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Who really owns our anonymous identities?

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BY STEFFAN HEUER AND PERNILLE TRANBERG

In July, “Michael Green” returned from the grave—at least online.

The real owner of the name had dumped “Michael Green” a year ago and thought he’d buried him for good. But artist Simon Farid brought him back to life with a speech at the Be Festival.

Here’s how the mysterious resurrection worked.

For years, Green had worked as a British marketing guru hawking ebooks, talks, and videos about how to get rich fast. The original owner of the identity, Grant Shapps, was well known for using alter egos to front his business. But Shapps, who is now chairman of the Conservative Party and MP for the district of Welwyn Hatfield in Southeast England, retired his huckster life for politics, stepping away from Green and several other identities.

Simon Farid decided to give Green a second chance. You can now peruse Green’s homepage or be one of 5,000 people following him on Twitter. Did we mention the resuscitated Mr. Green also has an active email and Facebook account?

It’s a perfect example how hard, if not impossible, it is to get rid of digital skeletons in the closet. In the real world, most of us only have one identity. We could call it our analog or physical identity. Each of us only has one body, one set of irises, one set of fingerprints.

In the digital world, however, we can easily have multiple identities. Facebook, Google, and other data-driven companies are trying hard to coax or coerce us into maintaining a single machine-readable identity because it’s better for their business. But that doesn’t mean citizens and consumers who want to be left alone and preserve some privacy can’t play around with alter egos.

Why did Simon Farid adopt Michael Green? Frankly, because he could. Farid works with Imprints, a cutting-edge research project on the future of identity management (IM). It brings together researchers and agents provocateur from four universities in the U.K., exploring our responses and overall complicated relationship with modern identity management tools, from loyalty cards, social network logins, and smartphones all the way to biometric authentication, smart jewelry, and implants.

As Imprints Director Liesbet van Zoonen pointed out when we recently met her at the IDentityNext Conference in the Hague, the realm of IM is one of constant contradiction: Why do many refuse to carry national ID cards but love to swipe their loyalty cards? And why are people so concerned about electronic patient files while they share intimate personal details on Facebook?

Imprints strikes us a fascinating venture because it conducts its research through innovative video games, hackjams, and—as with the digital resurrection—the adoption of fabricated identities. It pushes the envelope and asks questions we should all be asking while we’re feeding bits of our lives into the never-forgetting ‘net: Who owns made-up identities? Can they be inhabited or co-opted by someone else? And does doing so constitute identity theft?

So far, van Zoonen told us, none of their projects have had any legal repercussions. But the topic is white hot. That’s why official identity guardians like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Britain’s intelligence outfit GCHQ are both funding her work through the U.K. Research Council, she said.

If spooks are donating to cybersquatting, the identity business must be a goldmine. Trust Google Chairman Eric Schmidt on that one. In The New Digital Age, his book with co-author Jared Cohen, Schmidt wrote that the rise of big data and massive tracking of the individual will bring about a booming identity market.

“Today our online identities affect but rarely overshadow our physical selves. But in the future our identities in everyday life will come to be defined more and more by our virtual activities and associations. Our highly documented pasts will have an impact on our prospects, and our ability to influence and control, how we are perceived by others will decrease dramatically.”

Another excerpt:

“Online ID will become such a powerful currency that we’ll see a black market with real and invented IDs. The identity will be manufactured or stolen, and it will come complete with backdated entries and IP activity logs, false friends and sales purchases and other means of making it appear convincing.”

It’s a small but emerging market already. Both Google and Apple have taken out patents on ideas that in some way or another can help consumers use multiple identities. Abine is one of several startups with a product, MaskMe, that provides users with disposable emails, phone numbers, and even credit card numbers that forward to their real info.

Just like Kalaya Hamlin, who goes by “Identity Woman,” we believe that individuals have a right to use different, unlinked personas online. Real-name policies stipulated by the likes of Facebook and Google are unacceptable and primarily used to make more money on our personal data. For-profit companies—along with governments—are trying to make people with multiple identities look suspicious.

Nothing could be further from the truth. You don’t have to be a criminal to want to work with more than one identity. Having a nickname, a handle at a game, and several other alter egos is one of many useful tools to preserve some privacy online (as well as offline). Being tightfisted and smart with your digital persona lets you better control who knows what about you and can, in the long run, nip automated targeting and discrimination in the bud.

It’s hard work, though, and you can never be sure who’ll be digging up the alter ego you thought you had buried.

Steffan Heuer and Pernille Tranberg are authors of the book Fake It: A Guide to Digital Self-Defense. They cover technology and privacy issues in San Francisco and Copenhagen. In this series, Digital Self-Defense, Heuer and Tranberg report with updates from the digital identity wars and teach us how to defend our privacy in the great data grab going on all around us. Follow them at @FakeIt_Book.

Illustration by Jason Reed