Last fall, I profiled Curtis Wallen, an artist who dove into the Deep Web to create the fake persona Aaron Brown. Using Tor, Bitcoin, and various other methods to dodge surveillance, Wallen's Brown identity eventually spilled over from the virtual to the physical realm in the form of forged documents obtained through virtual black markets. But, Wallen couldn't have foreseen how this fake identity would take on a life of its own.
For the last few months, Wallen has been working on an elaborate Aaron Brown installation, which most recently yielded a police sketch for a "missing" Aaron Brown (see image below). This past Friday, however, he noticed a bunch of tweets being sent out in Spanish.
"I, like some others (though not enough), follow Aaron Brown on Twitter, and I started seeing an unusual amount of tweets in Spanish today," said Wallen. "I assumed the project was posted to a blog in Spain or something." Wallen said that he doesn't run analytics tracking on whoisaaronbrown.com, so he was unable to see where the traffic was originating. After a search on the anonymous search engine DuckDuckGo, Wallen found that the Spanish website Experiensense had published an article on the Aaron Brown project. As advertised at the top of the page, the site was operated by HTC, the smartphone manufacturer.
Wallen then checked the HTC Spain Twitter account, and saw that it had tweeted a link to the article, along with an image of his fake Ohio driver's license. "That was already pretty interesting to me: a cell phone manufacturer published and promoted an article about my anti-surveillance project," said Wallen. "Then, during the day, I noticed Aaron’s Twitter account gaining a lot of steam. It had clearly garnered some new viewership, and people were really responding to and interacting with the project."
Wallen did some more searching. What he found was that the article made the front page of Spain's Reddit alternative, Meneame. It was on Meneame where some anonymous Spanish internet activists picked up on Aaron Brown's potential as an anonymizer. As Wallen noted, a lot of the tweets were taking on a political tone, which he thought was exciting. One anonymous user tweeted a well-known caricature of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, which features the text "The Grand Circus of Corruption." Others weren't so refined. One tweet directed at the FBI said simply, "Fuck you."
"Aaron was being used a vehicle to voice opinions," added Wallen. "People were tweeting directly at politicians and journalists with criticisms and complaints. Is that something they were doing with their personal Twitter accounts? I doubt it. Which, to me, is a very potent example of how surveillance society threatens our sense of freedom." Wallen, who recently published a blog post on civil disobedience, believes that at a certain point the risk of voicing negative opinions becomes too high, and complacency seems like the best option.
"The gist is, surveillance is a massive threat to dissent, and dissent is the foundation of democracy," said Wallen. "We must have the ability to hold those in power responsible for their actions if we’re to maintain our freedom; it’s clear we’ve already lost a tremendous amount of that power."
Though it's far too soon to know if Aaron Brown will become a significant vehicle for digital protest, for the moment he's functioning a bit like Luther Blissett, the multiple-use name adopted by activists and artists in Europe in the '90s. The real Blissett was an A.C. Milan football player in the 1980s, but organizers of the Luther Blissett Project made the footballer's name synonymous with dissidence and culture jamming.
"The Robin Hood of the information age waged a guerrilla warfare on the cultural industry, ran unorthodox solidarity campaigns for victims of censorship and repression and—above all—played elaborate media pranks as a form of art, always claiming responsibility and explaining what bugs they had exploited to plant a fake story," reads the Luther Blissett Project archives website.
In his own way, Wallen is pranking authority with Aaron Brown, a product and subversion of the information age. Others can now join in because Wallen has given users across the globe the tools to do with Aaron Brown as they wish.
Screenshot of a Spanish protest tweets before the Aaron Brown account was suspended.
Ironically, Saturday morning I checked the Aaron Brown Twitter feed, and noticed the account had been suspended. An irony made all the more notable a day after President Obama's much talked-about NSA surveillance reform speech.
Wallen said that this wasn't the first time the account had been suspended it. When he first created the Aaron Brown feed, Twitter suspended the account fairly quickly. He thinks that it might have something to do with the system detecting Tor traffic and proxied use via the API (application programming interface), but he can't be sure. After submitting a petition following the first shut down, Twitter reinstated his account.
"I filed another petition Saturday morning, so we'll see what happens," Wallen said. "I think it's a nice micro-example of privacy tradeoffs in the real world. When it comes to dragnet surveillance, there is no way to turn a blind eye to the 'good guys' and only look at the 'bad guys'. You can only know if you look, at which point the damage is done." Wallen still awaits the feed's reinstatment. So for now, Aaron Brown, the virtual cousin of Luther Blissett, remains silent.