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The new profile also introduced a feature that allows users to hide the connection between your accounts on different SE sites. The description of the feature is the following:

Choose which communities will appear in the Communities and Top Network Posts sections of your profile

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).

New sites that you join will be linked to your other communities by default.

This description is seriously misleading. While it acknowledges that it doesn't offer true privacy, it does imply a certain difficulty of piercing the protection. Mentioning "in certain cases" implies that the feature does protect your privacy in all other cases (from non-moderators). Mentioning the API as example does imply that you need to do some coding or at least some non-obvious steps to find the hidden connections.

But the actual privacy this feature provides is essentially non-existant. The network profiles still contain all connections between the accounts, and there are two prominent links on the user profile to the network profile. You don't have to be a moderator or use the API to find the connections to hidden accounts, you simply have to follow a single link on the user profile.

As my previous feature request to remove the link to the network profile wasn't implemented, I think at least the misleading description should be changed. The text should explicitly state that you can discover the connections between the accounts just by following the link to the network profile.

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    +1 To give an example, for my account, Workplace.SE is a "hidden" community (for reasons) - but you totally don't need to hack an API to see my account or questions or answers on that site. You can see it as simply as just clicking my Network Profile link. I personally don't mind, and if I did, I'd disassociate the account - but this is much less private than the above description implies. – user568458 Jul 6 '15 at 15:11
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    I'm raising this internally. It was a consideration, still is, but needs to be revisited. – Tim Post Jul 6 '15 at 15:17
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    Here's a post mentioning another place hidden communities are easily visible (on Area 51 pages) meta.stackexchange.com/q/254183/178621 – user568458 Jul 6 '15 at 15:19
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    @TimPost Any news on this issue? – Mad Scientist Jul 21 '15 at 6:18
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+100

The description has been updated to not enumerate exceptions. We are currently considering hiding communities on the network profile. If we are able to hammer out the details to implement that feature extension, we'll update this copy to reflect that new reality.


I agree the description is a little, um, suggestive. It really should read:

Choose which communities will appear in the Communities and Top Network Posts sections of your profile

Hiding a community means other users will not see it in your Communities list or Top Network Posts. It does not, however, mean your activity is private.

New sites that you join will be linked to your other communities by default.

The trouble with calling out one or two exceptions is that it implies there aren't more.

As Oded points out:

It is designed that way. It is not a true privacy setting.

The only real way to maintain separation in your activity on the network is the old-fashioned way: maintain separate accounts using separate credentials.


Steve Yegge once said:

Like anything else big and important in life, Accessibility has an evil twin who, jilted by the unbalanced affection displayed by their parents in their youth, has grown into an equally powerful Arch-Nemesis (yes, there's more than one nemesis to accessibility) named Security. And boy howdy are the two ever at odds.

But I'll argue that Accessibility is actually more important than Security because dialing Accessibility to zero means you have no product at all, whereas dialing Security to zero can still get you a reasonably successful product such as the Playstation Network.

When it comes to having a single account that works across the network, we are definitely picking accessibility. Pretty much the entire reason for having cross-site account associations is to avoid the annoying task of earning site privileges the first time. If you want real security, you're going to have to put up with a bit less accessibility. If nothing else, people will be curious how you got an association bonus on a "hidden" site.

That doesn't mean we have given up on security. We work hard to keep your private information private and we have a much better record than the Playstation Network (for instance). However, participating on two sites with the same account has never been private and this feature isn't designed to make that so. It's designed to give you a bit more control over one part of your profile. And that's it.

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    Wow, even if there were no complaints about the current wording I'd still prefer this: it's shorter and ends on the main point. – Shog9 Feb 8 '16 at 23:22
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    's better, but the boasting about Playstation is a bit off. SE still doesn't have TLS on metas... – Deer Hunter Feb 8 '16 at 23:41
  • While this is definitely a much better message, I think the association bonus problem is a red herring. – Nathan Tuggy Feb 9 '16 at 6:14
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    @NathanTuggy: Yes, the association bonus is not a deal breaker. But it is one of dozens of connections between accounts that will need accounting for. And the promise of separate accounts would also require thought to go into any new features that might strengthen the connection in the future. If you look at my 30k and micro-privilege suggestion threads, you'll see many of them want increased cross-site privileges. It's not impossible to solve these problems, but they must be considered. – Jon Ericson Feb 9 '16 at 7:36
  • @JonEricson: Fair enough; I just want accuracy in describing this. I can see that this might be tough to implement, but I'm not sure it's as fundamentally challenging as it's been painted at times. – Nathan Tuggy Feb 9 '16 at 7:37
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    It's dead simple, @Nathan: break all cross site connections. No links, no shared logins, no bonuses, no shared preferences or copied profile info, no global inbox or notification of privileges, no automatic association upon migration nor recovery of credentials on sites where you haven't yet created an account... Basically what we had in the SE 1.0 days. Granted, that makes the experience worse for the vast majority of people and creates a gigantic support headache for us... But you're technically correct in that it isn't all that complicated if we're willing to live with the trade-offs. – Shog9 Feb 10 '16 at 2:33
  • I would prefer to explicitly mention the network profile as a place where the connection is still visible, but that isn't absolutely necessary. I still don't understand what the use of the hidden communities feature in the current version actually is and why SE stopped shortly before turning it into something useful, even if not entirely secure. – Mad Scientist Feb 10 '16 at 19:29
  • @Shog9 I think some people would appreciate an option to extract an account on one site from the main SE account, which would result in pretty much what you describe. It's pretty hard to predict the future, and right now you're bound by your decisions you make when you create the accounts. – Mad Scientist Feb 10 '16 at 19:35
  • @MadScientist: Several people on the CM team have suggested we extend the setting to network profiles. That seems worth doing. For what it's worth, we get mountains of requests for merges compared to the handful of requests all time for account separation. It's hard to justify creating something that very few people are interested in. Pretty much the only reason we contemplate that feature at all is that the requests for separation come for users who are most heavily invested in the network. – Jon Ericson Feb 10 '16 at 19:48
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    @JonEricson Separating accounts is rarely useful, so I'm really not suprised this was never implemented. The main reason I brought it up this time is that with the increasing focus on integrating Careers and making your SE profile useful as a way to showcase your skills/interests, connections to "controversial" sites are a liability. SE is mixing very personal topics like religion or parenting with professional topics, and that is just inherently problematic. – Mad Scientist Feb 10 '16 at 19:55
  • "For what it's worth, we get mountains of requests for merges compared to the handful of requests all time for account separation." Do you guys honor those separation requests? For my own curiosity- I've actually given up the idea of separating some of my accounts, but I had been trying to find out if you all did this on request or not, and I found no indication you did so therefore never tried it. – Kendra Feb 16 '16 at 17:40
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    @Kendra: We recommend account deletion for those cases where a user absolutely does not want their account on one site associated with accounts on other sites. Even so, there are still indications of a connection that a good detective could discover. We've long made the assumption that people will want to have their accounts associated and for the most part that assumption has proved correct. – Jon Ericson Feb 16 '16 at 17:52
  • @JonEricson That (finally) answers my question about that- Thanks! – Kendra Feb 16 '16 at 17:56

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