How To Contrive A Individual Online
William Curtis WallenOn April 8, 2013, I standard an envelope in the get off from a lacking deliver come up to in Toledo, Ohio. Inside was a dummy thank-you bank note and an Ohio River res publica driver�s license. The ID belonged to a 28-year-older gentleman's gentleman named Hank Aaron Brown-6 feet grandiloquent and 160 pounds with a troll face, scruffy Brown University hair, a reduce beard, and party eyes. His almost defining feature, however, was that he didn�t subsist.
I roll in the hay that because I created him.
As an artist, I�ve prospicient been concerned in indistinguishability and the ways it is represented. My showtime severe organic structure of work, Springfield, victimised the conception of a Midwestern nowhere to explore representations of middle-American urban sprawl.
A few old age later, I became interested in the hundreds of unlike entities that caterpillar track and analyse our behavior online-piecing jointly where we�re from, World Health Organization we�re friends with, how a great deal money we make, what we equal and disfavour. Sociable networks and information brokers utilise algorithms and probabilities to remodel our identities, and then attempt to work the style we think and tactile property and defecate decisions.
It�s not an magnification to say everything you do online is existence followed. And the more exactly a keep company prat sartor your online experience, the more than money it can buoy fix from advertisers. As a result, the Net you ensure is different from the Internet anyone else power picture. It�s seamlessly made-up from each one millisecond, studied specifically to influence you. I began to inquire what it would be similar to elude this unceasing digital surveillance-to go away online.
From that question, Aaron Brown University was born.
* * *
My undertaking started at a belittled chocolate denounce in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. With the helper of Tor-a software programme that uses layers of encoding to anonymize online activity-I searched Craigslist and tracked drink down a handful of low-priced laptop computer computers for sales event in Freshly York Metropolis. I registered a fresh e-mail address with the (now-defunct) Tormail anonymous e-mail provider and arranged to purchase a victimised Chromebook.
firstname.lastname@example.org (1/27/13 - 11:23):
I�m punctual, I wish be at that place on clock time at 1. Theres an atrium at citi center, will allow you acknowledge when I�m at that place.
email@example.com (1/27/13 - 11:25):
Perfect. View you thither.
firstname.lastname@example.org (1/27/13 - 12:59):
Im hither in the atrium at 53rd and lex� Gray jacket, blonde whisker. Posing at a table
The merging was flying. I wore a chapeau. I kept my principal downward. The gentleman's gentleman at the defer in a leaden jacket crown was a really person-in a interfering world commit fully of cameras-World Health Organization could afterward possibly link me to the estimator. These face-to-fount moments left hand me the about vulnerable. If I was loss to circumvent online surveillance, I had to obviate any ties between my digital footmark and the physical planetary.
When I got domicile I straight off reformatted the computer�s voiceless get and installed a Linux sectionalisation. This meant I could code and cosmetically �hide� the share of my electronic computer that was victimisation Linux. My unexampled laptop would kick up Chromium-plate OS similar whatsoever other Chromebook, unless I gave it the overtop to boot up Linux instead. I ne'er affiliated to anything victimisation Chromium-plate OS. And on the Linux side, I ne'er accessed the Internet without Tor, and I never logged click the next website page [tinyproposal9459.hazblog.com] into anything that had any link to Curtis Wallen.
For a couplet months I poked roughly on the darknet-a hidden meshing that relies on nonstandard connections. At first, my end was only to exist as an anonymous exploiter. However, I realised that this meant basically ever-changing my relationship to the Net.
I couldn�t lumber in to Facebook, I couldn�t transport emails as Curtis, I couldn�t apply the Cyberspace the right smart to the highest degree of us usually do. I merely couldn�t be me if I treasured to stay put concealed. So my archetype idea began to displacement. Rather than simply fudge integer tracking, I began to work with the melodic theme of generating a raw appendage person, utter with the markers of a forcible identity. I deepened my roommates and took a series of portraits that suit the requirements for pass photos. I and so carefully stranded assorted features from apiece nonpareil in Photoshop and composited a whole newfangled face: Aaron Brown.
Up to that point, I had been mostly operating on replete and vulgar sensory faculty. At once that my picture was expanding, I figured it�d in all probability be a goodness clock time to scope prohibited to person World Health Organization actually knew what she or he was doing.
I created a new Tormail account, the number 1 tell of my novel email@example.com sent an encrypted netmail to the puzzling researcher Gwern Branwen, request what advice he�d establish to mortal �new to this all anonymity affair.� Branwen replied with a uncomplicated just of the essence spell of advice:
�Don�t bugger off besides attached to any nonpareil identicalness. Erst a anonym has been coupled to others or to your genuine identity, it�s ever coupled.�
Taking Branwen�s advice to heart, I pose a glutinous government note adjacent to my keyboard.
When near hoi polloi suppose of Net surveillance, they think authorities bureaucrats monitoring their emails and Google searches. In a Borderland 2014 study, MIT professor Catherine II Wash up and privacy advocate Alex Marthews analyzed information from Google Trends crosswise 282 look for footing rated for their "privacy-sensitivity." The damage included "Islam", "national security", "Occupy", "police brutality", "protest", and �revolution."
After Edward Snowden�s leaks about NSA surveillance, Tucker and Marthews found, the frequency of these sensitive search terms declined-suggesting that Internet users have become less likely to explore "look at these guys for terms that they [believe] might suffer them in inconvenience with the U.S. political science." The study also found that people have become less likely to search "embarrassing" topics such as "AIDS", "alcoholics anonymous," "approaching out," "depression," "feminism," "gender reassignment," "herpes," and �suicide�-while concerns over these more personal terms could have as much to do with startling Google ads, the notable decrease observed in the study suggests the increased awareness of surveillance led to a degree of self-censorship.
In other words, people are doing their best to blend in with the crowd.
The challenge of achieving true anonymity, though, is that evading surveillance makes your behavior anomalous-and anomalies stick out. As the Japanese proverb says, "A nab that sticks away gets hammered John L. H. Down." Glenn Greenwald explained recently that simply using encryption can make you a target. For me, this was all the more motivation to disappear.
Aaron had a face, but lacked �pocket litter�-an espionage term that refers to physical items that add authenticity to a spy�s cover. In order to produce this pocket litter, I needed money-the kind of currency that the counterfeit professionals of the darkweb would accept as payment. I needed bitcoin, a virtual currency that allows users to exchange goods and services without involving banks. At that time, one of the few services that exchanged cash for bitcoin was a company called Bitinstant. I made my way to a small computer shop in the Chinatown neighborhood of Manhattan to make the transfer.
At a small, teller-like window, I filled out the paperwork using fake information. Unwisely, I wrote down my name as Aaron Brown- thus creating one of the links to my real identity I should have been avoiding. As a result, my receipt had �Aarow Brown� printed on it. It seemed fitting that the first physical evidence of Aaron�s existence was a misspelled name on a receipt from a computer shop.
When I got home, 10 bitcoin were there waiting for me in my virtual wallet, stored on an encrypted flash drive. I made the necessary contacts and ordered a counterfeit driver�s license, a student ID, a boating license, car insurance, an American Indian tribal citizenship card, a social security card scan (real social security cards were a bit out of my budget), and a cable bill for proof of residency. The final bill came out to just over 7 bitcoin, roughly $400 at the time.
As I waited for my pile of documents, I began crafting Aaron�s online presence. While exploring message boards on the darknet, I came across the contact information for a self-proclaimed hacker called v1ct0r who was accepting applications to host hidden services on a server he managed. I messaged him with a request to host Aaron�s website. He was happy to offer a little space, under two conditions: �no child porn nor racism; Respects the rules or i could block/delete your account.�
I also set up a simple web proxy so that anyone could contribute to Aaron�s online presence. The proxy serves as a middleman for browsing the Internet, meaning any website you visit is first routed through the proxy server. Anyone who browses using the proxy is funneling traffic through that one node-which means those web pages look like they�re being visited by Aaron Brown.
Aaron�s Twitter account worked much the same way. There was a pre-authenticated form on the project website, allowing anyone to post a tweet to Aaron�s feed. As Aaron�s creator, it was fascinating to see what happened once strangers started interacting with it regularly. People would tweet at their friends, and then Aaron would received confused replies. Under the guise of Aaron, people tweeted out, jokes, love messages, political messages, and meta-commentaries on existence. I even saw a few advertisements. Ultimately, the account was suspended after Spanish political activists used it to spam news outlets and politicians.
In a sense, I was doing the opposite of astroturfing, a practice that uses fake social media profiles to spread the illusion of grassroots support or dissent. In 2011, the Daily Kos reported on a leaked document from defense contractor HBGary which explained how one person could pretend to be many different people:
Using the assigned social media accounts we can automate the posting of content that is relevant to the persona. � In fact using hashtags and gaming some location based check-in services we can make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise ... There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personas.
Aaron Brown turned that concept inside out. With a multitude of voices and interests filtering through one point, any endeavor to monitor his behavior or serve him targeted ads became a wash. None of the information was representative of any discrete interests. The surveillance had no value. I�d created a false human being, but instead of a carefully coordinated deception, the result was simply babble.
�The Internet is what we make it,� wrote security researcher Bruce Schneier in January 2013, �and is constantly being recreated by organizations, companies, and countries with specific interests and agendas. Either we fight for a seat at the table, or the future of the Internet becomes something that is done to us.�
For those of us who feel confident that we have nothing to hide, the future of Internet security might not seem like a major concern. But we underestimate the many ways in which our online identities can be manipulated.
A recent study used Facebook as a testing ground to determine if the company could influence a user�s emotional disposition by altering the content of her or his News Feed. For a week in January 2012, researchers subjected 689,003unknowing users to this psychological experiment, showing happier-than-usual messages to some people and sadder-than-usual messages to others. They concluded that they had �experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks� because users responded by publishing more positive or negative posts of their own, depending on what they saw in their own feeds.
The U.S. Department of Defense has also figured out how influential Facebook and Twitter can be. In 2011, it announced a new �Social Media in Strategic Communication� (SMISC) program to detect and counter information the U.S. government deemed dangerous. �Since everyone is potentially an influencer on social media and is capable of spreading information,� one researcher involved in a SMISC study told The Guardian, �our work aims to identify and engage the right people at the right time on social media to help propagate information when needed.�
Private companies are also using personal information in hidden ways. They don�t simply learn our tastes and habits, offering us more of what want and less of what we don�t. As Michael Fertik wrote in a 2013 Scientific American article titled �The Rich See a Different Internet Than the Poor,� credit lenders have the ability to hide their offers from people who may need loans the most. And Google now has a patent to change its prices based on who�s buying.
Is it even possible to hide from corporate and government feelers online? While my attempt to do so was an intensely interesting challenge, it ultimately left me a bit disappointed. It is essentially impossible to achieve anonymity online. It requires a complete operational posture that extends from the digital to the physical. Downloading a secure messaging app and using Tor won�t all of a sudden make you �NSA-proof.� And doing it right is really, really hard.
Weighing these trade-offs in my day-to-day life led to a few behavioral changes, but I have a mostly normal relationship with the Internet-I deleted my Facebook account, I encrypt my emails whenever I can, and I use a handful of privacy minded browser extensions. But even those are steps many people are unwilling, or unable, to take. And therein lies the major disappointment for me: privacy shouldn�t require elaborate precautions.
No one likes being subliminally influenced, discriminated against, or taken advantage of, yet these are all legitimate concerns that come with surveillance. These concerns are heightened as we increasingly live online. Digital surveillance is pervasive and relatively cheap. It is fundamentally different than anything we�ve faced before, and we�re still figuring out what what the boundaries should be.
For now, Aaron�s IDs and documents are still sitting inside my desk. Aaron himself actually went missing a little while ago. I used Amazon�s Mechanical Turk marketplace to solicit descriptions from strangers, and then hired a forensic artist to draw a sketch. He resurfaced on Twitter. (You can go here to try tweeting as Aaron Brown.) But other than that, no word. I have a feeling he�ll probably pop up in Cleveland at some point.
Everyone always seems to get sucked back home.
Read the original article on The Atlantic. Check out The Atlantic's Facebook, newsletters and feeds. Copyright 2014. Follow The Atlantic on Twitter.
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