On paper, and in the digital realm, Aaron Brown exists. He has a State of Ohio driver’s license, identification proving that he is member of the Lipan Apache Tribe in Texas, and is licensed to operate a boat. Brown is also a customer of Comcast and has a State Farm Insurance card.
In reality, Brown does not exist. He is a ghost, a digital specter fabricated by the photographer and visual artist Curtis Wallen.
The bifurcation that occurs between physical and digital personas interested Wallen. “I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if I could fabricate a new physical person using the Deep Web, Tor, Bitcoin, and all of these new technologies popping up in the face of tracking, and see how far I could push it,” he said.
While many artists are driven by politics, Wallen is decidedly anti-surveillance and overtly critical of the state. In fact, it’s hard to say where his art ends and activism begins. I become well aware of this in my initial phone conversation with Wallen, and even more so when I visited his apartment to have a look at his Aaron Brown project materials.
“I began doing my research on anonymity, the deep web, Tor, tracking, astroturfing, etc., in January 2013,” said Wallen, who researched the SOPA/PIPA and CISPA bills, and grew more and more attuned to how the government can access corporate data-mining spoils. He learned how certain parts of those bills facilitate the flow of information between private interests and various government sectors. Later, Edward Snowden’s treasure trove of intelligence leaks, along with the growing popularity of anonymity software such as the Tor browser, gave Wallen's Aaron Brown project a sense of urgency.
The five real-world people, including himself (far right), from which he crafted the Aaron Brown composite face.
Even before Snowden, Wallen was plumbing the depths of the Deep Web to create a vapor-less, anonymous, and completely artificial alter ego. Wallen told me that the project really started during free internet activist Aaron Swartz’s legal troubles, and accelerated in the aftermath of his suicide. It was in the shadowy corridors of the hidden web that Aaron Brown was born.
Despite his focus on anonymity, Wallen made the decision to document every move he made in constructing this false identity. In our two conversations, he reflected on this with more than a little humorous astonishment, as though he can’t quite believe that he had, in recursive fashion, actually data-mined and surveilled himself.
“As I was researching the project, I realized the internet is so perfect for tracking,” Wallen explained. “Everything is really about unique and discrete tokens, like cookies and IP addresses, that are passed around in order to trace connections. It's a perfect place for surveillance because it's hard for users to drop out.”
Wallen operated under the widespread assumption that the government had access to everything. What options exist, he wondered, to allow people to combat vast surveillance?
Ultimately, Wallen wanted to see how possible it was to disappear in a world where everyone is always watching. His first move was to do some research into the DoNotTrackMe process. What he found was that the process was self-regulated by the very companies profiting from the tracking. After downloading DoNotTrackMe, Wallen spent an entire day browsing the internet, receiving 1,000 notifications for tracking requests from over 100 different companies.
“There are all of these third party companies that no one has ever heard of taking part in the tracking behind the scenes... and they're all correlating this data and passing it around,” said Wallen. “They're selling my information to companies. It's a whole ecosystem on the internet—Google Maps, Facebook, YouTube—made possible by tracking, allowing them to make money on our data.”
"Wouldn't it be cool if I could fabricate a new physical person using the Deep Web, Tor, Bitcoin, and all of these new technologies popping up in the face of tracking, and see how far I could push it?"
“For people living in regimes censoring the internet, Tor allows people to have a voice and to feel safe and comfortable in having a slightly less popular opinion than they would be able to otherwise,” Wallen said. “I wanted to highlight that, as well as bring attention to the idea of surveillance, tracking, and identity."
As a reminder to be careful in constructing the Aaron Brown identify, Wallen stuck a post-it note on his computer reading, “Do Not Contaminate Identity.” This he learned from Gwern Branwen as he was researching PGP encryption.
“Branwen was publicly offering his PGP key, so I reached out to him through my Tormail account,” said Wallen. “It was the first time I used encrypted email. So I sent him an encrypted message asking him what piece of advice he could give to someone starting out, and he said, ‘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.’”
Wallen also kept a notebook on his person at all times. He’d read stories online about the CIA breaking into apartments, and people never knowing they personal documents had been read. So he adopted the mentality that this was a possible, though unlikely, scenario. Wallen said he had to think of what he would be doing if he were doing this for real.
Over the course of the project, Wallen crossed out, ripped out, and shredded a number of pages from his notebook after realizing he'd logged into an account without starting a new Tor session, effectively linking his two identities. If this happened, Wallen would start over and try harder to compartmentalize his personas.
After registering an anonymous email address through Tor, Wallen connected with a guy on Craigslist to purchase a Chromebook laptop with cash. Wallen met the Chromebook seller in the Citi Center atrium with only a hat on to offer some degree of visual obfuscation, because he anticipated that the seller could quickly became someone who could identify him.
Next, Wallen made a cash transaction for bitcoins via Bitinstant at a Chinatown computer shop, believing the proprietors would have a less sophisticated camera system since they were an independent shop and not a chain store. Wearing a hat, Wallen made the cash transfer, and took a photograph of the transaction.
Curtis Wallen's photograph of the Aaron Brown moneygram transaction to buy bitcoins via Bitinstant.
“The photograph of the cash transfer was a really stupid idea because it’s an immediate red flag,” said Wallen, amused again at the self-surveillance.
According to Wallen, the receipt from the money transfer was the first time Aaron Brown’s name manifested in physical space. “I sent the money as Aaron Brown, which was not the smartest option for anonymity—linking the cash transfer to the false identity,” said Wallen. “But, I intentionally made that small compromise for the project because I liked the idea of Aaron's physical genesis in a monetary transaction.” Apparently the computer shop print the receipt as "Aarow [sic] Brown."
When Wallen arrived back home, the bitcoins were waiting for him in his wallet. Using the Electrum Bitcoin client to manage his wallets (storing them on a double-encrypted offline thumb drive), Wallen transferred the amounts necessary back onto the computer when he needed to make payments. In this way he purchased the various forged documents—the identification cards, the social security number, cable bill, and sim card.
To give Aaron Brown a unique facial portrait, Wallen took photographs of himself, his girlfriend, and roommates, then used Adobe Photoshop to blend their different features together. Wallen selected the name "Aaron Brown" by using the top 50 most common first names and surnames in the United States. Using the composite face and fake name, Wallen purchased various identity documents. Soon after, the IDs began arriving at his apartment through the United States Postal Service. Coincidentally, Aaron Brown's driver’s license showed up in a piece of mail with a “Liberty Forever” stamp on it.
Although Wallen a bit nervous given the nature of what he was doing as an art project, he had faith in the strength of the deep web system. “One of the strengths of the system is that there is a lot of plausible deniability,” said Wallen. “If a package arrives up at my house with something illicit in it, and I accept the package but it doesn’t have my name on it, it’s hard for them to pin it on me.”
After acquiring the IDs, Wallen spoke to a lawyer from an internet advocacy group, who told him that his purchase of fraudulent documents could land him some prison time because they were federal offenses. Somewhat surprisingly, Wallen doesn't worry about this possibility because he believes he has made it quite clear that his project isn’t an attempt to defraud anyone. That said, he realizes this could all blow up in his face if the story gets big and the government wants to make an example of him.
Curtis Wallen's note to self, placed on computer screen when creating Aaron Brown.
Once Aaron Brown existed in the digital and physical realms, Wallen set up the Aaron Brown Twitter service and posted it to his regularly updated project website. Anyone who visits the site can tweet as Aaron Brown, which accounts for the random nature of his Twitter ramblings. Wallen likens it to the astroturfing—fake digital personas—used by political parties and corporations to manufacture support that doesn’t otherwise exist.
Similarly, Wallen created the Aaron Brown proxy server, using a node.js proxy app. The proxy allows users to channel their web browsing into the singular identity of Aaron Brown. It’s a bit like the multi-use name Luther Blissett, which anyone can use to write fiction, craft political pamphlets, or produce anything else imaginable.
Wallen’s ultimate goal is to take Aaron Brown into a physical space like a gallery. Ideally, he’d like to build a little server with a dedicated line in the same gallery space with the Aaron Brown IDs and all of the other associated artworks. During the show’s run, all traffic pumping through the proxy would be routed through the same physical space as the other physical markers of Aaron’s identity. In that way, the space would become the physical locus of Aaron Brown.
For now, Wallen is releasing an Aaron Brown artbook as a PDF file. Originally, he wanted to sell the book as 100 4 GB USB thumb drives, one by one, which he would equip with a bootable installation of Tor’s Tails Live USB operating system. Wallen recently decided against this approach because Tails USBs have issues running on OS X, but he also started to dislike the idea of selling something.
“I had planned on putting the PDF on the hidden service at first, because I really wanted to drive people to use Tor,” Wallen said. “But then I feared it might be too inaccessible, and I wasn't sure if the project would take off and if anyone would ever see it. I liked the idea that the few people who saw the PDF might download it if it was on the WhoIsAaronBrown site. Now things have changed a bit, so it makes sense to move it to the [Tor] hidden service.”
With the help of another deep web denizen, V1ct0r, Wallen set up a Tor hidden website for Brown, where the PDF is now hosted and available for free download. Wallen likes the idea of people being able to print out an Aaron Brown artist book. For him, it subverts the art world idea that an art book has to come from the central authority of the artist to legitimize it. “It will be like channeling the digital through the physical,” he said.
Still, the strangest takeway for Wallen is that Aaron Brown is proof that anyone can be anyone online. On the flip side, that means dealing with anonymous people requires a modicum of faith.
“Once everyone is supposed to be anonymous, you kind of just have to trust everyone,” he said. “That becomes weird since you got into this world in the first place because you didn’t trust anyone.”