Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Wednesday, February 18, 2004day link 

 Global Annonymity
picture One thing that puzzles me is the big holes there are in the systems for keeping track of people in most places. You know, almost every country in the world are a bit of an authoritarian police state that would like to force all its citizens to pay taxes and not be criminals or terrorists or child molesters, or whatever else they shouldn't be. And most citizens in those countries probably feel like they're thoroughly registered and tracked by their governments. But yet it is done so badly that one should almost think it is completely intentional.

It shouldn't be a hard problem to make an all-pervasive register of the citizens in a certain country. For that matter, it shouldn't be all that hard to make a rather complete centralized register of the six billion plus people on the planet. Hey, I could design the database if I had to, without too much trouble. Give everybody a unique identifier that one can only have one of, and catch any unregistered births the moment they show up at the doctor or in school or in a bank or at a border, and get them into the system. It would make it much easier to make sure that people paid their taxes and that they could be tracked if they did something "bad".

I'm rather content with it not being that way, as I don't trust authoritarian governments, particularly the ones with some kind of moral or religious agenda, but I don't thoroughly understand why it isn't that way. Despite what it might feel like, the tracking is very sloppy or non-existent in most places.

In the U.S. the ID number is the Social Security Number. There are first of all ways of not having one at all, even though that's cumbersome. But you can also quite easily get one by showing a few pieces of paper. And nothing serious stops you from having several. In many situations you can just make up a number or use somebody else's. In the U.S. the IRS only seems to pay much attention to you if you've volunteered by starting to file tax returns. If you don't start, or you get lost a little bit by changing your name, they probably lose track of you. If you just stop filing your tax return and move somewhere else, nothing much happens either. I was an illegal alien in the U.S. for years, and it didn't make much difference. I'm sure there are several million.

And here I am in France. Did I tell the U.S. that I moved? Not particularly. And there isn't any very official way of doing so anyway. I changed address to some friends who check my mail. I haven't decided if I will bother to keep filing U.S. tax returns, or whether I want to attempt to keep my greencard status. If I just forgot about it, nothing much would happen. And did I tell France that I now live here? Well, I rent a house, opened bank accounts. And the previous rule was that within 3 months you need to go and apply for a Carte de Sejour residence permit. But that system got cancelled, and so far not replaced with anything else. So, we're here, obviously, and have a right to be here, but we're not particularly in the system in any significant way. Showing our Danish passports works fine as ID and opens most doors. "Oh, you're Danish, that's in the EU, right? Then pas de probleme!" Likewise we can freely travel to any other EU country, and nobody's even going to look at us at the border. But we haven't lived in Denmark for 19 years. Denmark has practically forgotten all about us. Oh, we could go right back any time, and start acting Danish. But at this point we're sort of in-between countries, without being clearly identified as fitting in one place or the other.

Now the thought is that maybe that's the ideal. And maybe these loopholes are quite deliberate, to pave the way for the free global movement of capital. I'm sure it isn't meant for me, but probably rather for people who have large vested interests in being a bit outside the system, and able to move their money and their interests around without anybody noticing very much. There are of course more range of freedom if you have a complicated network of companies in different countries, off-shore trusts, anonymous banking, and citizenship in multiple countries. And your holdings are in the name of all sorts of different entities that can't easily be tracked. And you yourself are perpetually on vacation, moving around between your homes in different countries, or hanging out on your yacht.

The close scrutiny of people seems to apply mostly to people who volunteer to be good local national citizens. You get a job, a local bank account, buy a house, get a phone, all in your own name. And you stay put, and get busy watching TV and going to work and paying your bills.

Or you somehow fall into the large cracks in the system, temporarily or permanently, accidentally or deliberately. You might have no paperwork, or phoney paperwork. You might be a criminal who deliberately cover your tracks. You might have carefully removed yourself from the system by studying the basis for the laws and revoked your agreement with various implicit contracts. Or you might just be in a country where nobody expects you or looks for you. Or you have an army of lawyers and accountants who do everything for you, administering your holdings of wealth, but vigorously keeping you out of the obvious picture. I suspect it is for the latter that the loop holes are allowed to exist, and even be expanded.
[ | 2004-02-18 08:39 | 13 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

 The downside to living your life publically
picture Alexandra Polier got involved in a potential looming scandal for leading U.S. democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Somebody thought he'd been having an affair with her, and he denied it. And so does she, and there probably wasn't anything to it. She once dated one of his staff members, and it was all a big misunderstanding, probably. And so what if it wasn't? But journalists and political opponents are looking hard for anything incriminating. So now look at something like this article. Somebody found her profile in Friendster. OK, seems like it has been pruned a bit since then, but when they looked at it, it was a Friendster profile like thousands of others, saying things like:
"About Me: just another hot piece of ass with a philosophy degree and a love for old movies. I'm afraid of death, hospitals and insects. I can't spell. I like old people. I want to travel the world reporting on injustices while taking the time to enjoy an umbrella drink when appropriate."
And it lists her being in an open relationship (gasp!) and stuff like that. Nothing special. Except for when the world press is scrutinizing your life looking for any sign that would indicate you to be some kind of loose woman who would be likely to have an affair with some important politician. Stupid moralizing hypocricy on the side of such journalists and the people who pretend to be shocked at reading about it.

But 100s of thousands of people are very publically posting stuff like that in online networks or on their blogs or other webpages or forums or discussion groups. People like me, who're generally open to living your life fairly out in the open, and who feel that the advantages of open networking outweighs the downsides. At least until you suddenly are put particularly in the spotlight, and any little comment you might have made can be greatly misconstrued and taken out of context, painting a picture of you that isn't really true.

I've had a bit of a taste of that recently myself. I unfortunately can't post the full story, because it is causing some other people much bigger problems than it is causing me. I found it kind of hilarious and entertaining, even if it is very mean-spirited. In brief, a friend of mine has an organization in Germany inspiring young people to choose positive directions in their lives. Somewhere on the website there's a quote from me and a link to one or more of my websites. An investigating journalist was bent on finding some dirt on this organization, to bring it down, for some reason that isn't entirely clear, other than that it is somehow "alternative". So, he started investigating anything he could find on me and anybody else linked from the site that could possibly be a good target. And, well, there's a wealth of material on the net about me, both what I've written, and references to things I've done in other parts of my life. Taking some of those references out of context, and forgetting to look at the date, the guy decided I am some kind of top Scientology cult leader. Scientology is a very bad word in a number of European countries, so any kind of association is about at the same level as being a Nazi or a Satanist. And I used to be a scientologist. To be precise, I was kicked out and excommunicated 22 years ago, quite thoroughly. Scientologists are forbidden from even speaking to me. And, sure, I've been friends with people who used to be top scientologists. And, sure I've practiced various alternative therapies and written books. A good scientologist wouldn't recognize any of that as being scientology, but if you don't look too closely, you might quickly conclude that it must all be the same kind of weird occult brainwashing type of stuff.

This journalist also found my blog, which told him I had moved from the U.S. to France recently. And he searched the net and found my profile in OpenBC, an online business network with a European focus. Which happens to have its company headquarters in Germany. And he sort of added these things - badly - together, and concluded that I am a top Scientologist who's about to invade Germany in order to corrupt young people's minds.

So, while I'm just sitting around here, in France, minding my own business, trying to survive - there I suddenly am, last month, on the front page of a minor German business newspaper. Big color picture of me, taken from my blog. And this whole harebrained story, painted in rather threatening terms, guessing heavy-handedly at my possible hidden motives for establishing a "business presence" in Germany. You know, that OpenBC profile! It is all kind of funny, and doesn't really bother me personally. For that matter I'm kind of flattered. But it is bad for my friend who actually is trying to do some good things, and who's name gets smeared by his association with unscrupulous and sinister characters such as me, however fanciful the story is.

I don't think I personally want to change anything about how open I am with posting things. I believe the answer generally is MORE communication, not less. Sure, you can come and take one thing out of context, but there's plenty of other material that can balance the picture, if an intelligent person bothers to look. And if there's anything in particular I think might easily be misunderstood, I'd rather be the first one to write about it myself, before anybody else gets a scoop out of revealing it.

There's always a bit of a danger in being a multi-facetted, open-minded person with varied interests and years of colorful experiences exploring different things. ANY part of it might pop up out of context anywhere. Your sexual preferences, your history of drug use, something you said sometime when you were really depressed, something you thought was said to a closed group of friendly people, those pictures your ex-boyfriend took of you - anything. But in the long run, I think that's a good thing. It makes it much harder to claim that any of us are just one-dimensional perfect people without a spot on their record. If we all have lots of varied spots, it no longer is such a good weapon to come along and discredit you by bringing out one little controversial piece of information from your past, which just happens to play well in a soundbite.
[ | 2004-02-18 10:16 | 18 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

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