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History is a Nightmare From Which They are Trying to Awake

June 9, 2010 - 1 Comment

June 2, 2010 will be a day that Armando Galaragga and the fans of Detroit Tigers baseball will not soon forget. That night, Galaragga came one play short of being awarded a perfect game, a Herculean feat that has been accomplished only 20 times in the more than 100-year history of major league baseball. On what would have been the final play of that game, Galaragga’s attempt to keep the final batter from reaching base was ruled unsuccessful, and his perfect game was instead given a less-spectacular distinction of being only one of ten nearly-perfect games to be spoiled by the final batter.

Worse still for Tigers fans, the umpire who called the runner safe admitted upon review of footage after the game that the runner should have been ruled “out,” and Galaragga should have had his perfect game. But in a case that is eerily similar to the one we reported on in this week’s Cyber Risk Report (CRR) about a pedestrian who sued Google, it would be the disgruntled fans eager to seek revenge on the mistaken umpire who would craft the nightmare from which a Toledo man would hope to soon awake.

The Imperfect Aftermath of the Imperfect Game

On June 4, 2010, a resident of Toledo, OH, just 50 miles south of the Tiger’s hometown of Detroit, MI, told his local television news station that he had to cancel his phone service. The Toledo man had received nearly 40 calls in two days from irate fans who mistook him for the umpire responsible for making the incorrect call that cost Galarraga and the Tigers their place in the record books. According to the man, he and the umpire share the same first and last names, and the umpire was originally from Toledo, though he no longer lives there. The Toledo native also reported that his name, telephone number, and home address had been posted to Facebook.

As my colleague Jean Gordon Kocienda noted about this phenomenon — which the Chinese have dubbed the “Human Flesh Search Engine” (人肉搜索):

As in so many things, knowledge is a powerful tool, and generally speaking, more people putting their minds to a task is better than fewer. What leads to good or bad outcomes will ultimately be based on what we as “netizens” do with the gift of knowledge, scope and speed that the World Wide Web brings to us.  

Managing Identity and the Internet

In our example from the CRR, the victim of misidentification was very well positioned to take action to repair her reputation. Employed as a publicist, she has the skills and connections necessary to get her story out to the media and get the kind of publicity it might take to put her real identity in front of would-be searchers. When subsequent searchers make an effort to contact their intended target, the litigious pedestrian in this case, they might notice that there is a second woman of the same name whom they should not contact.

In the case of the Toledo man, and for most of us, those skills and connections are not in place, nor will the time to do damage control for the event necessarily be available. But taking a few steps now could help prevent problems down the line.

1. Who Shares Your Name? Typically, few names are truly unique, especially when nicknames or shortened names are combined with common surnames. Regardless of how common your name is, it might be worthwhile to do a little investigation and at least become reasonably familiar with anyone who shares your name, who lives nearby, or whose interests and activities intersect with your own. Awareness is always the first step in understanding security risks, and having a general sense of others who might be mistaken for you is a great starting point for deflecting mistaken parties.

2. Are There Things About You That are Too Public? Do some investigation into yourself. In some cases, there are steps that you can take to lower your profile. Unfortunately, most information on the Internet is archived or mirrored, and it can be incredibly difficult if not impossible to remove all public-facing copies of information. But for public records and things whose authoritative source is not online, it might be appropriate to make changes (such as changing and then unlisting a phone number) that could eventually propagate and overwrite online sources. This might also include taking fully public profiles, like those on social network or photo sharing sites, and making some informed decisions about restricting access to some information.

3. Are There Particular Risks that Apply to Your Identity? A recent book titled “The Other Wes Moore” describes this exact case. In it, the author finds that another man with his name and from his hometown is wanted for felony murder. Anyone in this situation should consider the additional challenges that may arise from their situation.

Many books and other resources are available regarding privacy and identity management, though for many these may not be necessary until something comes up. As it stands, reputation management is a difficult problem that is getting more difficult as the complexity and interconnection of identifying information increases. Taking action now, and especially spreading good habits to children, may help future generations to have fewer nightmares of history from which they must try to awaken.

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  1. I would suggest that you create profiles using your name on every major service possible. In this way, you can control what is seen if a search comes up – or at least you can educate people faster if you control the real estate.Of course, you have to limit what you place on sites like these though and use services that mask your phone number, true contact information etc. If you do a whois, a public courthouse search and few other basic, free searches you can find information on anyone. It’s not a matter of hiding information – that simply cannot be done in a reliable manner. It’s more about presenting yourself online in ways that you want.