"Show me your friends and I'll tell you who you are." That's one of those sayings we hear repeated and consider wise. You could probably come up with any number of similar quotes that suggest we can discern the nature and character of a person by what they say, do, wear, and even who they marry. Common sense right?
But what if the person judging who you are is not looking at you in the real world but the virtual world?
Your personal data may have been aggregated by a robot-driven website that seems reliable but is not. Or the researcher for a potential creditor, perhaps, could view via Google and also out of context the snippet of a blog post or a poem you wrote and form an opinion of you that could influence decisions about your future or judgments of your life's work. That could happen, assuming the researcher has poor research skills.
And here's an example used often to strike fear into early Internet adopters: What if that picture of you dancing on the bar in college that you posted years ago, before you understood privacy settings, and have long since deleted is nonetheless visible to potential employers or business partners on a Way Back Machine?
These kinds of considerations may be more troublesome for bloggers and others who've gone full throttle into social media, but even those who are not online have concerns. What if in some public record somewhere, due to a clerk's typo, you are classified as divorced with children, but you've never been married nor do you have a child, and yet, when people search for you in Google or Bing, that part of the record is fourth on first-page results, resurrected by a website using an error-ridden public database?
Some of us might shout then that our privacy's been violated and our lives misreported. Another might say, "not really" because we've brought these specters to our doors ourselves through our love of network technology. And another might argue less privacy makes the world a safer place.
Technology complicates an old American issue, whether we have the right to privacy. Once upon a time in America expectations of privacy were considered a threat to society; it was illegal for people to live alone, and in a country made up of small villages, any hopes of keeping a secret was deemed a novel idea. I heard this on an episode of House, but nerd that I am, I looked it up, and it's true.
For all our whining today about loss of privacy in the digital age as though privacy is a guaranteed right of American citizenship, the fact is that the right to privacy has often been in jeopardy. Our government's willingness to protect this right has been less than unequivocal, and now, due to computer networking technology, modern humans may be going back to the days of fewer secrets, to live their lives as open books.
I think computer networking technology can be a beautiful thing, a powerful tool that's made sharing information that connects the world easier. After all, it made the Internet possible, a seemingly indispensable invention that's being used to free hearts, minds, perhaps even nations -- and sometimes people from prison.
Many of us can claim positive personal experiences related directly to the benefits of the World Wide Web. We've seen it used to reunite long-lost friends, lost loves, and more recently in the news, use of the Internet helped Carlina White, raised as Nejdra Nance, to solve her own kidnapping. But we also know the Net has a dark side and that technology that enables law enforcement to find criminals or locate missing children is a double-edged sword.
Daily we use browsers that allow advertisers to track what we do online. Facebook will be using our posts to friends for ads while giving us no way to opt out short of quitting the site. Even creepier, using vast computer networks, companies can track us via RFID tags and cameras in the physical world as well.
But advertisers' ability to track consumers is not the only concern. Thanks to cell phone cameras and social media, anyone can catch you at anytime doing something stupid that before only the people physically present could see, but now anyone can make that image or video of you permanently public.
We saw this type of embarrassing exposure most recently with the woman-walking-while-texting video. Despite the dramatic twists and turns in that story, which featured Cathy A. Cruz Marrero falling into a mall fountain on YouTube, the case shows us how easy it is for someone to make anyone of us famous or infamous today without our permission (Marrero drew more attention to herself by coming forward).
Another case of unkind exposure, the story of Tyler Clementi, had a more tragic outcome. Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman, committed suicide after his roommate broadcasted the freshman's sexual encounters online.
And then there are those automated data aggregators mentioned earlier, websites such as Spokeo.com that reveal our private data to strangers, usually with our help whether that's our intent or not ("Please Rob Me and How the Internet Affects Privacy"). More disturbing, given how the Web works, it may be impossible to stop such leaks of personal data on Spokeo. I found information there about an elderly relative who's never logged onto the Internet in his life, and since he's always kept his number and address out of public phone books, I guess this information made its way to the Net via some local government record.
While the kind of information websites such as Spokeo reveals is often inaccurate and a matter of public record, and even though these leaks do not bother some people, it can't be ignored that inaccurate information can sometimes do more damage than negative facts. Consider what bad rumors and lies can do to a reputation. This is the reason we have libel and slander laws, and earlier this week, CNN and multiple news sources reported the case of Gene Cooley, the Georgia man to whom a judge awarded $404,000 after a woman wrote horrific lies about him on a community message board.
Cooley's case has another side related to privacy and the Internet because the woman who libeled him did so anonymously. The case informs people who assume virtual identities and anonymous posts can never be revealed that they are wrong.
"People believe that they're acting anonymously on the Internet, and to a certain extent that may be true," said media attorney Peter Canfield. "But people have virtually no privacy on the Internet. When you go online, you leave tracks that can be followed and traced."
In court, anything about you can be made public if a lawyer argues effectively that the information is relevant to the case, such as the real name behind your screen name. In this Georgia case the woman should have been exposed, but there are other times when we may be penalized unjustly. Sometimes what we've said or written can be misrepresented, especially as our online personas grow older and behind them trail years of blog posts, tweets, Flickr pictures, and Facebook likes.
As someone who has had her own words from her blogs, fiction, and poetry remixed in divorce court by a human aggregator with an agenda, I know first hand that having your personal narrative reframed by someone who doesn't care about you or having your personal data reported inaccurately can do harm. Consider what can happen when someone actually alters something you wrote and buries it in boxes that contain years of your online writing. What happens when you learn that either a sentence you wrote was altered or a judge possibly misread a few words to say something that they do not say and then bases a ruling on that misread? File this consideration under abuse and misuse of "public" information.
But back to the Spokeo issue. We've heard it said that "it's all fun and games until someone loses an eye." My concern about Spokeo and sites like it is similar: it's all harmless information until a stalker uses it to find the object of his/her obsession or an ex-spouse uses it, assumes the information is true, and takes negative action in response. That sounds far-fetched, but without going into details, I will tell you that it can and does happen.
For years now I've been pondering how what we reveal about ourselves online as well as how what others say about us can be used for good or evil. How do readers—strangers, potential employers, even friends—by their own interpretations remix us with their commentary on our words and pictures? They in essence become additional authors of our lives, altering its chapters. That's the philosophical side of how our lives are being affected by digital social media as well as changes in concepts of privacy.
The practical side is that we may be saying good-bye to privacy and short of living off the grid, we may have to consign ourselves to a continuous leak of our personal data. Will these revelations illuminate our lives and heal us the way, for instance, Oprah believes the latest unveiling of another family secret—her having a half-sister—has done, or will the crafting of more public lives be our undoing?
Even Oprah, a woman who has lived very publicly, is sensitive to this question. She wanted to control how the world learned about this new chapter in her life. She feared that if she didn't tell her news first, gossip tabloids and bloggers (yes, she said bloggers) would alter the narrative in a negative way, and Patricia's understanding that this private information should not be made public without family consensus seems to have endeared her to her famous sister even more.
For us less public people, however, the revelation of our personal business is usually unwelcomed. Nevertheless, I think for us it's also a matter of our ability to control the narrative. Who gets our information and how they use it, how they tell our stories and to whom they tell them, is our real concern, isn't it? A stranger knowing our address and by that being able to guess our income or a passerby seeing us drive into an elementary school parking lot to deliver a forgotten lunch and so can guess we have children is not new nor does it fill us with dread. What's new is that strangers today, armed with cell phone cameras, texting programs, and access to the Internet, may broadcast our information to people we don't know and don't want to know, and that makes all the difference.
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