My Name is (Joe Schmo) – Segmented Identity in Online Spaces

It seems with ideas floating around like Open ID and Rapleaf, the idea that no piece of identity can be truly separated from the rest is less prevalent than it should be. Thanks to the ubiquitousness of digital technologies, very few pieces of physical life can be separated from the rest. A recent example of physical identity bleeding (accidentally) into online identity would be Rep. Chris Lee looking for “company” on Craigslist. It was apparent he did not care to join the Senator’s no-nonsense, model citizen identity with the “looking for company” identity, but he didn’t take precautions, so he doesn’t get to choose. The second that a presence is established within a networked space (physical or digital), the identity is, for all intents and purposes, out of the hands of the “owner”. A responder on Craigslist immediately outed him to the first available news source (Gawker), and then it was all over after that.

Strangely, Lee resigned immediately and has been “unavailable for comment” since the allegations surfaced – not that he could refute the picture evidence (sarcasm, folks…). Unfortunately for him, his blunder was hilarious, so the news spread like wildfire. Lately, more allegations of foul play have surfaced from those on the transsexual Craigslist boards. Former Rep. Chris Lee is still unavailable for comment. The point is that someone who was not in control of his online presence blended his (incorrectly perceived) separate physical and online identities by accident – because he didn’t know or didn’t think that his picture would lead back to him or his email address could be found or his IP address tracked or… (you get the picture).

The problem with the example above is a perceived separation of physical and digital spaces and actions. The common perception for those not well-versed in the workings of online spaces is that what you do online is online, and offline is offline. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Wrong.

An even bigger problem, as far as safety/security/etc. is concerned is the perceived separation and segmentation of identities in the online space. One may think that if they opt-out of services like Rapleaf and Open ID, their identities can be segmented at will. The same way that Google gets your information when you think you’re giving it to Youtube, many sites/online entities know who you are before you tell them. Google is currently behind over 80 web entities. If anyone knows how many entities Facebook “shares relevant information” with, I’d be glad to know. The fact is, it is nearly impossible to separate online presence in one online space from another. In the past year, I wrote a series of anonymous blog posts on a fairly well-known blogging site. I had to alter my current Open-ID-style identity (after a series of other precautions, I then had to make a trash email and switch over to it for the ID – otherwise I would have had to abandon my email I’ve had for years). On the surface, the blog is still “anonymous”, but how anonymous is “anonymous”? Not very. Anyone could find it if they really wanted to. Even the Anonymous in AnonOps are not anonymous, as seen by arrests early this year of some in the UK involved in DDoS attacks and 40 search warrants executed by the FBI for the same. If those guys don’t know how to hide, the rest of us are in big trouble.

Open ID is an idea that should ring a bell in a big way, but it doesn’t seem that this has happened. Value in online identity is about being able to be found, and thus, be influential. The social side of the internet is built for being just that – a net. Each node is connected, on purpose, to form a navigable network. Cutting the net just pulls everyone’s attention to that hole.