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Being online: Forged identities and non-identities

Haply you shall not see me more; or if, a mangled shadow.

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

One reason Sherry Turkle saw the Internet through the prism of
invented identity–or, perhaps, found the aspects of Internet life
that corroborated her own interests as a psychologist with a fondness
for postmodernism–was her choice to seek out initial contacts from
serious players of 1970s multi-user dungeons. These environments were
fantasy lands, entirely concerned with forged identities; indeed, it
would be well-nigh impossible to create an identity in those
environments that was the least bit realistic.

All the old MUDs survive, and have been joined by even more
popular ones such as World of Warcraft, along with more general
fantasy environments such as
Second Life
and
IMVU.
But they no longer set the tone for Internet participation. The
momentum has gone to social networks such as MySpace, Facebook, and
Orkut, where people are asked to bring their external life online in
as genuine a fashion as possible. Disclosure rather than concealment
is widely recognized now as the trend, such as heard in the
conversations of leading Internet watchers at the

2008 Aspen Institute Roundtable on Information Technology
.

One can see why modern commerce would prefer social networking to
MUDs, because people discussing music, clothes, movies, and sports are
much easier to sell things to than orcs and medieval monks. Current
social network sites depend on their funding–if they have weaned
themselves to any degree from venture capital–through advertising.
Ironically, though, they create the kinds of empowered, self-organized
communities that can find and disseminate product information on their
own and therefore render advertising increasingly redundant.

MySpace has taken advertising to the next stage and become a platform
whose members are the ads. Pop musicians don’t need
billboards and radio spots any more; MySpace is their promotion.

But a few social network visitors still find fantasy more rewarding
than the presentation of their real selves. Obvious examples include
people who create dummy accounts so as to laud their own organizations
or writings and rate them up.

Unlike World of Warcraft players, these forged identities move through
a landscape of overwhelmingly real denizens who assume that the forged
identities are real. The result can unfortunately be deadlier than the
most aggressive World of Warcraft encounter.

Middle-aged men posing as teenagers to snare girls are one real
danger. The opportunity to post anonymously or pseudonymously
accounts facilitates cyberbullying and threats, while terrorists are
reported to do their recruiting on social networks as well. But
perhaps the saddest story of forgery is the suicide of Megan Meier.

Meier was a 13-year-old girl with a history of depression–in fact,
she had made suicide attempts before–and apparent difficulties
fitting in at school. One of her female peers, along with two older
female confederates–one of them being her 49-year-old mother, who one
would have expected to have more sense–created a MySpace account
purporting to be a boy named Josh. This forged Josh befriended Meier
in 2006, drew close to her in a relationship that could serve in many
online communities as a romantic encounter, then abruptly terminated
contact–with nasty language eerily echoing the taunts Meier had
repeatedly experienced from schoolmates.

Megan Meier, like a modern Ophelia, took the rejection to heart and
killed herself. The plot was uncovered and the mother arrested. But
now an odd legal twist intervened: no law could be found to apply.
Before her case was dismissed on appeal, she was handed a misdemeanor
conviction under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The prosecution
hung from a thread, however, because the district attorney was reduced
to arguing that her “fraud” consisted of violating a routinely ignored
clause in the MySpace terms of service that prohibited misrepresenting
oneself. (At the time this post is written, their terms of service
require that “all registration information you submit is truthful and
accurate.”)

Had the original ruling been upheld, it would have instantly
criminalized thousands of people, including my adult daughter, who
created a Facebook account for the stuffed animal she has held on to
since childhood. (Like many other people, she defies the research of
psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who called the child’s stuffed animal
a “transitional object.”)

So it is still legal to masquerade online. But while plenty of people
stretch the truth, few go so far as to create an entire persona from
whole cloth. Turkle points out that the strain of keeping up
appearances is too great. I have reflected the difficulty of lying
online by using the term “forged” for such identities–forged not just
in the sense that they’re fake, but in the sense that creating one
recalls the intense exertion of beating a metal artifact out on the
anvil.

One person who found the effort worthwhile was amateur economist Park
Dae-Sung of South Korea. As profiled in the

Washington Post
and WIRED,
Park frequented popular web forums for financial discussions and
tossed his opinions into the stew with hundreds of other casual
posters. There is nothing unusual about this (my own brother likes to
go on such forums), but Park distinguished himself in two ways: he
predicted some of the global financial disasters that hit in late
2008, and he was so authoritative that he gave the impression he was
some macher high up in government or finance.

The South Korean government was embarrassed by his accurate criticisms
of the finance industry’s greed and of the government’s own policies.
Apparently, however, some of his postings were also incorrect. Once
they uncovered his identity, the police found an excuse to arrest him

“on charges of spreading false data in public with a harmful intent.”

He was acquitted, but South Korea still appears to be a place where
it’s dangerous to be anonymous.

I pointed out in an earlier post in this series that logging in to
a coffee shop network effectively renders one anonymous, and that some
countries prohibit such logins in an anti-crime posture. Most of what
the governments are fighting is the unauthorized exchange of
copyrighted music and movies, although they like to claim that they’re
also trying to prevent violent criminals and terrorists from hiding
their tracks.

One would expect restrictions on anonymity in countries that have a
history of suppressing free speech or political activity. But one of
the strongest controls on identity was set recently by France in a law
that combats illegal file-sharing by actually forcing repeat offenders
offline. The British government has recently proposed a similar
bill. Clearly, to enforce a ban on Internet use, France and Britain
must also prevent anonymous logins.

Once you’re online, you can hide your activities with a degree of
effort. In a country that monitors its residents’ visits to web sites,
you can run software that connects you him to another
computer–probably located in a more tolerant country–to request a
web page and have it tunneled back through the proxy computer.

In the 1990s, a very popular anonymous remailer was run out of Finland
under the name anon.penet.fi. Anyone could send email through
it; the server would assign a random email address and send it on to
the requested destination. Return email would be matched up with the
real email address of the original sender and delivered in the other
direction.

anon.penet.fi was heavily used by critics of the Church of
Scientology to post secret church documents to public news groups. The
church finally resorted to Finnish law to force the server’s
administrator to reveal the email address of one of these posters, and
the administrator decided to shut down the server because he could no
longer guarantee the anonymity it promised. In a significant
historical premonition, the pretext used by the church to squelch the
exchange of information was copyright infringement, the same claim
that drives most of the current laws and court cases forcing ISPs to
reveal their users’ identities.

A more formal and sophisticated version of this proxying is provided
by onion networks, which route traffic from one randomly
chosen computer to another in a series, and send the replies back
through the same path. To establish that the two endpoints actually
exchanged traffic would be impossible later, unless an investigator
could trace every link between every pair of neighbors. (There are
also forms of snooping based on timing the traffic leaving and
arriving at different systems, so some onion networks go so far as to
insert random delays to make these attacks harder.)

The use of a proxy exposes that proxy to prosecution instead of the
person it is protecting, but some proxies operate out of jurisdictions
where they can advertise their services without fear, and onion
networks tend to be tolerated because even law enforcement and
military organizations find them useful for their own purposes. The US
Navy, for instance, actively supports the development of onion
networks.

As people ask for help online, and respond to that help, as with

InnoCentive

and

Amazon Mechanical Turk
,
actors with possibly objectionable motives can outsource work without
revealing their identities and goals.
Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, in a

video lecture
,
listed both actual and potential abuses of crowdsourcers’ good will.

The principle behind this form of identity hiding is that many
crowdsourcing sites are proxies, and therefore play the the role of
proxies in masking the identities of those who post tasks to perform.
The Internet has often been hailed as a disintermediator–allowing
vendors and buyers to communicate directly, for instance–but as sites
aggregate tasks, the Internet can also re-intermediate the clients who
offer tasks, and hide their identities along the way.

In short, the Internet is not yet MySpace. With some exceptions, you
can strut out onto the Internet as anyone you want to be, and duck
under the radar of those who want to delve into your real identity.

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


  1. Introduction

  2. Being online: Your identity in real life–what people know
  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 (this post)


  7. Group identities and social network identities


  8. Conclusion: identity narratives

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