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Of nyms and names

Lauren Weinstein has an excellent piece up on Google’s identity controversy which you should read, if identity and its issues are of interest to you. It’s smart and focused and balanced and well-spoken. It’s thoughtful and not overly long.

I’m really going to mess that last one up with my response. Buckle up, girls and boys.

Identity and particularly the verification of identity is a hard problem. Using current best-practice methods, there is no way for any business (nor most governments) to absolutely verify your identity, even when you are standing at the counter with your papers in hand, and for their part, they are on the other side with access to assorted relevant databases.

Start with a copy of someone’s utility bill (power, water, gas, phone, or whatever) and their name and birthday (“Hey, everyone on Facebook/G+/Twitter, it’s my birthday today!“), and you can reasonably obtain enough documentation and identification in just an afternoon to obtain photo ID, a driver’s license, bank accounts, and maybe credit cards. If you’re an utter scumbag. That’s basically the issue with identity theft. If you have a suitable weak-link firm or agency to start with, you might be able to dispense with the bill, and just use the name, address, phone number and birthdate (most of which are easy to obtain once you know where someone is living/has lived, their name and their birthday). Oh, we’re assuming that you’re at least of the appropriate gender, or able to pass for it, and within 10-15 years of the right age.

Given all this, things get even harder when you try to verify someone’s identity over the phone, or via any other communications medium. Just because you have all of someone’s identification documents doesn’t mean that you’re the person that they actually describe. Heck, you can even show different addresses or phone numbers – many organisations are inept at processing the changes of these, so that information is frequently wrong or out-of-date even if you’re the right person.

At best, organisations usually only attempt partial verification. Enough to build up just enough confidence to pass a low bar. That at least weeds out the few who won’t bother to put even the least effort into impersonation or fakery.

The problem is that when it comes to proving that some name happens to be the name that you’re most commonly known by, fakers and scammers have an edge over honest folks, like you and me. Ask any college kid who has ever obtained a fake ID.

If my age was challenged in a bar – unlikely at my age, but let’s suppose – then actually, I’d probably have some difficulty producing supporting documentation. I might not have any with me. Why would I think to have, being of legal age and all. On the other hand, your faker never leaves the house without some dodgy ID. They’re not of legal age, but can pretty much always ‘prove’ that they are.

So, just imagine that I was born with some dreadfully unfortunate name, and – in recent years – circumstances more or less mandated that I select another for online usage. So, say that the unfortunate name I was born with then was ‘Felicia Day’. Maybe there’s even a passing resemblance in bad light.

Clearly this is an identity I could never maintain on, say, Facebook, or Google+ or… well anywhere online. Tired of being hassled, or people crying foul about ‘impersonation’ every single time I log onto any venue on the Internet under my own name, I pick another. Say I become attached to the name ‘Tateru Nino’. I start using it everywhere online. I use no other name on the ‘Net.

Pretty soon, my friends and family start calling me ‘Tateru’ or ‘Tat’ as well. Which is fine. When tax time comes around, or I have any other forms to fill out, I use that name, relegating poor old Felicia to the “Are you known by any other names?” box. I still use it, because it’s such a hassle getting new cards and new ID and the aforementioned issues in changing bills and accounts and heaven-only-knows what else. Even Google tries to recruit Tateru Nino several times per year. Once you’ve got an office that doesn’t require me to relocate, maybe I’ll consider it.

Only now, I’d like to use Google+ to keep in touch with my extended online social circles, and well, hooray. The terms of service say that I can use the name, since it is the one that I am commonly known by.

Until, that is, someone at Google asks me to prove that I am commonly known by that name. Well, of course I am. Use Google! But can I prove it? Of course I can’t. Not unless I take the morally ambiguous route of simply picking up some fake ID.

And therein lies the rub, as they say. A legitimate identity, for all the right reasons, but – if challenged – not one that I might be able to support. But a determined faker, on the other hand, could easily be prepared for and pass such a challenge with comparative ease. They probably also wouldn’t have something odd sounding like ‘Tateru Nino’ for a profile name, either.

And then there’s all of the people in my circles, who, for one reason or another have nyms not names. Maybe it’s for additional protection against identity fraud, maybe it’s because some of them are bone fide celebrities (present or past) offline and are keeping their heads down online, maybe some of them are well-known industry figures or executives who have common interests and concerns with myself (hence being a part of my social circles) but not willing to be seen to be speaking ex cathedra for their companies or organisations.

If you knew Suzy, like I knew Suzy…

Whatever claim someone might have to a nym rather than a name doesn’t concern me overly much. Every name is anonymous until you know something about the person that it is attached to. Names are intrinsically meaningless labels that only gain meaning through knowledge of the thing or person that they describe.

“I don’t believe in [controversial topic of the day]. It sounds like so much junk science!” one homeowner told us – Suzy Henderson (38).

The name (and age), used in a newspaper article like that is intended to confer credibility to the piece. Does it? No, really…think about that for a moment. The name could be entirely fabricated (and indeed, some of them are in order to add that illusion). Without knowing anything about Suzy, the presence of her name actually adds nothing other than verisimilitude and the illusion of authenticity.

What does concern me is that my social circles (both online and offline) are made up almost entirely of nyms. When I meet someone for the first time, I almost invariably ask “What do you want to be called?” and I call them that. I may not (and probably don’t!) know about any of their other nyms or names, and I don’t actually care. Why not? Because being social is about the person. It’s about relating to them, listening to them, talking to them, exchanging views, passing the time, making small talk, debating knotty issues like identity (for example), and – if I have anything to say about it – getting my arse grabbed once in a while.

If those nyms start getting stomped on, like Opensource Obscure already has, then my social circle is diminished. Google+ loses a little value for me – and for others, each and every time that happens.

Yes, we want to keep the impersonators and the spammers out. Put those Googly heads together and produce a mechanism and a process for reporting and enforcement. If you’re prompt in dealing with them, the crowd will be prompt in finding them. You’ve got good people there, I know it. Let them do some good then.

Online, I’m Tateru Nino, and I’ll be darned if I’m going to prove that to anybody. Nor am I going to change that identity for anyone.

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Categories: Culture, Opinion.

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