This article on Streetsblog, a progressive pro-bicycle and transit website, is fascinating. The lengthy piece, worth reading in its entirety, explains how Streetsblog staff uncovered the identity of a hyperactive negative commenter with his own website, Commuter Outrage. Evidently the man behind Commuter Outrage, a twenty-something conservative who works in a civilian job at the Pentagon, was digging up material for his screeds during work hours using his employer’s (and the government’s) resources, and Streetsblog’s questions about these practices quickly led the secretive fellow to disappear the entire Commuter Outrage website.
Instructive were the easy-to-understand steps taken by Streetsblog staff to uncover the man’s identity, along with evidence that suggested he was blogging on his employer’s time. Also interesting was the fact that the attacks by Commuter Outrage and its putative staff (really just this one fellow, apparently) were not some right-wing conspiracy, but just some really energetic (if error-prone) work by one angry little man. It’s amazing how much one angry, energetic little guy can do on the internet.
Here’s a nice discussion of authentication, an information technology concept I mention in “How They Scored,” and its implications for online identity.
This story on wired.com, about the difficulty of losing your identity and taking up another, is something I wrote about in How They Scored.
The characters are looking at the business possibilities of a proposed business named Dreedle, which would compile vast databases of consumer behavior; the narrator reflects on how such databases would make it difficult to disappear, as you used to be able to in the old days.
There were plenty of things about me I didn’t want rolled up into some online repository. One or two of these things I might confide to a lover — that I liked to watch a certain kind of porn, for example (though I wasn’t sure Meeghan was ready to know that). Another, less embarrassing detail I might write about on a blog — my appreciation of the Giants infielders, say, or my enthusiasm for Russian composers. Other things I wouldn’t mind mentioning in a phone call to my mother. But put them all together, combined with the records of everything I buy, books I read, music I listen to — no. It’s already creepy enough to see my house from space on Google Maps, to see on Amazon that people who live in my zip code read scads of self-help books…
And then there’s the American fantasy of disappearing. … I might merely want to start over. I love the idea that you can move to a big city or a small town and get lost. Isn’t that what hundreds of people did after 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina? — claimed that all their papers were lost, whether or not it was true. Got new ID with a new name, moved to another state, faded into the woodwork.
You can still do that in America — barely. But with Dreedle, no way. That dead guy whose ID you stole probably liked completely different music, wore completely different clothes, had totally different jobs. Once I started buying Shostakovich CDs and had them delivered to a zip code the dead guy never lived in, a red flag would go up. A complete change in shopping habits combined with a change in address equals the probability of identity theft. That’s what it would be called. Not “starting over.”
I found this interview with author William Gibson, who like many science fiction writers is a futurist who uses fiction to explore his ideas rather than non-fiction, very pertinent. My favorite quote:
Technologies don’t emerge unless there’s someone who thinks he can make a bundle by helping them emerge.
One of the things I explore in How They Scored is exactly that dynamic: a software entrepreneur senses he can make a bundle — to use Gibson’s apt phrase — on a certain idea he had about data mining and aggregation. During the book’s action, he recruits both money and expertise from the other characters.