When I was 16 I created fake identity. It was one part joke, one part experiment. 15 years later, my parents are still getting mail for Carlos Bustez, who does not exist.
It’s been so long that my memory of how this began is fuzzy. What I recall is that one day in high school my classmates and I were required to fill out some type of form that was clearly not just for use within the school. It wasn’t a standardized test, but it was something similar. The teacher passed around a stack of the forms and told us to fill them out. The form asked for our names and addresses, as well as demographic info, including ethnicity (and more info that I don’t recall, such as the actual purpose of the form). There were more forms floating around than there were students, so I took two and hatched a little plan. I wondered what would happen if I filled out one with my real information, and one where everything was the same except I would use the name Carlos Bustez and mark “hispanic” instead of “white” in the ethnicity category. The idea at the time was to see if that would make any difference. I still used my real address, so if Carlos got mail that I didn’t, I would know.
Within a few months I did get mail for Carlos Bustez, but the fact that my alter ego was hispanic made no difference. I just got twice as much junk mail, one for me and one for Carlos.
The Carlos Bustez experiment did have two interesting outcomes: One, it showed just how much junk mail and unwanted solicitations were generated from that single form (whatever it was). We have a sense that when we write our address or e-mail address on something and give it away it somehow falls into the hands of marketers, but since your contact info is always the same, it’s really hard to know exactly how it spreads. Carlos was like the radioactive dye that allows blood vessels to show up on x-rays. Every single piece of mail I got for him had a single source, an inocuos form filled out by a room full of bored teenagers.
The other lesson is just how long it has lasted. I moved out of my parents house long ago and changed my address, but Carlos never changed his. Is it typical for ITT Technical Institute to send a recruitment letter to someone who graduated high school 13 years ago? Is it a fluke? Will I still get them a decade from now?
It makes me wonder about other experiments that could allow us to put tracers on our identity. Is there a way to track the digital breadcrumbs we drop as we travel the Internet?
(As a postscript, it turns out that ITT Technical Institute is a pretty shady private university, according to Wikipedia. It has the highest rate of loans that go into default within two years of attendance, and grade inflation is a problem, illustrated by this lovely tidbit: “In one instance, a student got 100% on a computer forensics assignment by emailing the professor a noodle recipe.”)