Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Privacy on the Web, or "I know what you wrote last Summer"

One of the reasons that people like and feel comfortable on the Internet is that it gives them a perceived anonymity - a sense that they’re in control. Most places online where you’d offer up your thoughts and opinions allow or even encourage you to use an alias, reducing the likelihood that you’ll be personally called out on the carpet to defend, apologize for or otherwise answer for your statements. Unlike your job, your neighborhood, your family, etc., if you don’t like where you are on the web, just don’t go there anymore. Getting harassed in the chat room? Go to a different chat room. Not finding what you want at an online merchant? Shop somewhere else. Even if you don’t flee, you don’t have to respond to criticism or questioning if you don’t want to. You can just ignore it and go merrily on your way.

One downside is that this seems to stimulate a fair number of people to behave badly because they know they can’t and won’t truly be held accountable for it. Another downside is that people often underestimate just how easily their online personas can be connected to their actual identities. Just because you go by the handle of SexiM0M on a forum doesn’t mean that your husband can’t ever find out that you’re posting sex fantasies online. It’s actually more likely than you might expect, and I was recently reminded of this fact twice.

Many people like to dance on the edge with their personal information, either not realizing how easily it can allow somebody to build a profile of them or just not caring. I’ve tended to be more cautious than many, though not to the extent of paranoia. I don’t post pictures of my kids online anywhere. For a long time, I never used or even referred to my last name online, though that became irrelevant when I publicly won the GMA BBQ contest. I rarely ever gave out my personal email address, and never posted it where strangers could stumble across it. While I frequented an online forum, I never forgot the fact that for every person who read and replied to my posts, dozens or hundreds of others could read them anonymously without ever making their presence known. And they weren’t all my “forum buddies” – they could be anybody on the internet, including nefarious sorts who might want to do me harm for some perceived slight or for no reason at all. Moreover, I kept focused on the fact that most or all of my online postings would remain available for years, so just because nobody might be interested in what I had to say today didn’t mean that they might not at some point in the future.

So, to recap, I’ve never been a particularly flamboyant public figure, with the sordid details and specifications about my live freely available for all to see. But neither was I a complete enigma, carefully sequestered in an impenetrable cage of misdirection and encrypted information. I was, however, surprised by what I found when I subscribed to Facebook for the first time.

When you complete your initial Facebook account setup, one of the screens presents you with some “suggested friends.” I have no idea where Facebook comes up with these suggestions, but for me they were all complete strangers. All but one. One fellow on the list was possibly known to me. He was a regular on some forums I visit and we’d “known” each other for years. I knew his first name and he knew mine, and we knew approximately where the other lived. But that was about the limit of our interactions. So imagine my complete surprise when he appeared as a potential friend. I had revealed NO relevant info to Facebook that I can identify. I had not associated myself, at that time, with ANY friends, nor had I proclaimed myself to be a member of any communities, social groups, online services or other networks where a connection to this person could be inferred. I wasn’t even sure at first who he was because, as I said, I didn’t know his last name. To be sure, I had to go and find an email address for the suspected “friend” and ask whether it was him. Needless to say, we were both baffled by Facebook’s connection of the two of us, and we remain so to this day.

It put me in mind of a recent movie. I won’t print the name, as this description potentially spoils a significant plot point. In this movie, a top-secret mega-computer has gained access to and a degree of control over an unprecedented amount of information about people’s lives, which it uses to manipulate victims into being its tools. Not only does nobody realize that the computer can manipulate everything from ATMs to traffic lights, but nobody outside some top US government officials even knows the computer exists. So when it begins forcing the protagonist to do its bidding, he’s utterly baffled by it and unprepared to defend himself. This was a bit like how I felt when Facebook made this connection that, by all rights, it should never have been able to make. It felt as if somewhere there’s an unknown, unseen intelligence making connections between people who are supposed to be anonymous. I find it exceedingly creepy.

Then, on Saturday, I received an email back from Mil Millington, whose website Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About I referenced in one of last week’s blogs. Mil mentioned the blog Girl with a One Track Mind. This blog, about the antics of a woman with a healthy libido, isn’t really my cup of tea, but I checked it out because Millington had referred to it. And it reemphasized how fleeting Internet anonymity can be.

The blog’s author has a day job that has nothing to do with her blog, as well as a family and other relationships that she’d have preferred to keep separate from her blog-life. She did her best to keep her identity private, even publishing a book under a pseudonym. However, some intrepid reporter for a UK newspaper not only tracked her down, but found her real address, unlisted phone number, e-mail address and even her mother’s contact information and job. This reporter, backed by an equally-sleazy editor, then proceeded to “out” her in a national newspaper, as if her real identity were in some fashion newsworthy. I didn’t read enough to get a sense of the degree to which this devastated her life, but it certainly drove home, particularly in light of my experience, above, the degree to which somebody determined to track you down online can probably manage it unless you’re very, very, very careful.

So the next time you’re about to really tell somebody off in an online forum or post unflattering information about a neighbor or coworker, stop to consider just how reliable you think your online anonymity actually is. As our online and offline worlds continue to crowd closer together – as you use one online “presence” at places like Facebook and invite friends, co-workers, family members and online acquaintances to commingle – your degree of actual online anonymity will dwindle.

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