I came across an interesting story via my old chum Charles Arthur’s consistently interesting “Overspill” blog. The story concerns on Oliver Taylor, a student at England’s University of Birmingham. From his picture, he appears to be normal looking twenty-something. From his profile he appears to be a coffee-loving politics junkie with an interest in anti-Semitism and Jewish affairs, with bylines in the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel.
Why is this interesting? For two reasons. First of all because I was involved in an interesting Twitter debate with two thoughtful identity commentators, Tim Bouma and Jonathan Williams during which this issue of “anonymous” contributions to newspapers happened to come in to the conversation and it made me think about the same issues as Charles’ story. Tim had mentioned writing for a newspaper that had kept his real name off of his stories, and I responded that if they knew who you were, then you were not anonymous.
Secondly, because Oliver’s picture was created by an AI. It’s a fake face that doesn’t belong to any living human being. It was composed to be a human face that any of us would be able to recognise and distinguish, but it is entirely synthetic.
Oh, and Oliver doesn’t exist.
Charles notes that “two newspapers that published his work say they have tried and failed to confirm his identity”. But wait. Shouldn’t newspapers try and fail to confirm someone’s identity before they publish a story?
Shouldn’t newspapers try and fail to confirm someone’s identity before they publish a story? Click To Tweet
Well, no. That doesn’t work. What about whistleblowers? What about privacy in general? If the newspaper knows who Tim Bouma is then his personal data is at risk should the newspaper be compromised or co-opted. There seems to be a conflict between newspapers wanting honest opinions and newspapers needing to know identities, even if they are hopeless at telling a real identity from a fake one.
The way out of this dead end is to understand that what the newspaper should be checking for this kind of story is not the identity of the correspondent but their credentials. I doesn’t matter who Oliver Taylor is, it matters what Oliver Taylor is. It ought to be part of our national digital identity strategy (which we don’t have) to create a National Entitlement Scheme (NES) instead of some daft 1950s throwback digitised version of a national identity card. In the NES, it then becomes part of the warp and weft of everyday life for a correspondent with something interesting to say to use his persistent pseudonym “Oliver” to post his comments along with his anonymous IS_A_PERSON credit and his anonymous IS_A_STUDENT (BIRMINGHAM) credential.
That way, the newspaper gets the information it needs to obtain a story of interest and perhaps worth publishing, while even if they are socially-engineered by genius hackers, they cannot disclose the real identity of the correspondent because they don’t know it. The mention of social-engineering, by the way, brings into focus the recent Twitter hack. What’s generally true for newspapers is generally true for Twitter: who I am is none of their business, something I written about at exhausting length before.
Incidentally, it doesn’t take hackers to obtain personal information from a platform because as I am sure you will recall, two of Twitter’s former employees have been charged in the US with spying for Saudi Arabia. The charges allege that Saudi agents sought personal information about Twitter users including known critics of the Saudi government. If Twitter doesn’t have your personal information, then it can’t be leaked, stolen or corrupted.
There is a way forward, and cryptography can deliver it using tried and tested (albeit counterintuitive) techniques.