Aaron Brown has scruffy brown hair, a thin mustache-goatee combo, and one of those mouths that rests in a frown. He just turned 29. Last June, he completed a boater’s safety course from the Department of Natural Resources in Ohio, where he went to college. He drives a 1994 Toyota Corolla and is a certified member of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas. Sometimes he tweets, but he’s not particularly coherent—his tweets are mostly stand-alone sentiments like "#life" and "dinner time" and "hiiiiiiii."
He is six feet tall and weighs 160 pounds.
Also, he is not real. At least, not in a physical sense.
Aaron Brown is a digital straw man, the product of $500 worth of Bitcoin combined with six months of scrupulous anonymity on the Internet. Unlike most of his species, he's not up to no good. He’s an art project.
"As an artist, you can sculpt something and make a sculpture, you can make a painting, you can make a photograph," explains Curtis Wallen, the 24-year-old photographer who created Aaron. "And essentially, I’ve made a person."
Most people who create alternate, untraceable identities aren’t artists. They’re hackers or crime victims or child pornographers. The creators and customers of recently busted illegal-ware site Silk Road used some of the same methods as Wallen to mask their identities. But as the NSA’s mass surveillance program came to light this summer, more people are questioning the information about their real selves that they put online every day. "I tried to figure out how to stop that, how to stop people from knowing what I’m browsing on the Internet, and I found out it is basically impossible," Wallen says. "I realized what could be more effective is put myself behind another person through creating this whole fake identity."
Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, once said that the Internet should have a delete button to give people a fresh start. It doesn’t. Some have come to the conclusion, like Wallen, that the closest we can come to divorcing ourselves from the data we create online is to create our own Aaron Brown.
Wallen went to art school. He’d built websites before he started creating Aaron Brown, but he didn't consider himself a hacker and didn’t have any special knowledge about computers. On one hand, learning how to start from scratch was easy. Everything he needed to know was available on the web. On the other, one careless missed detail at any point—accidentally using his real name or signing into a personal account while logged into a fake identity—could ruin the prospects of building a persona that couldn't be connected with himself. As Wallen puts it, "Everyone has to start somewhere, and at the beginning, you’re gonna fuck up."
It’s difficult to talk about creating an alternate identity without raising the specter of illegality. Any real effort often starts with anonymous proxy services like Tor. Thanks in part to the FBI investigation of Silk Road, it's a widely known portal to the "deep web," the classification of unindexed sites and black-market exchanges of drugs, guns, child porn, hit-man services, and more.
But you can also use Tor to access any website without revealing who you are. What perhaps makes the association of anonymity and unscrupulous behavior even stronger is that just about every step in the process of creating a new identity seems a bit sketchy.
Wallen wasn't planning to actually become Aaron Brown or to defraud anyone, but as an artistic gesture, he wanted to "do it right." He started by logging into Tor as "clcrb" to buy a Chromebook on Craigslist. He set up a meeting to buy the Chromebook in the atrium at Citi Center and arrived, dressed in a hat and nondescript clothing, with $100 in cash. "It’s always about what are the weak points," he says, "And there’s someone who could point me out." He took the computer home, wiped it, and installed Linux. This became his project computer. He never used it as Curtis Wallen.
Later he pinned a naval intelligence badge he found in a thrift shop above the "command station" in his apartment. "In God we trust," it said. "All others we monitor." Since Tor was originally developed with the U.S. Navy in mind, the badge seemed relevant. As he was researching how to be anonymous, someone who blogs about the topic told him, "Don’t get too attached to any one identity. Once a pseudonym has been linked to others or to your real identity, it’s always linked." He wrote down "Do not contaminate identities" on a post-it note near his computer, underlined the word "not" two times, and then proceeded to follow the advice.
Instead of using the same Tor identity that he had used to purchase the laptop, he created a new one each time he contacted a new person. "I tried to do this so many times and got partway through it and realized, oh shit, I logged into that account and then logged into that account without starting a new Tor session, so now those two accounts are linked, and now that those are linked, that compromises the other thing," he says. "So I started all over."
The currency of the dark web is Bitcoin. Unlike PayPal, it doesn’t need to be linked to a real account or person.
Wallen created another Tor identity to employ a company called BitInstant to arrange a Bitcoin transfer. He took $500 in cash to a computer store in Chinatown and sent it to a company in San Francisco that promised to deposit Bitcoins into his account. "If they wanted to, they could have taken my cash and given me nothing," he says. "Once you get into this, a lot of it is about trust. It reminds me of a mob movie or something."
Later that afternoon, about 10 Bitcoins arrived in Wallen's account. He had encrypted his digital wallet using a program that generates random encryption using movements of a finger on a mouse pad (as opposed to algorithms, which by definition aren’t truly random). He stored them on a USB drive that he could store safely away from his Internet-connected laptop.
He now had everything he needed to start sculpting Aaron Brown.
Aaron Brown is, in a way, everybody. Wallen made lists of the 50 most common first names and 50 most common last names in the United States and randomly selected a name from each of them (the result happens to match the name of a former CNN anchor, but that’s an accident). Aaron Brown’s birthday is October 5, 1984, supposedly the most common date of birth. His address is a moored World War II submarine in Ohio, another tie-in to Tor’s origins.
Wallen mixed photos of himself, his roommates, and his girlfriend into a photo for Brown’s IDs. "This person doesn’t exist," Wallen says. "He’s not real in any sense, he’s completely fabricated through the computer."
On the deep web, Wallen purchased a fake driver's license for $80. He also bought a student ID, a boating license, an insurance card, and an ID card for the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas (because really, why not?) for $50 each. For good measure, he added a fabricated Comcast bill and a Photoshopped copy of a social security card for $30 each.
"It came through the mail, nothing special," Wallen says, taking a plain white envelope with Aaron’s drivers license in it out of his backpack and placing it on the table. "It just came." The deep web has plenty of opportunities for buying real social security cards and passports, but they cost thousands of dollars, and plus, "At that point, it becomes identity theft. I didn’t want to get into that."
Wallen had Aaron's physical identity in hand. He next set up his digital identity. Wallen made Aaron a Twitter account that anyone can tweet from. He set up a service that anyone can use while browsing the web to make it look as though they are actually Aaron Brown.
He had read about an advertising technique called astroturfing in which one person can impersonate hundreds of social media accounts to make it look as if there were grassroots support for their cause. Aaron Brown is the opposite. He’s many real people creating one fake person.
One way the alleged operator of the Silk Road, Ross William Ulbricht, attracted attention to himself was by allegedly hiring a hit man, who was actually an undercover agent. Another time, he allegedly hired a hit man to kill a man in Canada who, according to Canadian authorities, does not actually exist.
"He was trying to have this fake identity killed," Wallen says. "In this world, and in the Internet in general, you’re always choosing identities. And nobody is who they say they are." Even if you haven’t ever procured fake documents to back it up, chances are you’ve created a fake personality online, too. It’s the version of yourself—who you are on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or in a chat room. "It’s very common to create these false digital identities through pseudonyms online, and I was interested in the fact that through my room, through this computer, I could create a physical identity in a sense." Wallen says.
Wallen’s work could probably get him a post-office box and an apartment under the name Aaron Brown, but he didn't think it would serve the art project (also, an Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer advised him against it). Living securely as Aaron Brown would be an entirely different matter than creating him.
In a videotaped talk about how to stay anonymous, a man who goes by "The Grugq" posted this quote from the show The Wire: "You only need to fuck up once.... Be a little slow, be a little late, just once. How you ain’t gonna never be slow? Never be late? You can’t plan for that. That’s life."
"We're going to plan for that," The Grugq told his audience. Later, he explained how even talking about the weather could help someone figure out who you are. "If someone gets on [chat] and is like, 'I fucking hate how hot it is today,' If you’ve got a timestamp, you can eliminate places that are not hot," he said. "Later on, he starts complaining about the rain. You could use that to start correlating all the places that were hot that are now raining. And from that, you can probably track down someone’s geographical location. When it’s hot, bitch about the cold. When it’s cold, bitch about the hot."
The Grugq's talk is intended for "freedom fighters," or people who, in his words, "hack the shit" out of countries and organizations they disagree with. Who the bad guys are in this scenario of anonymity is a matter of perspective.
Wallen struggles with the dual side effects of anonymity. On one hand, in some countries, there are people who can’t safely express themselves without it. Similarly, there’s a fear that any country could become like those countries if everybody is tracked. Wallen sent me a quote from a paper in the Harvard Law Review by Washington University School of Law professor Neil M. Richards: "While surveillance can sometimes have benign goals (like trafﬁc safety, or parents using baby monitors or GPS trackers to monitor their children), it is invariably tied to a particular purpose. Critically, this purpose affects the power dynamic between the watcher and the watched, giving the watcher greater power to influence or direct the subject of surveillance."
Nobody wants to live in a police state. "There isn’t anything inherently criminal in valuing privacy," Wallen says. "This shouldn’t be normal. This shouldn’t be what it takes to feel safe."
But on the other hand, in Wallen’s trips to the dark web, he has seen plenty of examples of the dark side of anonymity. In one instance, he was reading a blog post about strategies for staying off the radar and beginning to respect its authors. "I was like, this guy has really thought this out—this is a crazy plan," he says. "And then in the last couple of paragraphs, he references that he does this because he looks at child porn."
The dilemma is that the more the systems for remaining anonymous or evading tracking are weakened in order to catch bad guys—for instance, the NSA’s recently revealed habit of weakening encryption services—the more vulnerable are the people who use anonymity as a defense or because they feel they have a right to it.
It’s somewhat disturbing how easy it was for a photographer with no hacking experience to create Aaron Brown. But it’s equally disturbing that it took this much effort to become anonymous.
"It’s not clear cut," Wallen says. "But it’s something we should be talking about."