How Anonymous Are You When You Subscribe Via RSS?


June 30, 2006

Earlier this week, I wrote about subscribing to a blog or webzine via feeds (sometimes referred to as RSS, although it comes in other flavors as well.) One commentor, Steve, disagreed with my analysis that the subscriber is anonymous.

So let me pull apart the pieces of the issue.

1) Is your IP address anonymous when you subscribe to a feed? Technically, not at all. If you subscribe using a web service like Bloglines, your IP address comes through to the web analytics as a “referral” from Bloglines every time you engage with the blog. If you read feeds with software like Thunderbird, the blog or ezine owner can always put a picture in the feed which your computer has to go out and pull off his server and when he evaluates his server logs, there is your IP address. (I always think this is the reason that Avinash starts every post with a picture of a flower. It is his tracking beacon. But I am just speculating.)

2) Just because someone has your IP address, do they have your identity? Sometimes, it’s not that hard to figure out. Lots of times, it is very hard (and I would venture, sometimes impossible. But the commenter, Steve, has done forensic web analytics and I never work to figure out who someone is because I’m not part of the CSI team. Notice that even he said, “It depends.”)

3) Does it matter if someone has your IP address?Probably not in the context I was setting up. Remember, I was pointing out that you don’t have to give out your email address when you subscribe via a feed (still true and still a nice benefit.) And you can unsubscribe without hurting the author’s feeling (still true, because the author won’t notice that your IP address doesn’t show up the way he would if you send in a “Please unsubscribe me from this email list” request.)

Robbin Steif