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.
Just as I predicted in How They Scored:
Twitter is in advanced talks with Microsoft and Google separately about striking data-mining deals, in which the companies would license a full feed from the microblogging service that could then be integrated into the results of their competing search engines.
Here’s a nice discussion of authentication, an information technology concept I mention in “How They Scored,” and its implications for online identity.
Imagine the familiar movie scenario where a detective is desperate to track and find a suspect, or where a detective is hired by a suspicious spouse to trail their errant husband or wife. Or an alternate scenario from the Cold War, where the secret police manipulate ordinary citizens to inform on one another (cf. the film The Lives of Others, pictured at left). Or the horrible situation of a controlling husband who wants to know where his wife is at every minute of the day. In those situations, one person wants to track another; the person who is tracked would rather not be tracked and sometimes would do anything to avoid it.
Now consider yourself, or any ordinary bourgeois, and how much you are tracked on a daily (and sometimes minute-to-minute) basis. Credit card companies and credit reporting firms register every purchase you make with something other than cash. Airlines, grocery stores and other businesses with rewards programs know where you’ve traveled and what you’ve bought. The phone company knows, within a few hundred feet, where you made that cell phone call from, and if you have GPS enabled, they know within a few meters.
And so on. Any modern consumer knows all this, so there’s no need to go into it at length — though the Wired story Gone Forever: What does it take to really disappear? is somewhat of an eyeopener, in that it communicates the ease with which some modern-day gumshoes, such as private detectives working for bail bondsmen or insurance companies, can locate you through the databases compiled by airlines, Amazon, Visa and others.
You may or may not feel comfortable with all that tracking and archiving of data about you, but there’s not much you can do about it. After all, you “agreed” to it when you signed up for whatever credit card, rewards program, cell phone, etc. etc. you use. Just check your “End User License Agreement.”
If this makes you feel just a little bit creeped out, then I would ask you: Why do you have a Facebook page? Why are you on Twitter? Why do you post your name, address, preferences and picture online on any number of sites, from Amazon to Yelp? In my novel How They Scored, I put it this way: Why would you even need an East German-style secret police these days when people are putting so much effort into reporting on themselves, compiling their own dossiers? (We call them online “profiles.”)
There’s no need to be needlessly paranoid about this. No one (unless he or she is actively stalking you) has hired a private detective to compile a report on the details of your quotidian doings. But they could. Because your life’s an open book.
I’m aware of all this and I still tweet what I’m doing, what I just ate, where I am. I still blog about books I read or music I listened to (facts which, if they were in the records of the public library, would require a court order for anyone to access, but I give them away for free). I still have my picture online in a dozen places, along with the neighborhood I live in, and so on.
But I still rebel in small ways. For example, I don’t have a Safeway card, but I still take partial advantage of their program. How? I thought to myself, probably most people in the neighborhood of this store have Safeway cards. All I have to do is type in the local telephone exchange and four random numbers. For the Safeway on 29th and Mission, in my neighborhood of San Francisco, that’s 415-824-xxxx. And it almost always works. I get my TV dinners 4 for $10 and whoever actually owns the account gets some points toward the purchase of … whatever Safeway gives. That’s my big protest.
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.”
There are two key elements to a profile. Most people tend to focus on the Big Brother data collection side, and that’s simply taking information about a person from different aspects of their private life: their medical records, their financial records, where they go online, what they put in e-mail, who they call — all that kind of information that can be put together to create a detailed profile of an individual.
But the second part — which I don’t think people think about very much but in many respects is becoming more important — is the algorithm that is put on top of that data and the decisions that are made [based on an analysis of the information]. That’s actually an area that EPIC is spending a lot more time on these days, because if you look at such questions as which banner ads an Internet user sees when they visit a Web site, or whether an airline passenger is pulled aside for secondary screening, what’s really happening is a type of profiling that involves not only the data collection, but also some decision-making process that treats one person very differently from another person. That’s also something that turns out to be secretive. Companies will not explain their proprietary algorithms for serving banner ads, nor will the Department of Homeland Security tell us why certain people are pulled aside for secondary screening and not others.