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Faking It on the Phone: Illicit and Licit Identity Management in Global ICT Outsourcing

Sat, September 7, 1:00 to 2:30pm, Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, Floor: Eight, Bacchus


In the 2000s, call centers in India turned to faking identity as a mainstay of outsourcing. They adopted a labor regime of “national identity management,” requiring workers to pose as Americans in order to appeal to US consumers. Made possible by transnational industries that send labor abroad, and advancing technologies that connect them back digitally, this was seen as a “legitimate” practice of global business. Ten years later, a parallel industry has arisen, in Indian workers pose as tax officials of the US government and representatives of Microsoft in order to scam US consumers. Just like in the “legit” call centers, these workers adopt alternative identities and perform them through communicative technologies and across national boundaries. But this time it is for an “illegitimate” industry. They work in almost identical settings (large firms, with rows of computer screens, and populated by young, educated, and English-speaking employees wearing headsets), but with slightly higher pay and considerably greater risk. In this presentation, I examine what it means to fake identity for one’s job, why it has become a characteristic feature of the digital service economy, and why it becomes constructed as licit versus illicit in varying contexts, despite being essentially the same socio-technical activity. Extending the research on transnational scamming through ICTs, I show how the US information processing industry has indirectly nurtured its own twin underground economy – a reverse-facing call center sector in the global south, which uses the same tools of identity management to compete for the US consumer market.