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Disappearing in the Digital Age January 6, 2010

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I recently reviewed the fictional work Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, in which a teenager tries to evade the prying eyes of the Department of Homeland Security while still maintaining an electronic presence on the web. Then today, I stumbled across the real-life story of someone attempting to do the very same thing, albeit for fun and with a monetary reward. Writer Evan Ratliff decided, with the help of the magazine Wired, to disappear for a month, offering readers $5,000 to try to locate him. The impetus, Ratliff notes, was to answer “a series of questions, foremost among them: How hard is it to vanish in the digital age…People fret about privacy, but what are the consequences of giving it all up, I wondered. What can investigators glean from all the digital fingerprints we leave behind? You can be anybody you want online, sure, but can you reinvent yourself in real life?” (Wired.com).

from Wired.com

Ratliff then embarks on a cross-country jaunt, setting up fake email, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, as well as a fake office, an alias, and investing in numerous untraceable credit-card like gift cards for larger purchases. He routinely changes his appearance and uses the web to follow those trying to locate him, many who have set up groups on Twitter and Facebook and who manage to unearth every detail about his former life including hobbies, dietary restrictions, former habitations, purchases, and the name and phone number of his cat sitter. One of Ratliff’s most useful modes of cyber anonymity is using The Onion Router (TOR), which hides his true IP address and is also frequently mentioned in Little Brother. When Ratliff is finally caught a week from the end of the contest, it is because he attends a book reading that could have been in held in two places and was embedded in a New York Times crossword puzzle. By that time, his alias, Facebook and Twitter accounts had been compromised and it is likely he would have been caught soon, regardless of the clue.

Is is possible to disappear in our age? Of course it is. One women explains her fascination with Ratliff’s attempted disappearance:

Why would a middle-aged woman with virtually no technical knowledge be interested in following the Evan’s Vanished story on Twitter? You see, my father walked out one morning in Sumter, South Carolina, kissed the wife and two young children good-bye as if he was going to work as always, and disappeared for 12 years. He was around Evan’s age. He sent the family a telegraph a few days later asking them not to look for him. To this day, no one knows anything about his personal life during those years. I guess I’m hoping to have some clues to some of my questions (Wired.com).

People disappear all the time. But Ratliff didn’t try to disappear. He just tried to change and to change his electronic identity. Could he have lived in the woods, cultivating his own food, and never using a computer again? Sure. But that wouldn’t have been half as interesting or draw attention to the amount of information that is easily hackable, traceable and public. Ratliff doesn’t argue about the dangers of the information age like Doctorow’s Little Brother does, but he certainly draws attention to the reality of a real Big Brother.

Make sure to read the whole article here. It is fascinating to hear about Ratliff’s mental and emotional changes as well. Or check our his website: www.atavist.net.

Monday Book Review: Little Brother January 4, 2010

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Think you’re too sophisticated for Young Adult (YA) fiction? Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, will have you thinking again. Rife with techy jargon, textese, and Spanglish slang, the language of this book is as forward thinking as its subject matter. Though not a tome, this heart pounding, page-turning thriller is a comprehensive look at the issues plaguing our society today – namely the all-too-topical debate of privacy versus security. Although at times digressive hacking tips dilute the plotline, the action heats up as the book progresses.

Doctorow’s book begins with “the worst terrorist attack ever perpetrated on our nation’s soil” – the destruction of San Franciso’s Bay Bridge and its attendant tunnel under the bay. His choice of San Francisco is deliberate, emphasizing the similitude of the Civil Rights Movement with today’s struggle to uphold the first amendment in the amorphous realm of the Internet. Marcus, alias m1k3y, and his gaming pals are playing hooky from school when the attack occurs and they find themselves unpropitiously in the wrong place at the wrong time, leading to their incarceration. What results is an all out war against the totalitarian arrest-happy Department of Homeland Security thugs by an underground movement of high schoolers who find themselves in far over their heads.

My initial reaction to Doctorow’s work was to wish that it had been written for adults, as the subject matter is of extreme importance. But then I realized Doctorow’s genius in targeting the generation of tomorrow. By doing so, he subscribes to the mantra of Marcus and his friends to not trust “anyone over twenty-five” (another echo of the Civil Rights Movement). While the ideologies of adults may be set in stone, teenagers who read this work and quickly find Marcus to be a role model, will take the issues at hand into consideration and maybe even alter their attitude about security and privacy. If Doctorow can be blamed for making his protagonist slightly too altruistic, slightly too steadfast and dogmatic in his beliefs for someone his age, it can be forgiven in light of this larger goal.

Overall: A must read for anyone who has ever questioned the man.

Playing the Blame Game December 30, 2009

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In the wake of the attempted Christmas Day terrorist attack thousands of articles have swamped the internet, groping for somewhere to place the blame. The problem with blame is that it falsely pacifies us and leads us to believe that a complex situation has an easy remedy. And while the TSA, the Dutch government, and fearful citizens all have their suggested remedies, we must not forget the lessons we learned after 9-11 and the swift instating of the Patriot Act, which later made us ask if we had not surrendered some freedoms (namely, privacy) hastily, because of fear. We are now in danger of compromising our freedoms once again.

NPR.org has posted an article discussing the innovative methods of airport security that are in discussion and development. Probably the most controversial one is body-image scanning technology. A number of months ago I saw this technology discussed on a morning news program. The new body-imaging software shows a detailed image of the person’s body, including the parts that would make your grandmother blush. The program then interviewed a wide range of Americans who had widely differing opinions on whether such a technology was necessary or unconstitutionally invasive. At the time of the airing of the program, the technology seemed superfluous, but now, after this last thwarted terrorist attempt, the Dutch have decided to adopt the technology. But will this really help?

Airlines already use the “puffer” machine that purports to detect odd chemical particles, but with limited results. Other such proposed controversial security methods include profiling and detailed verbal interviews as practiced in Israel, which is renowned for their airport security. Probably the most innovative and least invasive security measure is what NPR describes as a method used and perfected in retail – looking for suspicious behavior, namely things like “increased sweating or heavy breathing.” While this sounds promising, it would seem hard to find accuracy in an environment where many people are already nervous about flying, and likely to show increased signs of anxiety as it is.

So what is the solution? Do we surrender our privacy, our right to normalcy (some proposed safety measures include restricting use of the bathroom on flights), in the name of safety? Or do we acknowledge that these drastic safety measures do little to actually protect us?

NPR.org, in another article, questions just that by examining the “under-reaction” to news of the attempted terror plot, asking “Have Americans, in a post-Sept. 11 world, become a bit blase about terrorism in the sky?” While the article takes neither side, explaining in a purely psychological manner why some people shrugged at the news (namely because the failing of the plot lowered the “dread quality” that causes people to overreact), it does point out the inefficacy (or superfluity) of all security measures by quoting risk communication consultant, David Ropeik, who states that, “We have also adjusted emotionally after Sept. 11 to the risk of airplane terrorism — even though, statistically, the risk of flying was the same before the attacks as after the attacks.” What do these articles prove? They prove that airport security should not be the focus of our energies. They prove, in light of the new information that “Abdulmutallab was added to a massive database of potential terrorists after his father warned U.S. diplomats about his son’s extremism” (NPR.org), that America’s intelligence agencies are the real ones to blame in their lack of communication and cohesion. I have to agree with Obama on this one and call it a “systemic failure”.

What do you think is the best solution to the struggle between privacy and safety?