by Andrew Oram
American Reporter Correspondent
January 4, 2010
HOUR BY HOUR, YOUR LIFE UNFOLDS ON THE INTERNET
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Editor's Note: After the Introduction, this is the first of seven parts of an exclusive, 9,000-word series on Identity & The Internet by American Reporter Webmaster Andy Oram.
But he that writes of you, if he can tell
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 candidates:
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 place.
The Internet has sprung upon the development field like a geyser - with particularly rich pools of information in Zillow.com'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 ethics.
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 often find ordinary citizens surprised as 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 provide voter information to anybody who asks, while the other offer ways of getting it less directly.)
Democracy relies on the use of voter rolls by campaign workers like me to reach out to our neighbors, drum up votes, and convey our message. The extensive time we put into these pursuits is one of the few counterbalances to the dominance of television 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 myriad ways that 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 Magazine journalist Evan Ratliff gave up a 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 incomplete those records are. Now, 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 is a violation of privacy, the police grudgingly agreed to destroy the samples taken from innocent people after six years.
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 limit.
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 the image of the iris of your eye. 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 figure 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.
In the next installment, I turn to our presence on the Internet, and narrow the focus to the minimal data technically available there. As we'll see, while it restricts what Web servers know about us, it compensates by providing immediate, dynamic exploitation of that information.
Next: The Cookie That Ate The Coffee Shop