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I just tried out the relatively new ability to hide profiles on certain sites, and it turns out that it doesn't really hide anything at all since the hidden profile still has a link to my network account.

Hidden profiles shouldn't have links to the network account at all, this will always break anonymity. Hiding them will leak the information that this is a hidden profile, but this is still far better than the complete lack of anonymity as it is now. The network profile also shouldn't show any hidden communities, to avoid leaking the connection from a non-hidden to a hidden one.

The page where you can hide communities states the following:

Hiding a community means other users will not see it in your Communities list and Top Network Posts. It does not, however, mean your activity here is completely private. Moderators and Stack Exchange employees can see your list of hidden communities. Other people may also be able to associate your presence on those communities with your public list in certain cases (via the API, for example).

This is extremely misleading since it gives the impression that the hidden profile is reasonably private except to moderators or SE employees. The only other compromise it mentions is the API, and even then only in "certain cases".

While the text allows many interpretations, it gives the impression that the major privacy leaks are moderators and some advanced API shenanigans. It doesn't say anything about an easy-to-find link on every profile that completely nullifies the feature.

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    This was never meant to be "private profile" in the first place. (so in the very least, not a bug) – Shadow The Dragon Wizard Apr 16 '15 at 11:05
  • @ShadowWizard It was meant to be reasonably private to casual observers, currently it is not private at all. – Mad Scientist Apr 16 '15 at 11:06
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    Those casual observers won't click the "network profile" link. – Shadow The Dragon Wizard Apr 16 '15 at 11:06
  • Also, the team asked to post all bugs/requests related to the new profile page in one place. (already linked above) – Shadow The Dragon Wizard Apr 16 '15 at 11:10
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    @ShadowWizard I didn't know it was related to the new profile page until you posted the link. I just tested it the first time because the issue of posting anonymously came up on Health.SE. – Mad Scientist Apr 16 '15 at 11:12
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    OK, fair enough. I still don't think it's a bug though. – Shadow The Dragon Wizard Apr 16 '15 at 11:14
  • @Thomas can we please get details what is being reviewed? Hiding the sites in the network profile as well? Is this really a bug? – Shadow The Dragon Wizard Oct 1 '15 at 7:42
  • @ShadowWizard Hiding the sites on the network profile, specifically. Whether this is a bug or not depends on how you define a bug, but we are indeed considering changing the behavior! – Thomas Orozco Oct 1 '15 at 7:44
  • @ThomasOrozco While the network profile is the biggest loophole, there are a few more. SE should at least reword the description of the feature, it makes it sound far more private than it actually is. – Mad Scientist Oct 1 '15 at 7:45
  • @ThomasOrozco thanks, so the only way to see if user got account on a site he hides will be to search the specific site for his display name, assuming it's the same? Also, what about favorites and activity in the network profile? Will you filter out everything that belongs to sites the user chose to hide? – Shadow The Dragon Wizard Oct 1 '15 at 7:47
  • @MadScientist Do you have anything in mind besides the network profile, API and Area 51? (and maybe data dumps / explorer — I'd need to check) – Thomas Orozco Oct 1 '15 at 7:48
  • @ShadowWizard You will still be able to use the API and Area 51 to associate profiles; we're only talking about the network profile here (of course, searching by display name will work too, but there's nothing we can do about that). As to your second question: yes, we'd want to hide all activity from communities you have hidden. – Thomas Orozco Oct 1 '15 at 7:53
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    @ThomasOrozco care to add a short answer explaining what you told us in comments, just in case? This can take a while to be done, and comments can be easily missed/ignored. – Shadow The Dragon Wizard Oct 1 '15 at 9:18
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    Possible duplicate of Hiding a community on SE doesn't hide on Area 51 – boxspah Mar 15 '16 at 15:30
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Profiles on a user's Hidden Communities now hide the link to the network profile for everyone but the user and site moderators. Moderators on other sites will not see the link, but should be able to verify a connection to a user on their own site by following the link to the network profile.


We recently removed hidden communities from the network profile, but the link to the network profile is still present on "hidden" profile. As a result, someone who finds my hidden 3D Printing account can easily discover my participation on other sites that are not hidden. Short of hiding all my accounts there's no way to prevent someone linking my illicit 3D Printing hobby from my professional interests. So this isn't a path for finding hidden communities, but a method for verifying the connection once it's made.*

Not stated directly in the question, but the real problems with including the link come when a malicious user tries to harm someone's more public life with something they've said on a site they hope will be more private. For instance, I might not want people to know I prefer killing mice with snap traps and therefore hide my Home Improvement account. But if that answer angers someone (I totally understand), they might feel it their duty to contact my employer (which crosses a line). Removing the link to the network profile won't prevent abuse, but it will erect a roadblock to it.

As I mentioned in another answer the point of network accounts is to make the network more accessible. However, I think we can do something similar to what we did with the network profile: remove the link on sites you've hidden for everyone except yourself and moderators.

The downside, as you mention, is that people who visit the profile you hope to keep separate will be able to deduce that you have hidden the account by the lack of a network profile link. I don't think there's any way around that since removing the link for all users would make a person's network profile difficult (even impossible) to discover.

In summary, I was opposed to the idea a few weeks ago, but thinking of it less as a privacy feature and more of a way to reduce or even eliminate certain types of abuse, I like it a lot more.


Footnote:

* The API and Area 51 are more convenient methods for finding a user's hidden profiles than scraping every profile with more than 100 reputation.

  • What about network profile activity? – Shadow The Dragon Wizard Mar 14 '16 at 18:13
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    @ShadowWizard: Probably not going to change anytime soon. The trouble with this sort of renovation is that there's a temptation to tear down the whole house. For now, we'll have to live with new curtains. – Jon Ericson Mar 14 '16 at 18:33
  • Not sure I agree, but I don't see the bigger picture. To be honest, personally I'm against this whole "hide your tracks" idea and even downvoted this bug report/feature request, but I'm still curious to see how it goes. :) – Shadow The Dragon Wizard Mar 14 '16 at 18:59

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