Is it possible to be truly anonymous ter the digital world?
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On April 8, 2013, I received an envelope ter the mail from a nonexistent terugwedstrijd address te Toledo, Ohio. Inwards wasgoed a wit thank-you note and an Ohio state driver’s license. The ID belonged to a 28-year-old man called Aaron Brown—6 feet tall and 160 pounds with a round face, scruffy brown hair, a lean beard, and green eyes. His most defining feature, however, wasgoed that he didn’t exist.
I know that because I created him.
Spil an artist, I’ve long bot interested ter identity and the ways it is represented. My very first serious figure of work, Springfield, used the concept of a Midwestern nowhere to explore representations of middle-American sprawl. A few years straks, I became interested te the hundreds of different entities that track and analyze our behavior online—piecing together where we’re from, who we’re friends with, how much money wij make, what wij like and dislike. Social networks and gegevens brokers use algorithms and probabilities to reconstruct our identities, and then attempt to influence the way wij think and feel and make decisions.
It’s not an exaggeration to say everything you do online is being followed. And the more precisely a company can tailor your online practice, the more money it can make from advertisers. Spil a result, the Internet you see is different from the Internet anyone else might see. It’s seamlessly assembled each millisecond, designed specifically to influence you. I began to wonder what it would be like to evade this onveranderlijk digital surveillance—to vanish online.
From that question, Aaron Brown wasgoed born.
My project embarked at a petite coffee shop ter Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. With the help of Tor—a software program that uses layers of encryption to anonymize online activity—I searched Craigslist and tracked down a handful of affordable laptop computers for sale te Fresh York City. I registered a fresh email address with the (now-defunct) Tormail anonymous email provider and arranged to buy a used Chromebook.
[email protected] (1/27/13 – 11:23):
I’m punctual, I will be there on time at 1. Theres an atrium at citi center, will let you know when I’m there.
Volmaakt. See you there.
[email protected] (1/27/13 – 12:59):
Im here te the atrium at 53rd and lex… Gray jacket, blonde hair. Sitting at a table
The meeting wasgoed quick. I wore a hat. I kept my head down. The man at the table ter a gray jacket wasgoed a real person—in a busy public place total of cameras—who could straks potentially connect mij to the rekentuig. Thesis face-to-face moments left mij the most vulnerable. If I wasgoed going to evade online surveillance, I had to avoid any ties inbetween my digital footprint and the physical world.
When I got huis I instantly reformatted the computer’s hard drive and installed a Linux partition. This meant I could encrypt and cosmetically “hide” the part of my laptop that wasgoed using Linux. My fresh laptop would boot up Chrome OS like any other Chromebook, unless I talent it the instruction to boot up Linux instead. I never connected to anything using Chrome OS. And on the Linux side, I never accessed the Internet without Tor, and I never logged into anything that had any connection to Curtis Wallen.
For a duo months I poked around on the darknet—a hidden network that relies on nonstandard connections. At very first, my objective wasgoed simply to exist spil an anonymous user. However, I realized that this meant fundamentally switching my relationship to the Internet. I couldn’t loom ter to Facebook, I couldn’t send emails spil Curtis, I couldn’t use the Internet the way most of us normally do. I simply couldn’t be mij if I dreamed to stay hidden. So my original idea began to shift. Rather than simply evade digital tracking, I began to play with the idea of generating a fresh digital person, accomplish with the markers of a physical identity. I gathered my roommates and took a series of portraits that gezond the requirements for passport photos. I then cautiously isolated various features from each one ter Photoshop and composited a downright fresh face: Aaron Brown.
The faces combined to create Aaron Brown: Hunter, Ned, Connor, “Aaron,” Curtis. (Curtis Wallen)
Up to that point, I had bot largely operating on instinct and common sense. Now that my project wasgoed expanding, I figured it’d most likely be a good time to reach out to someone who actually knew what she or he wasgoed doing.
I created a fresh Tormail account, the very first evidence of my fresh person—[email protected]––and sent an encrypted email to the enigmatic researcher Gwern Branwen, asking what advice he’d give to someone “new to this entire anonymity thing.” Branwen replied with a elementary but crucial lump of advice:
“Don’t get too fastened to any one identity. Once a pseudonym has bot linked to others or to your real identity, it’s always linked.”
Taking Branwen’s advice to heart, I waterput a gooey note next to my keyboard.
When most people think of Internet surveillance, they imagine government bureaucrats monitoring their emails and Google searches. Ter a March 2014 investigate, MIT professor Catherine Tucker and privacy advocate Alex Marthews analyzed gegevens from Google Trends across 282 search terms rated for their “privacy-sensitivity.” The terms included “Islam”, “national security”, “Occupy”, “police violence”, “protest”, and “revolution.” After Edward Snowden’s leaks about NSA surveillance, Tucker and Marthews found, the frequency of thesis sensitive search terms declined—suggesting that Internet users have become less likely to explore “search terms that they [believe] might get them te trouble with the U.S. government.” The probe also found that people have become less likely to search “embarrassing” topics such spil “AIDS”, “alcoholics anonymous,” “coming out,” “depression,” “feminism,” “gender reassignment,” “herpes,” and “suicide”—while concerns overheen thesis more individual terms could have spil much to do with startling Google ads, the notable decrease observed te the investigate suggests the enlargened awareness of surveillance led to a degree of self-censorship.
Ter other words, people are doing their best to blend te with the crowd.
The challenge of achieving true anonymity, tho’, is that evading surveillance makes your behavior anomalous—and anomalies stick out. Spil the Japanese proverb says, “A drill that rams out gets hammered down.” Glenn Greenwald explained recently that simply using encryption can make you a target. For mij, this wasgoed all the more motivation to vanish.
Aaron had a face, but lacked “pocket litter”—an espionage term that refers to physical items that add authenticity to a spy’s voorkant. Ter order to produce this pocket litter, I needed money—the kleintje of currency that the counterfeit professionals of the darkweb would accept spil payment. I needed bitcoin, a virtual currency that permits users to exchange goods and services without involving banks. At that time, one of the few services that exchanged specie for bitcoin wasgoed a company called Bitinstant. I made my way to a petite laptop shop ter the Chinatown neighborhood of Manhattan to make the transfer.
At a petite, teller-like window, I packed out the paperwork using fake information. Unwisely, I wrote down my name spil Aaron Brown— thus creating one of the linksaf to my real identity I should have bot avoiding. Spil a result, my receipt had “Aarow Brown” printed on it. It seemed fitting that the very first physical evidence of Aaron’s existence wasgoed a misspelled name on a receipt from a laptop shop.
When I got huis, Ten bitcoin were there waiting for mij te 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 overheen 7 bitcoin, harshly $400 at the time.
Spil 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 voeling information for a self-proclaimed hacker called v1ct0r who wasgoed accepting applications to host hidden services on a server he managed. I messaged him with a request to host Aaron’s webstek. He wasgoed blessed to suggest a little space, under two conditions: “no child porn strafgevangenis racism, Respects the rules or i could block/delete your account.”
I also set up a plain web proxy so that anyone could contribute to Aaron’s online presence. The proxy serves spil a middleman for browsing the Internet, meaning any webstek you visit is very 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 wasgoed a pre-authenticated form on the project webstek, permitting anyone to postbode a tweet to Aaron’s feed. Spil Aaron’s creator, it wasgoed fascinating to see what happened once strangers embarked 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 eyed a few advertisements. Ultimately, the account wasgoed suspended after Spanish political activists used it to spam news outlets and politicians.
Te a sense, I wasgoed doing the opposite of astroturfing, a practice that uses fake social media profiles to spread the illusion of grassroots support or dissent. Te 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 wij can automate the posting of content that is relevant to the persona. … Te fact using hashtags and gaming some location based check-in services wij can make it emerge spil if a persona wasgoed actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals spil part of the exercise . There are a diversity of social media tricks wij can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personas.
Aaron Brown turned that concept inwards 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 wasgoed representative of any discrete interests. The surveillance had no value. I’d created a false human being, but instead of a cautiously coordinated deception, the result wasgoed simply babble.
“The Internet is what wij make it,” wrote security researcher Bruce Schneier ter January 2013, “and is permanently being recreated by organizations, companies, and countries with specific interests and agendas. Either wij 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 certain that wij have nothing to hide, the future of Internet security might not seem like a major concern. But wij underestimate the many ways te which our online identities can be manipulated. A latest investigate used Facebook spil a testing ground to determine if the company could influence a user’s emotional disposition by altering the content of hier or his News Feed. For a week te January 2012, reseachers subjected 689,003 unknowing users to this psychological proefneming, displaying 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 spotted ter their own feeds.
The U.S. Department of Defense has also figured out how influential Facebook and Twitter can be. Ter 2011, it announced a fresh “Social Media ter Strategic Communication” (SMISC) program to detect and tegenstoot 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 ter a SMISC explore 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 private information te hidden ways. They don’t simply learn our tastes and habits, suggesting us more of what want and less of what wij don’t. Spil Michael Fertik wrote ter a 2013 Scientific American article titled “The Rich See a Different Internet Than the Poor,” credit lenders have the capability to hide their offers from people who may need loans the most. And Google now has a patent to switch its prices based on who’s buying.
Digital culture ter a networked world
Is it even possible to hide from corporate and government feelers online? While my attempt to do so wasgoed an intensely interesting challenge, it ultimately left mij a bit disappointed. It is essentially unlikely to achieve anonymity online. It requires a accomplish operational pose that extends from the digital to the physical. Downloading a secure messaging app and using Tor won’t all of a unexpected make you “NSA-proof.” And doing it right is indeed, indeed hard.
Weighing thesis trade-offs ter my day-to-day life led to a few behavioral switches, 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 incapable, to take. And therein lies the major frustration for mij: privacy shouldn’t require elaborate precautions.
No one likes being subliminally influenced, discriminated against, or taken advantage of, yet thesis are all legitimate concerns that come with surveillance. Thesis concerns are heightened spil wij 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 inwards my desk. Aaron himself actually went missing a little while ago. I used Amazon’s Mechanical Interventies 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 attempt tweeting spil Aaron Brown.) But other than that, no word. I have a feeling he’ll most likely speelpop up te Cleveland at some point.
Everyone always seems to get sucked back huis.