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It seems to me there is somewhat of a privacy leak when permalinking to a question. For what I would assume is the purposes of tracking which user is responsible for bringing traffic back to an SE site (for badges, etc), the user ID of the user obtaining the permanent link is included in the permanent link itself.

I wouldn't argue that this shouldn't be the case, but I find no warning or mention of this when I do these actions. I'm sure I'm not the only one that doesn't desire anonymity on SO but would like at least pseudonymity on some places I might share a SO link, such as on a random blog.

Tooltip as shown when hovering the "link"

As a user, I would not expect sharing a permanent link to leak my identity. Unless you are familiar with StackExchange links or your own userID, it's certainly not obvious by looking at the link that it includes your personal info. It'd be nice to have fair warning that using that feature will do so, and perhaps provide/describe the workaround: to simply remove the user-id segment from the URL. Other features would be a preference that formats future permanent links to exclude the user id.

Example (from this question)

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Your assumption is correct - the permalink is explicitly designed to contain your ID for the purposes of the badges like Announcer (and maybe other tracking). Answers don't have this, though, and as a workaround you can always use the question's title - it's a URL that does not feature your ID. –  Grace Note Jan 7 '11 at 20:50
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Or you could edit the link: meta.stackexchange.com/q/74274 –  jjnguy Jan 7 '11 at 20:53
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Definitely. @JJnguy's workaround is what I was hinting at in my question. I know workarounds already exist; my fear is that people won't even discover the privacy implications involved until it's "too late." I don't know, maybe it's just something the community at large isn't too concerned about. –  Mark Peters Jan 7 '11 at 20:56
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@Mark: Just FYI in case you didn't know, there are things in your profile that only you can see (okay, devs and moderators can see it too, but that's a tiny group of people). Your email address and OpenID info remain hidden to everyone else. Linking to that page shouldn't be a privacy concern. –  Bill the Lizard Jan 7 '11 at 21:19
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@Bill: You're missing the point. I'm not worried about that stuff being public. I know what is public in my profile and I'm fine with that. The point is, the user-id in the link could be an unintended way of publishing your identity in some context where you where aiming to have pseudonymity. –  Mark Peters Jan 7 '11 at 21:24
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I generally get the permalink by right-clicking the question title instead of using the link button. –  mmyers Jan 7 '11 at 21:34
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@Mark: I understand the point. I was just commenting in case you were worried about those extra bits of info getting out. –  Bill the Lizard Jan 7 '11 at 21:35
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As an aside: this has been in place since August 2010 or earlier. –  Arjan Jan 22 '11 at 12:58
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IMHO, complaining about privacy on SO is... what can I say... dumb? Honestly, just delete your id if you complain so much about it. But if this feature is gone then I will start to complain. –  BrunoLM Jan 22 '11 at 13:07
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As I quite often see these links used in comments, I guess many people indeed don't know about this. (If they would know: why not use the full links, so one knows what the link refers to without clicking? I sometimes make the same mistake, but seeing no warning at all, I really doubt many know.) –  Arjan Jan 22 '11 at 13:11
    
@Arjan Why does it matter? SO is public, there is no private settings and it shall never have. –  BrunoLM Jan 22 '11 at 13:20
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Because of the 2nd paragraph of the question, @Bruno. –  Arjan Jan 22 '11 at 13:29
    
This also applies to the "Know someone who can answer? Share a link to this question via email, twitter, or facebook." links (only appears when there are no answers yet). Though there sharing is non-anonymous by definition, it still might unexpectedly link accounts. –  Arjan Jan 23 '11 at 11:41
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Some counting: since August/September 2010, about 300 SO users (accidentally?) used the short referral links on SO itself. (This does not count towards getting an Announcer, Booster or Publicist badge, so no benefits from that referral. But as such referral links lack the descriptive title —and hence need clicking to see what one is referring to— my guess is that folks would have posted the full link if they were aware of this.) –  Arjan Jan 27 '11 at 20:23
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+1. User privacy matters. It's a big deal. –  TRiG is Timothy Richard Green Sep 15 '11 at 2:17
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6 Answers 6

up vote 42 down vote accepted
+50

Another option is to change the text from "link" to "referral link" when someone is logged in, so they are aware that it's a referral link. If they don't want a referral link and deleting their userid is simply too much trouble, they only need to right click the post title and copy the URL.

This should resolve the problem:

  • It alerts users that this link is a referral link, and may contain user specific information
  • There is another link on the page already which does not contain that information

Most people who regularly share links are used to getting links from the title of blog posts, adn those who care about being able to use a sanitized link will either figure it out, or ask on meta.

The majority of SO users won't care, but they will at least be alerted via the use of the word "referral".

Further, since the code already exists to differentiate between a logged in and not logged in user (ie, the link is created with a uid or not) then the code to change to a referral link is minimal.

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I like that! –  Arjan Jan 22 '11 at 17:19
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I like this option. After all, it wasn't the fact that it's a referral link that bothered me, but rather that there was very little transparency that it was a referral link. –  Mark Peters Jan 22 '11 at 19:43
    
As an aside: the same referral links are used in the "Know someone who can answer? Share a link to this question via email, twitter, or facebook." links (only appears when there are no answers yet). It's a bit harder to change the text there, I guess. Well, Share a referral link might do, of course! –  Arjan Jan 23 '11 at 11:44
    
I'm not sure, "referral link" is clear enough, you just see "link" and use it. It's a good idea, but there should be some warning on the first use, anyway. I'd prefer an anonymous link as the default with the possibility to change it to referral link for those who like it. –  maaartinus Jan 24 '11 at 5:09
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I agree that the current behaviour is surprising. One would expect a clean link behind a "link" button, not a referral.

I suggest adding a second, anonymous linking option:

link · link (anonymous) · edit · close · flag

this is trivial to implement, makes the user aware of the issue, and gives them all the options they need.

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Since March 2011, clicking "link" now always shows a popup (while right-clicking still makes most browsers show something like "Copy link address"):

The share a link popup after clicking it. How does that work in screen readers...?

The text is different for questions and answers:

share a link to this question
share a link to this answer

Would it be feasible to just change this, when logged in? Like:

share a referral link to this question
share a referral link to this answer

Or even one better, to allow easy access to the full URL for answers too, some nifty way to toggle the type of URL? For both questions and answers:

toggle anonymous and full url

Likewise, with a different wording based on the link that is currently shown:

Link options Link options Link options

(The tooltips are still "short permalink to this question" and "short permalink to this answer". When logged in, changing these to read "short referral link to ..." would be great too! And adding "referral" to the "Know someone who can answer? Share a link to this question via email, twitter, or facebook." message as well, would lower the chance of accidental referrals even more: though on social networks sharing is non-anonymous by definition, that link might unexpectedly associate accounts as well.)

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I don't see how this is a problem.

Your Stack Overflow profile is not private. And the post that you are linking to is not private. And it is clear that you are associating yourself with the link that you post when you post it.

I'm not sure what privacy is lost by placing the user id in the url.

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Why is it clear that you are associating yourself with the link that you post when you post it? What if you're just sharing a link to something like stackoverflow.com/questions/194812/…. Not only are there so many users there that they'd never be able to guess who you (the link-sharer) are by looking at the thread, there is really no reason to believe you are associated with that question. You could just think it's a cool thing to pass on. And by doing so, you've ruined any pseudonymity you had where ever you posted it. –  Mark Peters Jan 7 '11 at 21:19
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@Mark, I guess I assume that whoever you share a link with would make the connection between you the link poster and you on stackoverflow. I know they would for me for sure. –  jjnguy Jan 7 '11 at 21:32
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Ok let me describe a hypothetical scenario. Say I was an active member of a mutually anonymous group that published opposition opinion pieces in some dictatorship without freedom of speech. I survive only by nobody knowing my true identity there. In parallel, in my normal life, I am a software professional with a StackOverflow account asking questions and giving answers in a safe way that doesn't belie my "secret" behaviour. One day, somebody on this site asks me a technical question. I find the answer on a StackOverflow question and post it. Boom, all my pseudonymity is gone; I'm dead. –  Mark Peters Jan 7 '11 at 21:56
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@Mark, i'm sorry to hear of your plight, but that is totally unrealistic. And, if you were leading a double life, you would be much more careful about everything you did. –  jjnguy Jan 7 '11 at 23:09
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@JJnguy: It's not my plight. It was just a scenario to demonstrate the issue because you were missing it. It's not entirely unrealistic, but in reality it'd be more like something like "I want to remain anonymous on Reddit but reveal my true identity on StackOverflow". If I naively post a permalink to Reddit I've leaked my user id. –  Mark Peters Jan 8 '11 at 0:54
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@Justin: It's not AT ALL unrealistic. It's exactly how dissidents get discovered and killed. –  Nicholas Knight Jan 22 '11 at 15:07
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@NicholasKnight Do you have a real-world example? With a contrived example, one can prove anything. –  todofixthis Dec 13 '11 at 21:26
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Here's my scenario: After 15 years in Usenet under my real name, I have found enough reasons to keep my true identity completely separate from my SO identity, and I'd do a lot to keep it that way. So far, there is no publicly available link between the two. However, should I ever publish such a link under my true identity, this separation would break down. Note that it is completely irrelevant whether I am an endangered dissidents or what else my reasons for this are — just be assured that I would consider completely wiping out this 60k+ account if it got compromised. –  sbi Jun 7 '12 at 11:04
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This is implemented to support the Booster, Promoter, and Publicist badges:

http://blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/09/announcer-booster-and-publicist-badges/

You can always just delete the user ID from the shortened URL -- it will still work.

Additionally if you browse in incognito (anonymous) mode the URLs do not contain the userid, since obviously you have no user id from the site's perspective -- you're not logged in!

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That's a relevant point about incognito mode, although most privacy mode that browsers provide still enable cookies (they just don't carry over from the normal session and they are deleted at the end of the session) so it doesn't prevent you from logging in. Anyway the point wasn't about not having a workaround, it was the fact that it is completely hidden to a casual user that the user id is leaked. I'd just settle for a warning or even the link being something like http://stackoverflow.com/q/#####/####/mark-peters where it's obvious. –  Mark Peters Jan 8 '11 at 0:58
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Personally I wouldn't envision scenarios where it would be so critical to be in incognito mode anyway. I'm not talking about high-risk spying in general. One simple example is just some blog where I'd rather remain anonymous. Like thedailywtf.com. I trust the community here to not do dumb stuff after finding out some basic information about me more than I do on that site. –  Mark Peters Jan 8 '11 at 1:02
    
@Mark, I'd rather not include the display name: currently, changing that name does not change it on the many copy cat websites that republish the SOFU content. Adding the display name to the links as well makes it even slightly harder to change one's name at some later time, after one has posted it somewhere. –  Arjan Jan 22 '11 at 13:16
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Hey @Jeff, can you comment on why this has been declined? Not enough interest? Privacy isn't a concern here? I only ask because it seems in your answer above that you think somebody was suggesting that the user id shouldn't be in the link. We weren't saying that; we were just asking for a little more transparency/warning that it was a referral. If it's declined I wouldn't mind knowing that the powers at be actually understood both the problem and the request. –  Mark Peters Jan 27 '11 at 20:52
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This is so wrong. A permalink should not contain user information. It should point to the content and nothing more. With this kind of links a user is traceable all over the internet. I prefer privacy over badges but do you prefer privacy over site traffic? –  Nick Mar 22 '11 at 14:41
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If this feature request gets enough upvotes (ie, a lot of people are concerned about it, and want it changed) then one way to implement this is to add a user-preference in the user account screen which disables the userID on links. It seems to me that those who would be concerned about this would want to set it and forget it.

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But I doubt many people are that interested... –  Adam Davis Jan 7 '11 at 22:31
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Yes, that's what I was getting at with the last sentence in the question. But from my perspective it's not the hassle of anonymizing the link, it's just the fact that nowhere are you warned that you ARE leaking your user id. –  Mark Peters Jan 8 '11 at 1:04
    
If we did that, then we'd have to disable it by default, or we'd also be accused of Zuckerpunching people in the Atwood, or Spolsky, whichever sounds more anitomical. –  Tim Post Jan 22 '11 at 13:20
    
An easier implementation would be to add the message on the title of the link. I wouldn't like to see privacy settings on SO. But this message is ok if it shut up this stupid request (IMO) –  BrunoLM Jan 22 '11 at 13:31
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