Dr Jens Binder examines the security of our online identities, and the Psychology behind our relationships with them.
The Internet Age so far has helped a very select set of offences to reach new heights of prominence. While most of these morally and/or legally compromised online behaviours outline human inventiveness in matters sexual, one phenomenon in particular stands out as having more profound implications for the human psyche: identity theft.
Never has it been so easy to pass yourself off as somebody else – or so it seems. In reality, identity thieves typically rely on reassembling existing user identities by piecing together names, pictures and publicly available facts and using these as a vehicle for their own purposes. The pre-existing information lends credibility to all other, fabricated elements of the resulting hybrid identity. Following the so-called warranty principle, if you can find traces of somebody on Google, then that somebody must be a real person, right?
The sheer number of movie characters routinely falling in love with machines, operating systems and, yes, fake personalities, suggests to us that the will to believe in such fabrications is strong in humans.
Evolutionary accounts of our social behaviours would be entirely in line with this observation. In the evolutionary past, our species has relied overwhelmingly on direct, face-to-face experience in dealing with others, or on mediated communication involving other humans, and not computers. Therefore, so the argument goes, we have an innate tendency to believe in information about others and to build this information into an elaborate mental model that we hold of the interaction partner.
This explanation of why identity theft works is particularly worrying when complemented with all the internet services that can now facilitate an identity assemblage. Countless tagging features and preference lists of songs, movies, YouTube content, images help to bundle up internet content and express consistent attitudes and personality styles. There is certainly no shortage of building material.
But then there is the challenge of convincingly maintaining a fake identity. Assembling one from components that are easily downloaded is one thing, but how can an identity thief ensure that their own comments, replies, attempts at persuasion are in line with the stolen content?
Again, users’ willingness to construct consistency where there is none is a big helper. At the same time, technology itself is turning into a diligent assistant for maintaining an identity. Software recommendations of how best to respond to a text-based message, as they exist today, may turn into tomorrow’s fully automated communication service.
In fact, there is nothing to prevent us from imagining a near-future service that provides us with a comprehensive and varied catalogue of elegantly designed online selves. Users would no longer actively create a second life, they would simply buy one off the shelf, to allow them to flexibly use one or the other identity in their various online activities.
Would we be able to keep up with the online race towards all-flexible selves where identity is merely a passing state? At present and on average: probably not.
For one thing, a lot of studies have consistently shown that people prefer to have a consistent and coherent sense of self, as much as they assume this to be the case with others. Too much disturbance of the self-concept easily leads to psychological problems.
Research involving the Psychometrics Group at Cambridge University has also shown that the content people generate on Facebook is related to how they respond to a standardised personality questionnaire.
In fact, some Facebook content can be used to guess a person’s responses to the questionnaire with more accuracy than a significant other. In other words, it looks like, by and large, people on Facebook remain real people. That is reassuring, for the time being.