer this question, it will require some personal reflection. Consider your goals. For instance, think about which activities in your life you wish to keep private within the bitcoin community. Think about how serious you will be with it or if you are simply experimenting with pseudonymity.

With your goals in mind, develop a threat model. Threat modeling is the identification of perceived vulnerabilities or threats to the security of person or property, and the development of preventative measures and countermeasures (Microsoft, 2009). Your goals and your threat model should be the foundation for everything else you do regarding pseudonymity.

How much information should I disclose?

Having thought about your goals and threat model, this will vary from person to person. For example: One thing you might consider is your location. Will people know your location? How precisely will they know? If you attend meetups regularly, then people can infer you must live in the area. If your Tweets have location data on them, people will know where you have been. If you don’t want people knowing your location, then turn off location services on your social media or, perhaps, reconsider if meetups are appropriate for you. However, this all depends on your situation. If you need to do things that are not associated with your location, you should avoid associating those activities with an identity whose location is known to others. One way to do this is by creating alternative nyms (see “How many nyms should I have?”). The question of how much information to disclose is one that only you can answer through personal reflection.

How realistic should my pseudonym be?

In his article Want anonymity? Make a persona not a mystery, Derek Sivers (2023) advocates creating a persona with a realistic name, a city in which the person lives, a fictional job for the nym, and an AI-generated avatar. He argues that if you provide these details, then nobody will question who you are. Giving your nym a realistic persona can be beneficial when people start asking you questions about yourself that you are uncomfortable answering. The key here is to know your nym’s persona like the back of your hand to avoid leaking information by accident.

How many pseudonyms should I have?

You can use multiple pseudonyms and you can create more as needed. Given your goals and threat model, you may have different nyms for different activities. However, having too many nyms can be difficult to manage. You will have to find the balance that works for you.

When should I retire a pseudonym?

Any time you are concerned that continuing to use a paricular nym will cause problems for you, you should consider ceasing to use it. Satoshi Nakamoto has not been heard from since 2012 (except perhaps when he posted "I am not Dorian Nakamoto" later on.) It is not known exactly why he retired his nym.

How can I start using my pseudonym in person?

Live action role playing, or LARPing, has had a negative connotation on the internet. For example, Urban Dictionary user BongFucker246 (2021) defined LARPing as, "someone pretending to be something they're not. Can involve lying on social media/internet or lying in real life. Often used in a derogatory sense." Despite this negative connotation, if you wish to be pseudonymous, then you must LARP your nym. In other words, you should go out into the world (i.e., bitcoin meetups) and live action role play, or LARP, your nym! You can start introducing yourself as your nym to new people and ask others to start calling you by your new nym.

If you want to transition into a nym but you have already introduced yourself by your real name, you can ask those around you to start calling you by your nym. For example, you have been introducing yourself as Bob to the group but now you want to go by a nym. Simply address the group or talk to each person individually and tell them you want to go by a nym now. Most Bitcoiners will understand you want to become pseudonymous.

Can I change my existing online accounts to reflect my pseudonym?

If you already have your name on something and you want to transition to a nym, you may have to consider it lost. For example, if you have your Twitter account under your real name and you transition your account to your nym, then you are effectively connecting your nym to your real name. This is not only true on Twitter’s database but also for all the individuals who follow you and that you follow. You would be better off creating a new account under the desired nym.

What if I want to take credit for something that I used a pseudonym for?

It depends on what kind of credit you want. If you want your true name to be publicly associated with certain accomplishments, then there is no way around that. However, if you have done work under a nym that could help you get a job, you could selectively disclose the work to the prospective employer. However, be mindful of how much you share (e.g., nym socials) because you may not want everything your nym has done to be known to the employer. If you do want to take credit for what your nym has done, you will need to maintain proof. In fact, you may want to maintain proof just in case someone else tries to take credit for your work. It is a good idea to add a PGP fingerprint to your work that you can always verify. See As easy as P, G, P by Diverter_NoKYC (2021) for a guide on getting started with PGP.



(This is not Satoshi Nakamoto.)

Pseudonyms and privacy: Mail, phones, and online

How can I use a pseudonym through mail?

To be pseudonymous through mail, you will need a PO Box. To obtain a PO box in the USA, you will be required to provide government issued documents, such as a driver’s license and another source of residential verification. After providing the proper paperwork, you can pay for the PO box with cash and buy the smallest sized box for about $5 a month. You will have to pay at least 3-months in advance if using cash. There is also a 6-month and annual payment option. However, the price remains the same per month regardless of the option you choose. You can get larger boxes delivered to your PO box regardless of the size of your box (they hold it in the back for you). You can find more information on PO boxes on the USPS PO box webpage (USPS, n.d.).

Having a PO box is advantageous for pseudonymity because you will be able to get several goods delivered to your PO box rather than your home address. Consider the Ledger database hack mentioned above, you could have had the hardware wallet delivered to your PO box and protected your personal home address from being leaked on the internet. Given the various peer-to-peer services and merchants found in the bitcoin community, there are many instances in which you might find a PO box useful; and, when the time comes, you can rest assured that you can provide a PO box address. An important thing to consider is to have the sender list your name as “recipient” rather than your pseudonym. For example: “To ‘recipient’ at PO Box 21, TX, USA.” You can inform the Post Office to accept packages under “recipient.”

How can I use a pseudonym with my phone?

Buy a SIM card and burner phone separate from your daily driver that you can use as your nym’s phone. That is: keep one phone as your regular phone and another as your nym phone. Your nym number is what you can use to give to others you meet in the bitcoin community. Most large cell phone service providers allow you to buy physical SIM cards at prepaid monthly prices with cash. For example, you can go into T-Mobile and buy a year’s worth of service (i.e., lowest data plan) for a one-time SIM activation charge of $10 and $15/month for service, a total of about $190. No identification is required. A de-Googled Pixel phone running CalyxOS or GrapheneOS is recommended. An old phone off Craigslist or other cheap phones will work too. Additionally, be sure to always use a VPN (see “How can I use a pseudonym online?”).

How can I use a pseudonym online?

Bitcoin

The Bitcoin network is inherently pseudonymous because every public address is a string of alphanumeric characters rather than having any sort of personally identifying information, such as a name or identity. Therefore, you can use bitcoin to pay for goods and services online and remain pseudonymous so long as you do not provide personally identifying information, such as your real name or personal address. However, you will still need to be mindful that although bitcoin is pseudonymous it is not anonymous. Because bitcoin is an open protocol, anyone can audit the bitcoin blockchain using a block explorer. This allows anyone to peer into your balances and the transaction history associated with your bitcoin. Therefore, you must be mindful of how you use your bitcoin. One solution to this is to make every spend a coinjoin. By making every spend a coinjoin, you can gain more on-chain privacy by limiting the information others can see on the blockchain, such as balances and transaction history.

VPN

Provided you are on a home network which is tied to your identity, there is an IP address associated with your internet service and general location (this is also true with mobile internet service). Your IP address can therefore be associated with your online behavior, internet searches, and location. By using a VPN you can browse the internet using an alternative IP address rather than the one associated with your identity. Additionally, you can often change the location of your IP addresses depending on the VPN provider. One VPN provider that accepts bitcoin is Mullvad VPN (Mullvad, n.d.). Mullvad VPN can also be used on mobile as well as on a computer. Unlike other VPN providers, Mullvad does not require you to provide email or SMS verification to create an account. Another option to hide your IP address on the internet is to use Tor, short for The Onion Router. Tor can also be used on mobile or on a computer. Tor works by routing your internet traffic through various Tor nodes, with a new layer of encryption each time (Tor, n.d.). Although Tor can have its trade offs, such as being slow or prone to attacks, it is nonetheless a free and valuable tool.

Email

One of the fundamental steps you can take to become pseudonymous online is to use an email that is not associated with any of your personal information. These can be both throwaway emails or long-term email accounts. You can use a pseudonymous email address to register for various services, such as Text Verified or Twitter, for example. However, some email services also require you to register an old email address or a phone number in order to create a new email account. Thus, some email providers are better to use than others. Wook (2021) describes how to acquire a pseudonymous email address using Cock.li, ProtonMail, and Tutanota.

SMS Verification

When registering for online services, sometimes SMS verification is required. If you do not already have a burner phone number to use, Text Verified is an alternative. Text Verified is a service for bypassing online SMS verification that accepts bitcoin. You can use it to create pseudonymous accounts on Twitter, Telegram, and Signal, for example, as well as to bypass SMS verification for the purchase of non-KYC bitcoin from some bitcoin ATMs (Wook, 2022a). For more non-KYC bitcoin resources, see the No-KYC Only web page by BitcoinQnA (2020) and the how-to guides by Wook (2020).

Further Reading

True Names Not Required - by Gigi

Blockchain Commons Pseudonymity Guide





References

BitcoinQnA. (2020). No-KYC only. https://bitcoinqna.github.io/noKYConly/

BongFucker246. (2021). Larping. In Urban Dictionary. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Larping. Archived: https://archive.is/wip/JtKaA

Bury, L. (2013, July 24). JK Rowling tells story of alter ego Robert Galbraith. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jul/24/jk-rowling-robert-galbraith-harry-potter

Christopherson, K. M. (2007). The positive and negative implications of anonymity in internet social interactions: “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Computers in Human Behavior, 23, 3038–3056. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2006.09.001

Diverter_NoKYC. (2021). As easy as P, G, P. On a Path, Diverted. https://diverter.hostyourown.tools/as-easy-as-pgp/

Frost, R. (2021). Why do superheroes wear masks and what inspired its creators to wear them? Quora. https://www.quora.com/Why-do-superheroes-wear-masks-and-what-inspired-its-creators-to-wear-them

Gauthier, P. (2020, December 21). Message by Ledger’s CEO: Update on the July data breach. Ledger. https://www.ledger.com/message-ledgers-ceo-data-leak

Hertig, A. (2020, June 29). Many bitcoin developers are choosing to use pseudonyms – for good reason. CoinDesk. https://www.coindesk.com/markets/2020/06/29/many-bitcoin-developers-are-choosing-to-use-pseudonyms-for-good-reason/

Journal of Controversial Ideas. (2023, June 13). Editorial Policies. https://www.journalofcontroversialideas.org/page/129

Kabay, M. E. (1998). Anonymity and pseudonymity in cyberspace: Deindividuation, incivility and lawlessness versus freedom and privacy. European Institute for Computer Anti-virus Research, Munich, Germany. http://www.mekabay.com/overviews/anonpseudo.pdf

Microsoft. (2009, November 12). Security design by threat modeling. Microsoft Learn. https://archive.is/wip/p79iu

Mullvad. (n.d.). Mullvad VPN. https://mullvad.net/en

Ramos, M. (2009). Anti-Federalists. https://mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1175/anti-federalists

Sivers, D. (2023, February 2). Want anonymity? Make a persona not a mystery. https://sive.rs/anon

Tor. (n.d.). The Tor project. https://www.torproject.org/

USPS. (n.d.). PO boxes: Secure your mail at the Post Office. Retrieved June 14, 2023, from https://www.usps.com/manage/po-boxes.htm

Wook, H. (2020). Heady Wook. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/search?query=creator%3A%22Heady+Wook%22

Wook, H. (2021, December 16). How to create a throw away email address. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/how-to-create-a-throw-away-email-address/

Wook, H. (2022a, April 24). Bypassing SMS verification with Text Verified. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/bypassing-sms-verification-with-text-verified

Wook, H. (2022b, July 5). An argument against KYC bitcoin. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/an-argument-against-kyc-bitcoin