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Monday, February 25, 2013

Illusions of privacy

For decades the western world has valued privacy, which I define as the ability to control when, how, and where information about oneself is accessible to and usable by others. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Americans have a right of privacy, although it is limited as are all rights. Law enforcement must obtain a subpoena or a search warrant to listen to your telephone calls or read your email. Financial institutions, doctors and hospitals, schools and universities, and many other organizations and entities are legally required to respect your privacy. Still other organizations like churches do so from a perspective of morality.

Nevertheless, one finds an amazing amount of information about oneself available to anyone on the Internet. When I search for my own name in Google using parentheses, I get 9300 hits. I'm not the only Chuck Till in the world, and Google finds unrelated hits in the text of Shakespeare's Macbeth ("Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest Chuck/Till thou applaud the deed"); but many of those 9300 hits are about me. In prior decades it would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and taken many months for a team of private investigators to accumulate such a volume of information about anyone. Now it's instantaneous and incrementally free. In addition there are sources of "deep data" not indexed by Google but readily available. Play around with PeopleFinders.com to see what I mean.

It's difficult to use the Internet and prevent breadcrumbs from falling everywhere. Likewise, after 9-11 it's increasingly rare to go anywhere in public and not have one's presence recorded on camera. Governments publish records of tax payments, property ownership, voting, and court cases on the Internet. Is this good or bad? Technoutopianism argues that in a world where everyone has full and immediate access to everything, bad behavior is readily detected and the corrective consequences of bad behavior follow rapidly. In part I agree, but the downside is identity theft and the persistence of unfortunate data. In Internet times, mistakes are not easily undone. The unforgetting world tends to be an unforgiving world.

Identity theft could happen, but I don't stay awake at night worrying about it. I offer these measured suggestions for how to deal with the privacy, such as it is, in the Internet age.

  • Obscurity helps. People named Tom Smith have less reason to be concerned than I do. There isn't much doubt about identity when you find information on Moon Unit Zappa.
  • Facebook requires use of real names (and enforces the policy). But if you post to forums whose terms of service don't require true identity, you are free to use an alias. Use a different alias for each one.
  • Learn how to use the settings that Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks provide for you to manage your own privacy. Never assume that the default settings protect you.
  • Think twice before saying or doing something that will cause embarrassment or injury to others or yourself. Assume that everything you say or do that is not legally protected will find its way onto the Internet and will be discoverable for eternity. The Psalms make it clear that all your thoughts and actions are transparent, anyway.
  • Take reasonable steps when using the Internet: use https, create unique and reasonably strong passwords that you safeguard, decline opportunities to use Facebook or Google as a way to log onto other services, discard your cookies every three months, set up a Google Alert for your own name, and use the "incognito" browsing mode on public PCs.
  • Be merciful when embarrassment or injury falls upon you because of the actions of another.