Ask an engineer: How anonymous is an anonymous poll?

An interview with Poll Everywhere’s most security-focused engineer, who, coincidentally, prefers to remain anonymous…

Question: So the presenter puts up a poll. The instructions read, “Answers to this poll are anonymous.” Problem is I’m registered as a participant on his account. Does it really keep my response anonymous even if I’m registered?

Anonymous Engineer: That’s the idea. Even if you have registered with the account holder– sharing your email, your phone number, your ID– your responses to an anonymous question cannot be traced back to you.

anonymous poll instructions on a laptop
The Zorro mask is your free pass to respond without fear.

Q: Does it matter how I participate– whether I do it by texting, using the web page, or the app? Is one method more anonymous than another?

AE: How you participate doesn’t matter. All methods of participation receive the same protections within the Poll Everywhere system.

However, let’s say, hypothetically, you plan to text something in your response that could get you indicted, and maybe get your phone searched. In that case you should go with the web. (This is not legal advice. Just saying…) While the presenter has no way to associate your response with your identity, Poll Everywhere is required to keep a temporary record of text responses to prove anti-spam compliance. And your phone will, of course, have a record of sent messages, until you delete them.

TL;DR: If you’re terribly worried, use the web. But you’re good either way.

Q: Is my answer to one anonymous poll associated with my answer to other anonymous polls?

AE: No. For normal, not-anonymous polls, a presenter can summarize responses to a whole group of polls, using one of the five Poll Everywhere report types, e.g., the Gradebook report. However, anonymous polls cannot be included in any report that groups responses by participant. Presenters can only summarize one poll at a time. Even then, multiple responses to the same poll will always be shown separately, so if you respond multiple times (perhaps to an open-ended question), your responses cannot be linked together.

anonymous poll instructions on a mobile phone
Here’s what an anonymous poll looks like when you respond via the web page.

Q: How hard would it be for the presenter to find out who I am?

AE: There is no feature of Poll Everywhere that will expose that data to the presenter– not for an anonymous poll. The best way for a presenter to find out who you are would be to simply lie to you, by claiming the poll is anonymous, but not actually enabling the anonymous setting.

While I wouldn’t recommend answering sensitive questions from a person you suspect may be lying to you, you can determine if the anonymous setting is enabled by looking for this message on screen or on your device: “Answers to this poll are anonymous.” It should be in the instructions, not in the question or title text.

Q: What if the presenter really, really tried? Like got a bunch of hackers to help.

AE: Okay, I have to say that nothing is impossible, given enough will, skill, and time. But we work very hard to ensure the data security of our users (vulnerability scans, professional penetration testing, security training for all employees, etc.). We do this for a lot of reasons– only one of which is to protect your anonymous responses to sensitive questions.

Q: So, really and truly, the presenter isn’t gonna know it’s me?

AE: Look for the icon that says the poll is anonymous, and you’ll be fine. Well… also make sure you don’t put your name or any other identifying info in your answer, if it’s an open response poll. That would definitely give you away.

Get a free account button