by Bruce Webb
I no longer try to follow Science-Fiction, but from 1964 to 1977 which is to say from the time I was seven until I turned twenty and joined the Navy I read pretty much everything and had built up a pretty massive library. Among them was a book called The_Shockwave_Rider by John Brunner. The wiki article explains the basic premise as follows
The title derives from the futurological work by Alvin Toffler. Future Shock. The hero is a survivor in a hypothetical world of quickly changing identities, fashions and lifestyles, where individuals are still controlled and oppressed by a powerful and secretive state apparatus. His highly developed computer skills enable him to use any public telephone to punch in a new identity, thus reinventing himself, within hours. As a fugitive, he must do this regularly in order to escape capture. The title is also a metaphor for survival in an uncertain world.
The novel, originally published in 1975, at a time when the Internet was still mostly a DARPA research project and the home computer was just a dream, was way ahead of its time both in terms of the technology represented and the genre, one that is now I guess known as cyber-punk (I told you I was out of touch). Well a couple of things combined today to make me realize that not only have we reached the world of Shockwave Rider, we have made it as banal as a trip to 7/11 and Safeway. Because in a world where the government is tracking just about everything, it has never been more easy to go off the info grid while paradoxically staying fully wired at all times. Good news for people who value privacy, which unfortunately include Mafia Dons, Mexican Drug Cartels, and international Terrorists. Some discussion below the fold.
First thing to realize is that none of this is secret to the bad guys, even public information tells us that these groups are pretty technologically sophisticated. Why is why the event that prompted the post is so misguided. Apparently Senator Schumer has introduced a bill that would require anyone buying a disposible pre-paid cell phone to show ID, This news, brought to me by John Cole at Baloon Juice spurred a long comment which the Intertubes just swallowed a few seconds ago (kind of ironic in context). Well this proposal tied into some things I have been thinking about in relation to my own life situation to add up to the question “Can anyone ride the Shockwave and remain undetected while still moving through ordinary society and all without engaging in criminal acts?” Well to a surprising degree you can.
Let’s start. Let’s assume you have enough existing ID to obtain a certified copy of your own birth certificate, as it happens I actually have the original of that as well as my original SS card, and some time back used them to secure a valid Passport which added to a valid Washington State Driver’s license. All perfectly legitimate, and all you need to do is to keep on the right side of the DMV and the IRS,
Now beyond your passport and driver’s license what are the essentials for living in American society legitimately but invisibly. Well first and foremost you need a mailing address, and ideally one that will accept packages for you. Well even small towns have some equivalent of Mailbox Express, and the IRS and your bank will accept that as a legitimate address. My mailbox place also offers secured storage, and with legitimate ID will link that to their own premises for invoicing. Having a mailing address and legit ID allows you to open a banking account which now universally come with a Debit Card which doubles as a Credit Card. But of course you can’t use that card in truly anonymous fashion. So what is next?
Well you establish an online presence, which in turn requires computer access. Now there are ways to do this anonymously via Internet cafes and the like but for true invisibility you have an option, buy a WiFi capable device, for me that is an iPad, paying cash, then find a truly anonymous public WiFi spot. Which these days is likely to be a MacDonalds or a public building. Now you are in business because you don’t have to supply proof of anything to set up multiple free accounts under Google, Yahoo, and the upgrade MS HotMail, each of which give you legitimate e-mail addresses and access to a variety of services including free online storage and with Google a free incoming phone number with auto voice mail. This in turn allows you to register for free content from across the web, none of which can be readily traced to you, after all if you paid cash or equivalent for you WiFI device and don’t register it with the manufacturer, all anyone can do is gather your device number (if that) and your current location.
Okay but not everything on the web is free and there will be times you want to engage in e-commerce. Well this is where riding the Shockwave has been reduced to the truly banal, all you need to do is go to the Gift Card section of your local Safeway where you will find a nice assortment of pre-paid and reloadable Gift Cards from each of the major credit card companies, none of which (at least to date) require you to show any ID and while online registration (in case of loss or theft) is possible it is not mandatory. Now this is a huge development whose implications have not I think been grasped. A few years ago I would have said it is near impossible to function at a reasonable level without credit, in particular travel was almost impossible, without a credit card equivalent with a reasonable line you couldn’t rent a car or often get hotel reservations, or in some cases even hotel check-in. Well these days you can buy your own credit in pretty much whatever amounts you need, and all without giving the credit card companies any room to screw you over by changing terms and rates or arbitrarily cutting your line. If you work it right and pay attention to grace periods you can have a wallet full of credit and store cards none of which tie back to your credit score or indeed even to your identity.
Put all the pieces together and you can live a life that is perfectly legitimate but for all practical purposes invisible, with online banking you can even cut your physical connection to the mailbox that remains your legal anchor point for your passport, drivers license, and for the tax authorities, and for those you can have a third party pick up official communications or simply have them forwarded.
This is not theoretical for me, sometime in the next six months I will be relocating, perhaps even taking a job that will have me in constant travel for the next few years, and one consideration was how I could be on the move all the time while still maintaining near 24/7 availability on the web while simultaneously free of the tyranny of the credit card companies and rating agencies. Five years ago I would have told you this was difficult and trending towards impossible, for example insurance companies were increasingly using credit scores to set your car insurance rates or even to deny you coverage at all, and there were indications that health insurers were moving in the same direction, while between your credit card company and your internet provider your entire life could be reconstructed via a combination of your purchases off and on line combined with your web surfing. Well not so now, a combination of a store bought pre-paid credit card, a Google account plus perhaps two or three other online e-mail accounts, and a WiFi browsing device and you too can be a Shockwave Rider, and all without the “highly developed computer skills” of the book’s hero.
This is not to say that there are not some tradeoff’s. Without current credit history and a good score you won’t be able to finance a house, then again for millions of people burned by the housing bubble and all too many having their equity and their credit disappear during foreclosure, this may be more a feature than a bug of riding the Shockwave. Similarly you might have serious problems financing a new car or getting it insured, which might get you thinking whether your really need a car to start with. Equally not having a good credit history is likely to block you from employment in the financial sector and perhaps from working for other Fortune 500 companies, not something that concerns me much either, and I suspect it would give a little heartburn to the FBI doing a background check for a security clearance, equally not high on my priority list. All in all I think I’ll give the Ride at least an approximation of a try, after all I’ll always be reachable on-line, just like I never left.