On Wednesday, FBI bureau director James Comey casually mentioned in public that he has both a Twitter account and an Instagram account, while speaking at a dinner for the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. He hadn’t tweeted once, and the Instagram account had a whopping nine followers; but by Thursday afternoon, Gizmodo’s Ashley Feinberg, in a feat of investigative journalism that I can only hope will be an Oscar-contending biopic by next year, had found what are almost certainly both accounts. (I’ll get into why we can be almost certain below.) On Instagram, he’s @reinholdniebuhr. And on Twitter, he’s @projectexile7, though he uses Reinhold Niebuhr as his full name there, too.
While Comey probably thought his locked accounts — he has never tweeted and his 3,000-plus Instagram posts are only visible to the nine people he has approached as followers — were safe from discovery, it only took Feinberg four hours. She did it not by searching terms related to Comey’s biography, like Niebuhr (about whom Comey wrote his college thesis) or “Project Exile” (a federal gun-control program Comey spearheaded as a U.S. attorney), but by tracking down his son, Brien Comey, on Instagram. When she requested to follow the younger Comey’s Instagram account, a list of other, “suggested” accounts popped up — including Comey’s wife, Patrice, and a suspiciously anonymous account that we believe to be our man Comey himself.
This isn’t a mistake: It’s the way Instagram’s algorithm is designed to work, directing you to other accounts to follow based on a number of signals, including people you follow, people whose images and videos you like, and so forth. As far as Instagram would like things to go, this is supposed to help you find classmates, family members, and fellow succulent lovers. Instead, it just outed a man who did not want to be found (and whose entire job, ironically, revolves around privacy) to the entire world.
Reinhold Niebuhr — er, I mean, James Comey — will be fine. It wouldn’t be surprising if he abandons those accounts all together and starts from scratch. But if you’re not the director of the FBI with an abundance of protections and resources, there is a real danger in believing your Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or Xanga account is undiscoverable, when it actually isn’t. Scarier still is the opacity of the algorithms social networks use to suggest accounts — the occult results of black-box formulas into which are plugged free-floating data gathered from around the web. Even if the person seeking you doesn’t know your exact handle or account name, if they can connect enough algorithm-triggering dots — via a person who knows you, dated you, has your phone number, or liked that photo you took when you adopted your dog from the shelter in 2008 — they can find you. Earlier this year, Fusion spoke with a psychiatrist who says Facebook suggested her patients friend each other. The only thing these people had in common was attending appointments with the same doctor at the same location. In England, a British man was arrested for robbing someone at knifepoint, after he popped up in his victim’s “People You May Know” suggestions on Facebook. The internet-surveillance machine is so vast and distributed that it’s impossible to know what little thing you’ve done — what link you clicked or account you followed or photo you liked — that will end up tipping it off to who you are and which people you’re connected to. And once the machine knows, everyone else will, too. There’s no such thing as an anonymous social-media account.