I Didn’t Expose Him—But Last Year, Rapportive Showed Me @GSElevator’s True Identity

Months ago, a Gmail tool showed me the true identity of a snarky Twitter personality. The man was publicly exposed this week, and I’m not the one who identified him. But here’s how you could use the tool to expose someone — or protect yourself!


March 2014

Months ago, I interviewed the snarky Twitter personality @GSElevator while researching a long report. Last week, I heard that the elusive and anonymous man behind @GSElevator had been unmasked. He even lost his book deal.

But I already knew who he was, because I — quite accidentally — had discovered his identity before I interviewed him.

I wasn’t even trying, so how did I do it? I used a Gmail tool called Rapportive. (Update: As of July 2014, Rapportive no longer works as described in this article. This is how it used to work, though.)

Rapportive is a great tool for journalists and other media folks. It digs through lots of data to show you the complete social media profile of each person you email. Here’s what it looks like in action:

This is a screenshot of me in Gmail, composing an email to my awesome friend Erin Polgreen. (I’m totally following Erin on Twitter, by the way, but sometimes Rapportive doesn’t show that properly.) As you can see, the tool dug up Erin’s many fabulous job titles, as well as a picture that’s associated with her, and links to a batch of social profiles. I got her permission before using this screenshot here.
John Lefevre
I love Rapportive and I use it all the time. I was using it when I sent a message to the email account on @GSElevator’s Twitter profile, and it unexpectedly gave me his name: John LeFevre. I even got a headshot!

I had no interest in exposing LeFevre. I just wanted to talk to him about @GSElevator. Plus, I have a soft spot for Internet anonymity, although anonymity gets scarcer every day. So I simply told LeFevre that I’d found his name connected through Rapportive, and I explained how he could fix that.

Then I asked for an interview — which LeFevre immediately granted. ;)

(Incidentally, in case you’re concerned about what your Rapportive profile might be showing, you can control that by downloading Rapportive to your Gmail account. Then you should type your own email address. When your own Rapportive profile comes up in the sidebar, you will be able to edit it. If you’re concerned about Rapportive gathering your data, there may be an alternative way to change your Rapportive profile without downloading the product — try contacting their Support people.)

I don’t know who gave LeFevre’s real name to The New York Times. One article claims that it took “weeks” to find his identity, but it doesn’t explain how they did it.

I also don’t know how Rapportive found his real name. Rapportive has a privacy policy in which they say that the tool only uses publicly available data. But of course, the truth is that the “public availability” of most data has become fuzzier and fuzzier, and it’s extremely difficult for people to know what they’re making public and what they are not.

I don’t blame Rapportive — although obviously, I think anyone who’s concerned about how they look online should check on their profile right away. Yet when it comes to privacy, that’s almost beside the point by now. This story is a useful object lesson in how data collection and correlation is making true pseudonyms hard. The level of tech-savviness required to maintain any pseudonym has gotten very high — and it’s only going to get higher.

Update: Someone asked me whether Rapportive paid me to write this post, or whether Rapportive is a client of mine. I don’t have any professional relationship with Rapportive; I just use their tool a lot.

Update 2: Mr. Elevator has a new book deal!

Update 3: Rapportive, which was recently purchased by LinkedIn, had my favorite features removed on July 31st. I’m currently testing alternatives such as Rapporto, Ark, FullContact, Vibe, Connect6, and/or Sansan (via this post by Alan Hamlett). If you have any suggestions, please let me know!

I got my start in digital media at age 15, when I was invited to intern at a game design company. I went on to write games for White Wolf Game Studio; from there, I branched out into blogs, articles, a few books, and general social media mayhem. I have spoken at universities across America and at South By Southwest Interactive. I have also traveled extensively, including Peace Corps service in Swaziland, Africa.

1 Comment
  1. Pam Selle says:

    People are surprisingly unaware of Rapportive. I remember seeing an interviewer’s diet twitter account (that’s embarrassing … their microblog of their attempts to lose weight) through Rapportive, when it was obviously not meant to be associated with their name. People need to be careful about their web of anonymity; people are found because of common usernames, handles, etc. all the time.


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