My legal name is "Eric Sven Hellman". On Twitter, I'm using "gluejar". On Facebook, I took the username "eshellman", which I also use in a number of other places. For the most part, while I do try to separate my work from my personal life, I don't try to isolate my online identity from my "real world" identity. I used to use the identity "openly" in some circumstances for my work identity, but I sold that name as part of my previous company. My work identities can be easily connected to my personal identity, and as a result, the use of different identities affords me negligible privacy.
The very concept of privacy has changed a great deal over the last 20 years, in large part due to the internet-induced shrinkage of the world and the relentlessly growing power of large databases. Our traditional notions of privacy have had embedded within them an implicit equation of privacy with obscurity. Public documents with records of where we lived, what we owned, who we were married to and how much our house was worth would be available in the sense that anyone could go to a county registrar and get the information. If I walked to town, anyone who saw me and knew me would know where I was. In the not so distant future, it's not hard to imagine that an internet connected camera could see me, recognize my face, and post my whereabouts on the internet so that anyone searching for me on google could discover my whereabouts. It doesn't really matter whether that happens through Linked Data or by discovering my GPS coordinates on Twitter. As any computer security expert will tell you, security-by-obscurity is ultimately doomed to failure, and I'm pretty sure that the same is true of the privacy-by-obscurity.
Yesterday, Wired Magazine writer Evan Ratliff was found. As part of reporting an article about how hard is for someone to "disappear" in the digital age, Wired had offered $5000 to anyone who could track down Ratliff during 30 days starting August 15. Ratliff's downfall was partly that he "followed" a vegan pizza restaurant in New Orleans on Twitter. It should not be surprising that Ratliff was found, given that a Facebook group with 1,000 members formed in an effort to track him down, so the relevance to our everyday privacy is a bit tenuous. Hollywood celebrities are only too aware that privacy retention is much harder for famous people.
Partly inspired by Ratliff's article, I decided to do a bit of investigation of my own. If you've been reading blogs around the topic of e-book technology, you probably have encountered posts by someone that signs posts with the name "bowerbird". Bowerbird's posts are always on-topic, but they are written with oddly short lines, as if bowerbird was typing on a 40 character-wide terminal. Bowerbird's posts are often impolite and sometimes really insulting, and in several forums, the posts have provoked complaints of trolling or that bowerbird is "hiding behind a pseudonym". Bowerbird replies that "bowerbird" is his real identity "in many versions of reality". It's clear that bowerbird is an iconoclast. When bowerbird posted a comment on one of my recent posts, I decided to see what I could find out about him or her.
It turns out that "bowerbird" is really the first name of "bowerbird intelligentleman". He has used this as his professional name since at least the late eighties. The name is written with lowercase letters in the manner of e e cummings, and Mr. intelligentleman, as the New York Times might refer to him, is a performance poet, among other things. In fact, he claims to have started performance poetry as an art form in 1987, and was an early promoter of "poetry jams". In a charming, self-deprecating bio (PDF), he writes "bowerbird is also one of the world's worst poetry producers" and describes how his forays into computer typesetting of poetry magazines led him into the world of electronic publishing and ebooks. He was very active on the Project Gutenberg volunteer discussion list, where his talent for provocation prompted Marcello Parathoner to cathartically excerpt a collection of his postings. Much of his energy in the ebook arena was spent promoting his ideas about "Zen Markup Language" (z.m.l.) whose philosophy can be summed up as "the best mark-up is no mark-up". The short line endings in bowerbird's post appear to be his insistence on using z.m.l. for his posts. Or perhaps they're performance poetry. It's a cute idea, but personally, I find that the formatting makes the posts hard to read in their context.
When bowerbird posted his comment, he left digital footprints. He visited the blog on a link from LanguageLog. He lives in the Los Angeles area (he's posted elsewhere that he can be found in Santa Monica), uses Verizon DSL, and uses version 4.0 of Safari on the Mac as his browser. The blog uses statcounter.com to monitor usage, so a cookie has been placed in his browser so I can tell if he returns for a visit; bowerbird is able to control these cookies using privacy controls in Safari. DSL lines use a pool of IP addresses, so although I know the IP address he used, I can't use that IP address to persistently track him. However, StatCounter can follow him to other sites that use StatCounter. In principle, StatCounter could report his interest in my blog to other sites and perhaps even connect him to other identities he might have, which would bother me a lot and prompt me to stop using StatCounter.
What's interesting to me is that bowerbird has had an online public identity for over 20 years, and although his entire online life, warts and all, is open for examination (how many of us can say the same?) it appears as though he has successfully walled it off from his private life. Even if I go to the register of deeds in Santa Monica, I probably won't be able to discover whether he owns a house. I can't find out from fundrace if he has donated to a political candidate. I can find his cell phone number because he's chosen to post it, but I don't know anything he hasn't chosen to divulge. (He once owed 1-800-GET-POEM!) In the course of leading a poet's life, bowerbird has been living an experiment in public identity and privacy for 20 years!
I've previously written about the evolution and fluidity of personal names. The use of professional names for public identity is quite common in our society. Women who marry and take their husband's family name routinely retain their names professionally. Use of professional names is particularly common among authors, actors, and musicians. For them, the additional privacy afforded by the use of a professional name is particularly valuable. It strikes me that the separation and isolation of identities may become an essential privacy curtain even for people who aren't celebrities.
It's probably too late for me and most people of my generation. But "bowerbird privacy" could be a reasonable solution for the next generation. A significant number of my son's friends use Facebook under not-their-real-names, and I say more power to them. I think that privacy advocacy organizations should be working to put rules in place to prevent Facebook from enforcing its "only your real name" terms of service and prohibit companies such as Twitter and Google and Yahoo (and StatCounter) from working with ISPs to connect online identities with offline identies.
Nature's bowerbird gets its name from the bower, a structure that male bowerbirds construct to attract females. You might think of it as the bird's public identity. It's not sure why the females are attracted to the bower. Maybe it's privacy?