InternetSearching for Deez Nuts: how the internet is selling your fake data
Deez Nuts made news with his presidential bid. We set out to find the man himself, but what we discovered was the value of a fake name.
Here’s something that won't help you sleep at night: those fake names, emails and addresses that you’ve entered into various websites over the years? They’re still around. They’ve all been collected, sold to shady “deep search” databases, and made available to anyone with $10 to spare. Yesterday, we bought the emails, street addresses, and phone numbers of over one hundred people who have, at some point, listed themselves as Deez Nuts.
Our original purpose in buying this data was to track down some people who had legally changed their name to Deez Nuts (they exist) to interview them about the fictional, but still federally registered, presidential candidate of the same name. We searched for Deez Nuts on the deep search sites Intelius and Spokeo and paid about $17 for the emails and street addresses of the 122 listed results. Disappointingly, even after skipping over addresses such as email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, our efforts were greeted by a bunch of mailer daemon returns and nothing else. None of the listings led to real people.
“Deez nuts”, as a phrase, has been around since at least 1985 when it appeared in The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. It gained more popularity with the 1992 release of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, which included the track “Deeez Nuuutz.” It’s been lurking in the cultural consciousness ever since but regained popularity in the 2010s due to this YouTube video and a pattern of celebrity trolling on Twitter. The meme goes like this: you goad someone into asking a question (usually regarding “BOFA”) and then respond with “DEEZ NUTS,” often in all caps. This tends to produce hilarious results.
It’s not news to anyone that digging through the internet will yield a deluge of nonsense and fabricated information. But it does come as a surprise that all those jokes we typed into forms absentmindedly and have long since forgotten about are still out there. Some of the email addresses we were given were from Hotmail. Some were from fucking Earthlink. These Deez Nutses probably listed themselves as such on a website over a decade ago. All we’ll ever know about them is that they typed their name as “Deez Nuts” into some field on some website that probably doesn’t exist anymore. Deez Nuts is dead, long live Deez Nuts.
In the post-Edward Snowden world, our society has become at least marginally more aware of Big Data and how it affects our lives. “A lot of people have taken to using fake names because there’s not a good way to keep your information private—if you give up your name, phone number, billing address or whatever to a service, you’re trusting [that website] to not leak your information,” says Jean Yang, Cybersecurity Factory founder. This trust is often misplaced, as the constant news of leaks and hacks into the data stores of companies like Target and Snapchat have shown.
But real data is valuable: Facebook has made their reliance on accurate user data apparent of late by requiring users to use their legal names on the site (even transgender users, who often go by another name). Our contributor Daniel Kolitz recently satirized Facebook’s Big Data machine with interactive fiction project The Data Drive, presenting an alternate-universe Facebook facing dire financial straits, begging users to “donate” their data for free by typing facts about themselves into a form. To complete the prank, the people behind The Data Drive put the information they collected up for sale on eBay.
The backlash against the collection and sale of user data has been going on since before Big Data was a buzzword, on a less public and arguably more subversive scale. Even the simple use of a pseudonym on a website, and the very existence of anonymous services like 4chan, show an uneasiness with revealing personal data about ourselves online. The controversy surrounding the use of encryption service Tor proves that this kind of subversion can be powerful and threatening to authorities.
It’s now a cliche that if you’re using a free service online, then you’re the product being sold. Every day, we surrender more information than we can imagine to companies like Google and Facebook (not to mention the NSA). The phenomenon of Deez Nuts represents not only a refusal to yield that information but a jamming of the system. In theory at least, the more people who use silly fake names, the more the system is flooded with useless data and the harder it becomes to use.
Whether the many Deez Nuts know it or not, their act of deception is actively confrontational. We paid real money for this data and they responded, “You want to know where I live? I live at 69 Your Mom’s House Drive in Myanus, CA. Email me at email@example.com, dick.” Deez Nuts is spitting in the eye of whoever might be invasive enough to try and purchase these stores of information. There might not be a government initiative to stop them (yet), but by refusing to submit their real identities to the scrutiny of Big Data, Deez Nuts is enacting a small, but very real, kind of rebellion. On the other hand, the real winners here might be the deep search sites—it’s not like they offer refunds.
Update: Over the weekend, presidential candidate Deez Nuts endorsed Bernie Sanders as his nomination for the general election. “Just gonna throw this out there now. "This is not for the general election. My endorsement for the Democratic nomination goes to Vermont senator Bernie Sanders," he said on his Facebook page.