Identity Crisis Part 1
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday September 29 2016
There has been some peculiar activity on my G-Mail and Facebook accounts.
Have you ever been burgled? It has happened to me on three separate occasions. Twice in Manchester, and once in London. The first time in Manchester, I was actually in my home when it happened, shut up in my room suffering a terrible bout of flu. My flatmate, who had helpfully left the kitchen window on the ground floor open, had nothing stolen. I lost a jacket and an overcoat. Dealing with the police was not a pleasure. I was also close by for the second Manchester break-in, although I had been away in India, Nepal and Thailand for three weeks. We arrived home by taxi to find the front door open and a wind blowing through the house. There was a photo on the front room window ledge. The burglars were in the house when we arrived and watching out for us. When they saw us they escaped through the back door. Again, the police were not helpful. They went through the house taking fingerprints but one sensed that it was futile. A constable stared at me philosophically for a long time before saying :”If nothing appears to be missing, sir, how do you know you have been burgled”. I reminded him that we had returned home after three weeks abroad to find the front an d back doors open. My Wimbledon house was broken into when I was working away and my wife was in Paris with her mother. The intruder may have thought he had found drugs, because scattered about were chunks of Moroccan Mud, a shampoo that could have been mistaken for cannabis resin. He would have been very disappointed if he tried to smoke it.
On July 24, 2016, Gazala Anver, editor of Roar.LK, the Sri Lankan on-line news site, contacted me to warn me that I had been hacked. My G-Mail account was being used to send a message that I was stranded in Cyprus and in urgent need of funds to get back to Sri Lanka. I have never been to Cyprus in my life and have not set foot outside Sri Lanka for ten years. This is a very common sort of scam that has been going on for years. Over the years, I have received many similar messages purporting to be from my friends. Many articles have been published in the press about it. I was inclined to ignore it, thinking nobody would take it seriously, and move on but my own PH (Personal Hacker) seems to be prepared to go that extra mile to discommode me.
One of the many downsides of G-Mail is that it tries to organise one’s e-mail experience to suit Google rather than the individual punter. One of the most annoying things it does is to remember the e-mail address of every entity that one has ever corresponded with. My PH was using this unwanted-by-me facility to annoy everyone in the world who had ever communicated with me online. My immediate reaction was to contact all my friends and family to let them know that I was OK and not in need of funds. This proved impossible because the hacker was sending his lying message to hundreds of people and had blocked my access to my own G-Mail account. The address book I had compiled for myself contained only a small proportion of the addresses he was targeting. He proceeded to do the same with my second G-Mail account. Then he moved on to my Facebook account.
As I write, he is still sending out that Cyprus scam to my Facebook friends and I cannot access my FB account.
People who received the scam message reacted in a variety of ways. I have to this day avoided engaging with the PH although he has written directly to me as well asking for money. Some did engage with him. Most people saw that it was a scam and knew that the message did not come from me. Some chided him, some teased him. Some thought the whole thing was amusing.
It was hard for me to see the funny side. I had used G-Mail for my work, for managing my finances and for communicating with friends and family all over the world. I used it to collect and store a lot of material. All this is now lost to me because my PH somehow got past my Gmail passwords (which had been classified by Google as ‘very strong’) and proceeded to deny me access to my own accounts. I have recent evidence that he has been carefully studying my e-mail correspondence.
Returning to the burglary analogy – the break-ins I experienced did not result in major financial loss or damage to property, but that did not mean they can be treated lightly. Scholarly studies have indicated that in some cases the after-effects of burglary are similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Emotional problems can include: feeling guilty for not preventing becoming the victim of a crime; a loss of faith in a society where such crimes could occur; feelings of mistrust, isolation, fear and vulnerability; fear of a repeat burglary; an obsession with home security.
In my case, the strongest feeling was of violation – an uninvited and malicious stranger had contaminated the sanctum of my home and had been rifling through my personal possessions. I am not talking about property, materialism or commercialism. The intruder had scattered around disrespectfully things that had personal value to me, including a collection of postcards that my grandfather had sent to my grandmother during the First World War.
This hacking aroused similar emotions. A malevolent stranger is, as I write, for no discernible rational purpose, rifling through my personal correspondence on G-Mail and using the information gathered to try to convince people that he is me. How hilarious is that!
Victim as Perpetrator
My Wimbledon burglar did not employ a very subtle technique. He gained ingress to the back garden from an alleyway that runs between the rears of the parallel terraces of houses. He then proceeded to batter down the kitchen door and go about his business. I was surprised that no-one heard him and called the police. When I asked the old lady next door about this, she said she had indeed heard it and it was a terrible noise. She did not think of calling the police but was, in effect, blaming me for the inconvenience she had suffered.
I detected something similar in responses from some of my virtual acquaintances. One Facebook friend, to whom I had thought I had explained the situation, still seemed to think I was asking her for money and said, “I wasn’t born yesterday!” Someone who had been an online friend since 2008 wrote to me recently saying, “Hope you were able to find the help you needed the other day. I’m truly sorry I couldn’t help.” I responded that I had sent her an e-mail explaining that I was not in Cyprus but had been hacked. She said, “I genuinely thought it was you needing help. It was over Facebook messenger so I did think it was you. The idea of a hack or scam occurred to me briefly, but because it was a live conversation, I really did think you needed help. His story was really rather believable.”
There have been a number of movies about mistaken identity and identity theft. Unknown (2011), starring Liam Neeson and January Jones, is about Martin Harris (Neeson) waking from a coma to find his passport missing, his wife (Jones) denying knowing him and Aidan Quinn claiming to be him. Nobody believes Harris is who he says he is. In John Boorman’s The Tiger’s Tail (2006), Liam O’Leary (Brendan Gleeson), is an Irish property developer of humble origins who has become rich and powerful during the “Celtic Tiger” Irish economic boom. The Irish bubble burst and O’Leary is under stress as his overreaching seems to be leading him to his ruin. He begins to be haunted by his own Double who is sighted around Dublin, ordering suits and flash cars on Liam’s credit card and behaving in a scandalous manner. Liam’s mental condition is not helped by having to convince people he is Liam and the doppelgänger isn’t.
There is something particularly nightmarish about trying to convince sceptics that you are you, when a doppelgänger about whom you know nothing is trying to convince them that he is you.
More about doppelgänger nightmares next week.