Being online: Your identity in real life–what people know

But he that writes of you, if he can tell
that you are you, so dignifies his story.

(This post is the second in a series called
“Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.”)

Long before the Internet, much of our private lives were available to
those who took an interest, and not just if we were a celebrity chased
by paparazzi or a lifelong resident of a small village. Investigators
with many good reasons for ferreting out such knowledge–non-profit
organizations, college development offices, law enforcement
professionals, private detectives–pursued their quarries with
incredibly sophisticated strategies for uncovering as much information
as they could and shrewdly deducing even more. The Internet has simply
infused these methods with new ingredients.

For background, I interviewed a development professional at a private
college. The goal of such professionals is to deduce a person’s
ability to contribute, using publicly available information such as
purchases and sales of land, marriage and divorce records, and stock
prices for the companies in which prospects hold leading positions. A
few golden sources exist for tracking the most attractive fundraising

  • Publicly traded companies reveal the compensation (salary, bonuses,
    and stock) of their five highest paid employees.

  • Law journals report the compensation of the partners at the top 200
    law firms.

  • Foundations owned by prospective donors file public reports, as Series
    990 tax forms, listing the foundation’s assets and donations.

  • Salaries of public officials are open records.

More generally, Lexis-Nexis offers easy and powerful searches on
articles from which development professionals can glean valuable
biographical information and indications of how well the prospects’
companies are faring.

If your name is John Smith or Ali Khan, you may be a bit hard to track
over the decades. But casual details such as place of residence or
number of children can allow the development staff to piece together
information sources. If you provide the alumni office with even one or
two scraps of such information, you help snap the connecting rods in

The Internet has sprung upon the development field like a geyser–with
particularly rich pools of information in’s real estate
listings, corporate biography sites, and donor lists for philanthropic
organizations–while the new social networks make fund-raising
professionals even giddier. For instance, social network traffic makes
it much easier for development offices to keep track of alumni’s
family members, which offer indications of their financial
means. Weblogs where a prospective donor trumpets his or her passions
can help shape the right appeal to loosen the purse strings.

If any of this has made you nervous, let me stake out the position
that legitimate development research is crucial for social progress.
Colleges and non-profits depend on the donations of those fortunate
enough to have disposable income. People whose incomes render them
subjects of this sort of tracking know the score; dealing with
fund-raisers is just part of the responsibility of wealth management.
And the fund-raisers have high professional standards, such as the

Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement’s statement of

The general population is less well informed than the rich about the
public aspects of their private lives, which is why I’ve chosen this
section to begin my survey of identity. I myself run into surprise
from ordinary citizens I call up when I’m volunteering for a political
campaign and trying to mobilize potential supporters. Some people
express annoyance that I know they voted in a Democratic or Republican
primary. Indeed, although their choice of candidate on the ballot is a
secret, the fact that they voted on that ballot is public information.
(Forty-eight states in the US provide it to anybody who asks, while
the other two have ways of getting it less directly.)

Democracy relies the use of voter rolls by campaign workers like me to
reach out to our neighbors, drum up the vote, and convey our
message. The extensive time we put into these pursuits is one of the
few counterbalances to the dominance of TV and radio ads in
determining public opinion. Those who don’t understand the value of
open records in voting might be even more upset to know that anyone
can easily find out what candidates they gave money to, and how
much. But get used to it: your actions matter to society, and our
right to know often trumps your right to be left alone.

Of course, I haven’t recounted the ways banks, retail chains, and
insurance companies track us; we’re all aware of it. A section of this
article is devoted to the slice of this activity that makes up
behavioral advertising online. When WIRED journalist

Evan Ratliff gave a up month of his life to be voluntarily hunted
ditching his identity and trying to hide
behind a new one, he discovered that savvy investigators, working
with cooperating vendors but with no help from law enforcement, could
decipher when and where he got money from ATMs, made routine
purchases, and arranged air flights.

Ultimately, you can be most reliably identified through your DNA, but
the methodology and data are usually available only to law
enforcement. The police used to trace you through fingerprints, but
we’ve learned over the decades how unreliable those are. So DNA is the
gold standard for identity.

The British police have been using any excuse to take a DNA sample
from everyone they come across. Recently, upon being told by the
European Court of Human Rights that preserving samples for indefinite
lengths of time were a violation of privacy, the police grudgingly
agreed to destroy the samples taken from innocent people after six

In many British localities–and a number of American ones as
well–your identity is extended to include your automobile. These are
areas where governments have installed cameras to capture license
plates, and where the traffic ticket will come to you if some other
person driving your car goes through a red light or exceeds the speed

To the security system at your workplace, you may be your key card, or
the numeric code you enter on a touchpad, or your facial bone
structure or iris image. Security experts like to distinguish three
kind of identifying traits that correspond to these security checks:
something you possess, something you know, and something you are.

Even anonymized data such as census figures can be associated with
individuals through a little–surprisingly little–bit of additional
information. In the most famous and dramatic demonstration of the
power of joined data, a

Carnegie Mellon student obtained the health records of a public

simply by combining publicly available information. Such exploits are
fodder more for identity thieves than for fund-raisers or advertisers,
but they show how exposed you can become when tiny pieces of your life
float around on public sites. The Internet provides an enormous,
integrated platform for retrieving identities.

The next post in this series, turning to our presence on the
Internet itself, reduces our focus to the minimal data technically
available on the Internet. As we’ll see, while it restricts what web
servers know about us, it compensates by providing immediate, dynamic
exploitation of that information.

The posts in “Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between” are:

  1. Introduction

  2. Your identity in real life: what people know (this page)

  3. Your identity online: getting down to basics

  4. Your identity to advertisers: it’s not all about you

  5. What you say about yourself, or selves

  6. Forged identities and non-identities

  7. Group identities and social network identities

  8. Conclusion: identity narratives

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