The term “internet privacy” is an oxymoron. It is virtually impossible to use the internet in any fashion without giving away at least some information about yourself. Even if you don’t own a computer, information about you is on the internet. So the dilemma really lies in trying to determine “how much is too much” – how much information about yourself is reasonable to be available to the public, acquired by businesses, or presented in search engines? Where do you draw the line before the information gleaned by our use of the internet becomes an invasion of privacy?
I know that when I enter search terms into my search engine of choice (Google), that information is stored and used to “personalize my user experience” during future visits. The ads that are ubiquitous to my browsing experience are now tailored to my specific needs, likes, dislikes, shopping habits, locale, and even medical conditions. When those tailored ads first started appearing in my browser, it was a little jarring. “How does it KNOW?” I asked myself. “How can it tell that I have asthma, that I recently bought a Jeep, and that I enjoy reading trashy romance novels?” Well, Google “knows” these things about me because I recently looked up the side effects of a new asthma medication I’m taking, the phone number of my local Jeep dealership, and a review of a new book by one of my favorite authors.
Search engines like Google are also sneaky enough to be able to track the websites I visit directly, rather than by finding them through the search engine. Google uses various types of “advertising cookies” that are installed on our computers to monitor our activities in order to personalize the ads we see. This is a feature that end users can opt out of. Unfortunately “opting out” isn’t as simple as clicking a nice big red “Don’t Record My Personal Information” button. No, you have to dig through several layers of personalization settings in several different places in order to disable the various tracking mechanisms. Even then, every time you clear your browsing history, or get a new computer, or load a new version of the search engine, those settings have to be adjusted again.
Facebook works in a very similar way. It tracks the pages that you “Like” or subscribe to, and the links that you post to your wall. It uses any personal information you include, such as your place of work, your alma mater and hometown to personalize the ads that appear on your page. Facebook also changes its policies, layouts, and functionality frequently enough to irritate its end users. They are then required to figure out the privacy settings all over again, and make themselves aware of the changes and additions. Fortunately, Facebook and Google do not sell your personal information to third parties. But some sites do, and it’s not entirely clear who shares what information with whom unless you dig deeply into the site’s policies and read carefully.
I recently watched the documentary Digital Nation, which I highly recommend. The documentary is broken down into many chapters, one of which discusses the impact that internet searches have on hiring practices. Employers will do an internet search on potential employees and use that information as part of the process for determining who to hire. So, say you have very strong political beliefs, and post your views regularly on a political forum. If your potential employer finds that forum, reads your posts, and finds anything in those views to be an issue, they can decide not to hire you and you’ll never know the reason why.
Now that I’ve discussed the lack of internet privacy in detail, it may seem that I would be concerned about my own privacy and the safety of my personal information. In fact, I am not. I am ALL OVER the internet, and anyone who conducts even the most basic search on my name will find a slew of information about me. We’ve all conducted a “vanity search” of our own names before. The very first thing that appears in my search when I type in “Tiffany Joyce” is a picture of me when I was little. Then you see links to my Flickr account, my Facebook page, my photography portfolio, and my About.me page. I have on-line accounts for pretty much EVERYTHING – Pandora, YouTube, my bank, Amazon, all of my credit cards, school, Linked In, Twitter, Yahoo, WordPress, and on and on.
It used to be very difficult to “find” me on the internet, because I always used a pseudonym (a “nom-de-net” if you will). All of my accounts were set up under this other name, I wrote under this name on my personal and professional blogs, and even used fake names when I wrote about the people in my life. Then a few years ago, my opinion about using my real name shifted. I think it was perhaps because I was beginning to write professionally more and more, and became a professional photographer, so I wanted people to know my actual name. I became more confident in the fact that, should anyone seek me out on the internet, there wasn’t a lot of harm they could do with the information that they could find.
I know of people who have been fired from their jobs because of what their employers found out about them on the internet. Perhaps I’m as worry-free as I am because I know that I live a decent life that is open and above-board. As long as no one is overly offended at my penchant for swearing, I feel confident that any information they find is a positive – or at least neutral – reflection of me. Which isn’t to say that I consider myself to be a Perfect Pretty Princess, only that I’m … normal. I guess if someone had something to hide, they’d be much more concerned about their privacy.
Then there is the potential threat of stalkers – those on-line and in “real life” – who can use the information they find out about me to make my life difficult or even present a real physical risk. That risk is present for everyone, everywhere, at any time. Just because it’s relatively easy to find out a lot of information about me, doesn’t mean that you’re less at risk just because it’s a little harder to find information on you. Even if you don’t have a website, or a Facebook page, or a Twitter account, all information that is a matter of public record is readily available to anyone who wishes to search for it.
I suppose I’ve made the conscious decision to not be paranoid about my personal information. I’ve come to the conclusion that, while Google and Facebook have used my information to personalize my ads, well, sometimes I find those ads to be pretty darned useful. Now, I’m not going to go out and post my social security number or my credit card information on my blog, but I don’t have issue with the fact that the entire internet knows (or can easily find out) that I live in Chandler, Arizona, and that I like to vacation in Maine. They can easily find out what kind of car I drive, what my opinions are about religion and politics, and whether or not I can take a decent photograph. They can even find out exactly what I look like, how I like to dress, and what I like to cook for dinner. If someone wants to know all of that stuff about me, well, more power to them. I’m just going to occupy my little corner of the internet and go on living my life.
I’d be very interested to know what you guys think! Are you concerned about internet privacy, how your information is being used, and/or your personal safety?