In God We Trust, All Others We Monitor: The Story of Aaron Brown
It was sometime in 2009 when I first learned about an online black market called “The Silk Road.” I then learned I had to use a utility called “Tor” to access it. I downloaded the Tor browser bundle, got it up and running, and connected to the site. Tor was slow, felt cumbersome, and was little more than an annoyance to me, a necessary inconvenience in order to browse pages of illicit, and non-illicit, products. All of it was hidden from “regular” internet users, and there was something electrifying and exciting about that. I always wanted to purchase *something.* Maybe a t-shirt? I just wanted to be a part of it. Over the next few years, I would jump on Tor every now and then, usually when I wanted to show someone “a crazy website where you could buy drugs.” It wasn’t until the beginning of 2013 that I began to really understand what Tor was.
In December 2012 I got a job with Taryn Simon as her production manager. Earlier that year she had worked with Aaron Swartz on a project called Image Atlas. I remember hearing the news of his suicide from my co-worker. At the time we were still doing work on Image Atlas, and I received an invite to contribute to the project on Heroku. Some of Aaron’s commits were recent enough to be visible in the git history. Aaron left his fair share of digital traces, but only three people had access to this private repository, so it felt different. It was an odd experience, to essentially stumble upon these traces of him. I don’t think I would have felt the need to do as much research as I eventually did had it not been for that. I began reading a lot about him, and what he stood for.
That research resulted in educating myself about internet privacy, and the contemporary scope of digital tracking. The entire infrastructure of the internet is built around the transfer of discrete packets of information, which require active attempts at obfuscation to conceal. The default protocol is plaintext, with distinct trails connecting all activities and connections. It quickly became apparent to me that services like Tor, which provide a fairly high level of anonymity, were serving purposes much greater than “The Silk Road.”
Private companies actively track everything we do online. They correlate and analyze the resulting data to compile profiles on all of us. Ads on the internet are sold in real-time and served to users based on those profiles. The internet you see is different than the internet I see, because advertisers know we are interested in different things. An argument can be made that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I get to see more of what I want, and less of what I don’t. What is so dubious is that it is completely invisible. Most people have no clue that it is happening. Which is especially dangerous given how much the advertising/PR industry is one of consumer control.
For example, there is a practice known colloquially as ‘astroturfing,’ which involves the use of fake social profiles to give the appearance of grassroots support, or dissent. In 2011, the Daily Kos reported on a leaked document from defense contractor HBGary which explains how one person can automate the actions of many personas:
“Using the assigned social media accounts we can automate the posting of content that is relevant to the persona. In this case there are specific social media strategy website RSS feeds we can subscribe to and then repost content on twitter with the appropriate hashtags. In fact using hashtags and gaming some location based check-in services we can make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise, as one example. There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personas.”
At the macro level, combining tracking data with contemporary methods of astroturfing results in unprecedented potential for effective propaganda. While on the micro level, the ability to look back at everything someone has ever done on the internet results in a similar potential for blackmail and coercion. These fears, at one point shrugged off as paranoia, were concretely legitimated by the May 2013 intelligence leaks by Edward Snowden.
In the middle of January 2013, I pushed myself to learn as much as I could about maintaining my privacy online. How secure could I be? How hard is it? How far could I go? I purchased a laptop in cash from Craigslist. I corresponded with the seller using only an anonymous Tormail account. I wiped the computer’s drive, installed a Ubuntu partition, only accessed the internet behind Tor, and never logged into any identifying services. I established various pgp keys, all with different passphrases at least 24 characters long. I double encrypted an offline bitcoin wallet, and purchased bitcoins anonymously using a cash transfer via Bitinstant.
I now had an anonymous computer, with anonymous communication capabilities, and anonymous money. What next? The whole exercise was an attempt to conceal my physical identity and leave as small a digital trace behind as possible, but with these new tools at my disposal, I soon realized I could fabricate a new identity. And not just a digital pseudonym; I could use my anonymous currency to purchase counterfeit physical identity documents for a new person, someone I would create.
I took pictures of myself, my girlfriend, and my roommates, and then used Adobe Photoshop to composite our different features together to create a portrait of someone who does not physically exist. I generated a random name based on the top 50 most common first names and surnames in the United States. I then used this portrait and name for various identity documents: drivers license, student ID, tribal membership. I acquired a counterfeit automotive insurance card, counterfeit boating license, and counterfeit proof of residence in the form of a cable bill.
At the end of it all, I was left with a small pile of documents I could use to reasonably convince someone this new person was real. I had the physical proof of a person with an entirely digital genesis.
I decided he should probably have a digital footprint as well, so I set up an associated Tor hidden service. I also set-up a proxy server, which I invite you to use. When you browse the internet using the server your IP address will be concealed, and will instead appear to be that of the proxy server. Every website you visit will add to the tracking data for that IP address. As more people use the service his digital profile will slowly grow, and advertisers will start serving ads specific to that data, data representing this phantom.
I also set up a Twitter account for him. On the project website there is a text input connected to a form that is pre-authenticated to his account. This allows for a bit of reverse astroturfing (many become one, as opposed to one masquerading as many). Please feel free to send a few tweets.
When I was living in Los Angeles a couple years ago I found a patch at an Army surplus store. It was a Naval Intelligence patch with the image of an eagle wearing headphones on it. Above the eagle read “In God We Trust, All Others We Monitor.” While working on this project I rediscovered that patch in a box of my old things. I hung it above my workstation. A reminder to tread lightly as I write the story of Aaron Brown.