The Case for Unique Email Addresses
For the past few years, every company I interact with doesn't get the same email address from me. I'm trying to be as plain as possible with this post, but we're going to go on a bit of adventure. So what I'm really trying to say here is, “You should be doing this too and your privacy is important.”
The rest of this article is why it matters to you, but most importantly, what you do matters for everyone.
An email address identifies you on the internet. It's how your friends send you chain letters. It's how companies send you receipts and track your purchasing habits. Out of all the billions of people online, it's how anyone or anything identifies you and can get in touch.
Now, if that's all an email address is really used for, it's probably fine to just have the one. But that's not all that your email is used for. I'd like you to take a journey of the imagination with me for a little bit.
You don't need to close your eyes, but really try to picture this in your mind. Or maybe even grab some pen and paper and draw this out, especially if you've got aphantasia.
Building a Mind Map
In the middle of this page, mental or otherwise, scrawl your email address. Then write a company that knows your email address. Draw a line from your email address to the company. Repeat this again for a second company.
Right now, you should have two companies each with a line connecting to your email address. Imagine for a second that those two companies wanted to work together through a partnership. Each one has your email address and all of the information they've gleaned from you using their service, whatever that might be.
Draw a line between the two companies. You can't know for sure, but the worst case scenario is they both share all the information they have about you with each other.
Let's lean into this worst case scenario. Keep adding companies that know your email address. Draw a line between every company, make sure they're all connected. Again, you can't know for sure, but do you know they're not talking about you?
Looking at this graph, what could be known about your life?
Where you live, what you buy, who you talk to, what you like, what you don't like, what you eat, what you drink, your religious and political affiliations.
Implications of knowledge sharing without your consent
If you haven't heard about Cambridge Analytica before, now would be a great time to look them up. This is an example of when just one company collaborates with another company that has access to all of your personal information.
In this case, it's Facebook pimping out your private information to a company that runs targeted digital advertising campaigns. I'm sure you've heard about the electoral college before. And you know some states are really entrenched with a certain political affiliation.
Other states though, are swing states. These are what make and break an election campaign. Campaigns are extremely expensive to run, so it makes sense to prioritize the budget into areas that make the most impact.
Cambridge Analytica specializes in identifying swing voters in swing states, profiles them accordingly and then runs targeted advertising campaigns. They whisper in your ear whatever you need to hear to convince you to vote for their candidate.
Cambridge Analytica and Me
If you've been following this blog, you know that I quit Facebook cold turkey a few months ago. I always knew I would, but the reason it was finally the right time was surprisingly simple.
I was trying to start a dialog and to break out of the algorithm. Everyone I'm friends with on Facebook, I can guarantee is a real person. I never made internet friends on that platform.
I knew in the run up to the 2016 election that tensions were high. I was working in Silicon Valley and graduated from Liberty University. I tried to create a Facebook app to allow for a third-party primary where I'd calculate the likelihood you were a real person and eligible to vote in America, based on your facebook information.
The gist was, both candidates were so bad, I believed we could finally elect a third party candidate and break the stranglehold of the two-party system in America. A vast majority of people I talked to conceded both candidates were bad and they were voting for what they believed to be, “the lesser of two evils.”
In my mind, all we needed to do is have a third-party primary where we all commit to vote for the candidate that wins. I used Instant-Runoff Voting to mitigate the need for voters to hedge their bets on a lesser evil and instead rank candidates by their actual preference.
I couldn't get this app approved because Facebook had become a lot more stringent on their app usage guidelines. I won't speculate much, but I do believe ongoing Cambridge Analytica events and their relationship to Facebook are worth noting here.
Long story short, I'm trying to say, I know a bit about the practical capabilities of the information Facebook has at their disposal and the technical know-how to use it to build applications.
So why did I quit Facebook and why only a few months ago and what does this have to do with it?
Because I know my friends on Facebook and my friends know me, even though we disagree, I've never stooped down to childish levels to get my point across. We might not see eye to eye, but there's a mutual respect that is rare these days and must be cherished.
So my simple answer is, I quit Facebook because of Tim.
That came out wrong, so I guess we do need a more complex answer.
Tim and I both attended Liberty University, he was my prayer leader the first semester on campus. I know Tim is a good-hearted dude, we've had many deep and spiritual conversations, even though our lives only intersected briefly.
When I was seeking to break out of the algorithm, I was actually looking for Tim. Well, someone like Tim, it didn't need to be Tim. We'll probably need to know Tim's perspective, but my hypothesis is that I had not been on his timeline in years until reaching across the algorithm.
This was a bit intentional on my part. You see, years earlier, I watched as an old high school friend, Josh, was eaten by Facebook's algorithm. At one point in time, Facebook used to show all your friends posts in chronological order.
It was really cool because you knew when your friends were bored. They'd be posting a lot and you were bored too, so you'd message them and be like, “hey, let's hang out.” But then the timeline changed to be controlled by an algorithm.
I gamed this for a little while and became low-key addicted to Facebook popularity. If you could get some likes quickly, you'd show up on more timelines and get more likes. I was quickly able to discover what was entertaining to my Facebook friends and would milk them for a little bit of dopamine on my end.
Meanwhile, I was watching Josh fade away. We were never super close, but I respected his authenticity. That dude posted about his life and it was depressing, but it was real. I watched as his posts trickled from ~20 likes, to 10, to 5, to 2, to maybe if he was lucky, he'd get a single like.
The only difference was the algorithm change. The exposure of his posts to his friends decreased because Facebook deemed his content less important than content people were engaging with, like mine. I was pegging 50 to 100 likes around then. I mean, I'm not a thirst trap, but that was pretty good if you adjust for social inflation.
With this, my research into social media algorithms was complete. It's really that simple, you are either are popular enough to be seen or you're essentially shadow-banned.
In protest of this and in solidarity with Josh, I chose to post less on Facebook. It's pretty bogus for Facebook to have this level of control on what we see or we don't see.
So that's the point I'm getting at here with Tim. In our discourse, Tim said something like, “I don't see what you're seeing, help me see what you're seeing.” I know Tim meant that, I know we're not seeing the same stuff because Facebook is feeding us both different content to keep us engaged with the platform longer so they can get more money.
Tim, what I'm seeing is Facebook controlling the worldview of our friends and family. It might be free as in free beer, but it's not free as in freedom. Hollywood can point a camera at just the right angle and make films that look and feel authentic, but they are fake and hollow facades.
The difference between Hollywood and Facebook is that you know you're in for a night of fiction and fun when you buy a movie ticket.
Reeling it in
That was a longer tangent than anticipated, so let's get back to your email record-linkage mind-map. That detour we took through Facebook is the example of just one company exploiting your private information for personal gain.
Looking at your map, I'm sure you see some companies on there you trust whole heartedly. If you do, I hope you pay those companies money, because it's only a matter of time before they'll need to sell you out to make ends meet. Benevolent dictators are only benevolent if they live short enough to never become just dictators.
But hey, let's be realistic, not all companies will sell your personal information. It's a little conspiratorial and genuinely unproductive to jump to that type of conclusion prematurely. All of my Facebook ramblings here have also been anecdotal at best.
Without concrete facts, I'd be no better than QAnon or any of the other bullshit you'll find on social media to hold your attention.
Last week I did an interview with my friend Guy. He runs a twitch stream and is one of the most legitimately cool people I've ever met. Anyways, we talked briefly about my stint at Inflection. I sighed and said, “Well, you gotta start somewhere.”
I made a lot of great friends at Inflection and worked with some amazingly talented people there. So I just want to clarify upfront, that sigh and that statement has nothing to reflect on the personal connections I've made with anyone there.
To get into that sigh, we need to get into my journey to Inflection.
In 2009, I was making $31,000/year with an associates degree in web design from Cape Cod Community College. Beyond this, I was pretty self-taught and spent a lot of time reading articles via RSS; a technology created by Aaron Swartz, a co-founder of Reddit, to easily subscribe to publications online. I discovered the power of freely and openly sharing information, for the benefit of humanity.
I was living it. Technology allows for upward mobility to anyone regardless of background. Plainly, free access to information is revolutionary. The Library is the most important societal institution mankind has built thus far. The internet is a natural evolution of this institution. Getting access to valuable information for free as it's developing can project humanity to higher heights.
I should still be delivering pizzas right now, but I'm working at Netflix instead. I was able to learn from brilliant minds that didn't put their discoveries behind a paywall. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, thank you for your contributions to mankind.
Everything Aaron did in his life made way for people like me to transcend digital oppression. To learn more about Aaron, the great work he accomplished in his short 26 years, and the tragedy he faced in the end, watch “The Internet's Own Boy.” It's a bit of a spoiler, but he committed suicide in prison on January 11, 2013.
In my eyes, the government wanted to make an example of him to people like me. “Don't follow in this guy's footsteps or we'll make your life a living hell too.” So I decided, hey, if you can't beat them, join them.
I applied to work at the CIA. It takes a few months for background checks/processing whatever, so by the time I heard back I had just started a new role making minimum wage doing web development at Liberty University, so they could waive my tuition fees.
I didn't want to take a day off just after starting my new role to go interview in D.C. So I replied, “I won't be able to make it to the June 4th one as it is. Maybe if there is one in July, I can make that.” I'm not sure if you're caught up on US History as it pertains to June of 2013, technology, the government, and private entities, but I assure you, I am.
At this point, I thought better about joining the CIA and decided to hunker down at LU. They said I'd get a raise after graduating in December, but the $30,000/year offer was an insult after how far I'd come. I saw how they treated Daniel, teasing a promotion in front of him for a year. I advocated for myself to prove my worth, but “their hands were tied.” Being a student employee making minimum wage nullified all of my existing experience with no recourse against their salary band algorithms.
I didn't want to have any part of their games. They assumed I'd do it for the culture, “If it's Christian, it ought to be better” as the mantra goes at ol' LU.
So this leads to me reaching out to my friend for a referral to Inflection. If you want to go places in SV, it's not what you know, it's who you know.
At this point, my faith in humanity is eroding because of Aaron, my faith in the government is eroding because of Edward, and my faith in my faith is eroding because of Jerry.
Finally, my faith in my family was eroding because none of them could see what I was seeing. 2013 was truly a rough year for me, but I decided I was going to put my time in to make the world a better place whenever the time is right. Success is when preparation meets opportunity.
I needed to get inside the machine to know how it works. I needed to make it in Silicon Valley, if only to show my friends and family how they are abused by technology that pretends to be their friend.
For context, the main product when I joined was PeopleSmart. I joined Inflection knowing they made their money selling public record's information, or as we called it “people data.” It wasn't perfect, but “well, you gotta start somewhere.”
I swear this is still about email
Now working at Inflection, I was working on a different team that was building some consumer facing products. That's how I eased my conscience, but I was still keeping tabs on other projects in the company. I needed to know which boundaries I was complicit in us crossing as a company. Everyone working in technology should be responsible for answering this question.
I'm not sure how much I can really say without getting into legal water for whatever papers I signed in my entry in 2014 or my exit in 2018, but I do want to talk about one service Inflection offers. Everything I've talked about or will talk about can be found on their website, you just need to be able to understand the jargon.
The SafeDecision API, it had a different name from my time there, but the underlying technology should still be the same. Basically, imagine you are a company working in the sharing or gig economy. I'd use names for examples, but I don't want to accidentally guess right on the customer list here.
So you have people that use your app. Some of them give you money, some of them you give money. You control who those people are though. To turn a profit, you need to be confident they are not bad people, otherwise someone's gonna get murdered and the finger's going to point to you, the platform owner.
So there's gotta be some middle ground for a company in this position. You want hyper-growth so you can be a Silicon Valley unicorn, you want to make sure no one dies because of your app (it's nothing personal, just bad PR), and most importantly you want to make as much money as possible.
A background check sounds like a great idea, but that's too expensive to run for every single person using your app. Imagine you're the size of Facebook, that's billions of people and damn, there's a lot of logistical problems, like governments that have laws respecting the rights of their citizens.
So you gotta find something:
- Reasonably Safe
To quote the landing page for the SafeDecision API, “With a few personal identifiers, our automated process runs in the background, enabling efficient background checks without increasing signup friction.”
This is describing a well-known topic called “Record Linkage.” Phrased another way, “With just an email address, we'll talk to everyone we can about the person behind that email address. If we think they're cool, we'll give you a wink and a thumbs up and the user will never know.”
Personally, I view this as discrimination, which is the foundation of oppression. It's easy to say, “They're just keeping out the bad apples,” but damn, you better hope you don't end up as an edge case, because you've got no recourse against Silicon Valley's unicorns.
Tying it all together
Thanks for coming on this journey. I hope you understand why I don't use the same email address when I'm interacting with companies. Maybe I'll be an edge case too, but I joined Josh in solidarity in dying to Facebook's algorithm. I hope you'll join me in disrupting the disrupters of Silicon Valley.
Their success hinges on being able to categorize and identify all of us. We need to resist patterns and predictable behaviors.
Be wary of your digital footprint. Sign up for an email account from a company you trust that allows for wild-card or catch all email addresses. Pay them money for providing this service to you.
You might be clever and think about using Google and their plus signs and dots to create different emails, but from a record linking perspective, this data gets sanitized and normalized.
Your.Full.Namefirstname.lastname@example.org will become
email@example.com with a couple lines of code.
Consider using Universal Bad Data any time you fill out a form online. Also, consider not giving any data to a company where you can't reach a human via a phone call in whatever you deem a reasonable amount of time.
If you focus just on my story about Inflection, you're going to be missing the forest for the trees. I was just one dude at one company that essentially serves as a front for LexisNexis. If you're in the business to buy information about people, you're going to be getting your data from them. They're the manufacturer, Inflection is just a dealership.
I knew I'd one day be writing this article. I didn't know when, but 2020 really feels right. Jerry Falwell Jr. stepped down from Liberty University, Edward Snowden was vindicated, but Aaron Swartz is still dead.
This is for Aaron. If you want to know more about your digital rights, look into his work. He was truly a prodigy and we were all robbed of his life for what was a short-sighted blip at the beginning of the information age.
The technology Aaron built and advocated for helped me get to where I am today. I'd be remiss if I sat idly by and let a moat be built to keep people like me out. It might have taken me a while to show up, but I hope you understand my delay.
Friends and family. I'm hoping despite all of our differences, you can see how I saw 2013. I'm hoping one day you'll see how I'm seeing 2020, but until then, all I ask is that you have my back, because I'm fighting for all of you in the only ways I know how.
I hope all of us can rally behind Aaron.
Call to action
If you're an independent journalist and are interested in this subject area, a good place to start will be investigating LexisNexis. Find out who their competitors are. Find out what data they sell. Find out where they get all their data from. Find out who they sell it to. Find out how much it costs.
Whatever you find out, that's the cost of privacy. That's the price of humanity in a digital age.
In Silicon Valley, everyone knows about LexisNexis, but you'll only hear it in whispers because it's sketchy AF.
Anyways, at the very least, you should use unique email addresses at every opportunity. We're all counting on you to do your part.