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How to Invent a Person Online (Is online anonymity even possible today?)
July 28, 2014 4:44 AM   Subscribe

On April 8, 2013, I received an envelope in the mail from a nonexistent return address in Toledo, Ohio. Inside was a blank 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 thin beard, and green eyes. His most defining feature, however, was that he didn’t exist. I know that because I created him.
posted by spock (34 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm dating my operating system!
posted by oceanjesse at 4:52 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I was excited to read this, but it went nowhere. Why did the author spend money on fake documents to essentially create a community Twitter account?

It sounds like the author had lofty goals, but didn't come close to meeting them.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:58 AM on July 28 [19 favorites]


Who sent him the thank you note?
posted by Omnomnom at 5:01 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


It's a cool idea just to disappear, create a bunch of fake identies, never staying in one spot for too long - almost romantic like an old movie. The problem with it is, it's next to impossible these days to do it, too much survalliance, too much tracking online. We're more Enemy of the State these days then anything else.

I also recommend reading this article on trying to disappear in the 21st centry.
posted by lpcxa0 at 5:04 AM on July 28 [3 favorites]


Lots of things do not exist, so I don't see how this could be Aaron Brown's "defining feature".
posted by thelonius at 5:17 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]


Bah, I know for a fact that I don't exist.
posted by sammyo at 5:23 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


It sounds like someone took him aside half way through his fantasy trip and pointed out to him that anything he did with his fake documents would be a felony.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 5:23 AM on July 28 [27 favorites]


Wouldn't creating fake government documents be a felony in itsef?
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:25 AM on July 28


Who sent him the thank you note?

The person portraying the fake state government.
posted by fairmettle at 5:54 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]


Sorry, I'm still confused!
posted by Omnomnom at 6:04 AM on July 28


I'm assuming the Aaron Brown identity was his first attempt, and he has six better, more convincing identities lined up by now.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:07 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]


Omnomnom, he purchased a fake driver's license through the mail. The person from whom he purchased it mailed him a package containing the fake driver's license and a (preprinted and otherwise blank) thank you note.
posted by Flunkie at 6:11 AM on July 28


D'oh. Thanks. In my naiveté I hadn't realised that you could mail order fake ID.
posted by Omnomnom at 6:15 AM on July 28


Fun, but wrong in the spectacular way the super-favorited 'how to dispose of a body' is wrong.
Chumps who follow these instructions are easy meat for an old spook like me.
posted by Pudhoho at 6:16 AM on July 28


I bet he did all that on his home wi-fi, too.
posted by Devonian at 6:17 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]


Wouldn't creating fake government documents be a felony in itsef?

For many documents yes. But then you have to find a DA who's willing to make the charges and walk the case though the courts.

If you have a history of willing to raise a legal fight - the less the chance the DA will bother charging you as they want easy targets. Becoming a geriatric prisoner seems to cause DA's to not bother with walking the case through the court system.

(based on watching the system and knowing a guy who lies in court and on fed forms)
posted by rough ashlar at 6:20 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


This seems to be (coincidentally, hopefully) rather derivative of Heath Bunting's much more comprehensive (and much more interesting) status project
The enormous status project database is here
Tate article and video
posted by silence at 6:37 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


If you want to actually do anything effective without being collared, it's much more sensible to steal someone else's ID. Otherwise, anomalous patterns will make you interesting no matter how well you've covered your footprints. And when you're interesting enough, you will be found.

Let's say I can invent a perfectly new 30 year old Caucasian white middle-class male, straight from central casting. Now what? I can't create a digital history for him, and it's inconceivable that any such person wouldn't have one. So, immediately, anything I do online with him will stand out. In the same way that bitcoin is unfakeable because the block chain contains the unrepeatable history of peta-zillions of computations, our real digital IDs come with decades (in my case, three) of linked back-story.

It's like the CIA operatives in Beirut who thought they were being clever by using sterile mobile phones to set up meetings with each other. You buy a phone anonymously, buy a SIM ditto, and only use it in uncontaminated ways for essential conversations, right? That's dandy, but the trouble is - who uses phones like that? The CIA. So if Hezbollah has friends in the cellphone company who can look for that pattern...

You can't do anything that is outwith normal people's pattern of digital life. or you will draw attention to yourself. Either grow your ID from birth and meticulously maintain it until it's time for action - even that's going to be hard to establish, doing everything right - or do the groundwork, find someone genuine whose ID you can quietly assume when you need to, and be somewhere else when they cop the fallout.
posted by Devonian at 6:40 AM on July 28 [13 favorites]


Note: Rough Ashlar is not a lawyer and that is the worst imaginable legal advice.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:41 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


The first rule of creating a new identity is don't tell anyone else how to do it.
posted by Pudhoho at 6:47 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]


Note: Rough Ashlar is not a lawyer and that is the worst imaginable legal advice.

Damn straight I'm not. But the statutes are supposed to be readable by an 8th grade education and observing Court cases and what happens is somehow invalid because one is not a member of the Bar?

And yet I can point in the Court record where a DA says they they don't bother typically charges when the amount is small and the May 1995 ABA the 40+ year serving Milwaukee DA says they rarely go after perjury. Lying in a 2 million dollar civil case - no charges.

As for legal advice - how is a lawyer supposed to offer up any kind of affordable legal advice along with how are the citizens to meet the standard of "ignorance of the law is no excuse" if the last 3 times the cataloguing of all the Federal laws have failed to produce such a list?

Rare punishment != you getting off. Ask Aaron Schwartz about "lawbreaking". And as a common theme by many posters on The Blue if your melanin ain't "right" there is a difference between how the whole legal system treats you. Same with the depth of your bank account - that depth is taken as a willingness to show how much you are willing to spend on lawyers to fight.

Consider the CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) and the goal here of creating a created online person - how exactly would you create the false ID and not be in violation at some point?

At the point where the Eye of Sauron of Government opts to focus on you - what have you done that can't be taken as showing your illegal actions? But perhaps the people who state "that's bad advice" can offer up exactly how to avoid all possible criminal charges?
posted by rough ashlar at 7:12 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


My project started at a small coffee shop in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

Of course it did.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 7:42 AM on July 28 [5 favorites]


Bed-Stuy did a lot more doing or dying back in my day.
posted by dr_dank at 8:01 AM on July 28 [4 favorites]


Also, never loan your book How to Disappear and Never Be Found -- just gift it.
posted by Pudhoho at 8:02 AM on July 28 [3 favorites]


Bed-Stuy did a lot more doing or dying back in my day.

PSA 7 FTW.
posted by Pudhoho at 8:22 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


~Wouldn't creating fake government documents be a felony in itsef?
~For many documents yes. But then you have to find a DA who's willing to make the charges and walk the case though the courts.


I would worry less about state DA's, and concern myself with the Feds. I'd be willing to bet creating false IDs could be considered a terrorist act by some multi-lettered agency or another.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:11 AM on July 28


'fake ID' is such a harsh term.

'novelty ID' is the preferred nomenclature.
posted by el io at 10:29 AM on July 28 [6 favorites]


Aaron Brown

AKA "McLovin".
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 11:07 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


Is it just me or did he never really connect anonymity as a topic with his fake person as a practice? The possibility of supporting a believable fake identity isn't the same as the possibility of being anonymous online.

And I mean, the whole "internet persona thing anyone can contribute to" thing is fun, but it's certainly been done before and just inevitably gets overrun with spam. It seems to me that the value of a fake identity is as a control: because Aaron Brown doesn't have to do anything online, you can pick one or two little things to do and then watch the results.
posted by intendedeffect at 11:13 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


Let's say I can invent a perfectly new 30 year old Caucasian white middle-class male, straight from central casting. Now what? I can't create a digital history for him, and it's inconceivable that any such person wouldn't have one.

If I were to create a fake identity, I would create one for a recent immigrant. Credit histories and the like don't seem to travel with you across borders, at least not yet. So the absence of a history wouldn't be suspicious. Many fellow expats who have had to painfully build up a credit history in their new country of residence know what I'm talking about.
posted by Triplanetary at 11:31 AM on July 28 [3 favorites]


I'd be willing to bet creating false IDs could be considered a terrorist act by some multi-lettered agency or another.

Odds are it is. But you'd have to get an agent to care and press the matter. The typical brush off is about the same as you get from the FBI with a computer crime - was there $X thousands of Dollars of damage. If someone thinks they can move ahead by going after someone in a public way or are ordered to go after someone from higher up - then congratulation! The more charges one can stack the better from the "everyone takes the plea bargain deal" system.

Pretending to be tough on crime by going after someone defrauding the public purse - a fine advancement in the public service system.

Going after someone who gin'ed up an ID to get a different kind of otherwise $0 cost web service? If there was a functional Grand Jury system....how far would that fly if you had to get a true bill before moving forward to the court system?

At some point the agents have to justify why they spent the time and the DA or AG has to at some point justify the time they are gonna spend VS the rest of the group W benchers. At a certain point in a case it has momentum and you won't get a backing down - just like many other ego-driven human conflicts.
posted by rough ashlar at 4:07 PM on July 28


Seeing as I'm fresh from the HOPE-X conference, I may as well share these excellent, excellent presentations on the topic by a subject-matter expert. The conferences always feature a presentation by Steven Rambam, private investigator.

His talk from 2010 is called Privacy Is Dead, Get Over It.

This year's Rambam talk was titled You’ve Lost Privacy, Now They’re Taking Anonymity (aka Whistleblowing is Dead – Get Over It).

Listening to this guy talk is like reaching security enlightenment.
posted by solipse at 6:11 PM on July 28 [8 favorites]


solipse, I believe it was H2K2 when Steve Rambam talked about how he got multiple California drivers licenses on the SAME DAY, which he used to build up his college professor persona to lure nazi war criminals out of hiding.

That and the Cryptome architecture talk that year was unexpectedly fascinating.
posted by dr_dank at 8:19 PM on July 30


Who Was She?
posted by Pudhoho at 5:58 AM on August 2 [1 favorite]


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