On The Internet, No One Knows You’re A Catfish

Andrea Denhoed recounts the sad tale of a friend who, as a commentary on his solitary life, staged a fake wedding to a deaf Ukrainian woman on Facebook:

We all know that there are fake people on the Internet, just as we know that there are e-mail scammers, sexual predators, and virus authors, and what we envision are reptilian-looking loners sitting in basements, growing sallow by the blue light of their monitors. But maybe we should be picturing Manti Te’o, or the sweet-faced woman at the end of “Catfish.” We’re on guard against Ukrainian scammers being manipulative and mercenary when what we should be concerned about is Tim being lonely, resentful, reckless, and attention starved.

When we talk about the “dark side” of the Internet, we’re usually talking about criminal deception, or sometimes about porn, but what about the time we spend refreshing our inboxes like lab mice hoping for a pellet, or the vast unacknowledged expanses where we let our brains go stupid and set them free to graze on things like “The Ultimate Girls Fail Compilation 2012,” which currently has more than sixty-six million views on YouTube, but none of the buzz and analysis that follows “legitimate” viral videos?

The Internet is perhaps the closest thing we’ll ever have to the ring of Gyges—the invisibility charm that allows its wearer to be alone while having access to the outside world—which Plato posited as the truest test of how a person will act when freed from accountability or restraint. We might not be doing anything evil, but we’re not doing anything we want the world to see.

Meanwhile, developers have come up with Informacam, “an app that collects and analyzes the metadata stored in digital photos and video”:

Users download the app to their phones, where it integrates with the cameras. Once installed, Informacam can identify where and when a photo was taken, and even the weather at the time. “We collect more than twice the metadata of .JPEG,” says Nunez. “You actually get a trajectory of where the video or image was being taken at the time it was taken. It paints a digital environment of what was happening around you when you were filming, with a full chronology.”

Bryan Nunez, technology manager at Witness.org, sees Informacam providing important legal protections for everyday civilians, too. For example, through Informacam, each edit or outright alteration of an image is meticulously recorded, as well as time- and location-stamped—the kind of metadata details that could assist even the least-savvy digital investigator unravel a Catfish style hoax.