My (problably entirely mild and benign) interaction with a cyber-stalker (Hi, Q, if you’re reading) has served as a reminder to be careful of a subject I often am asked to speak about for EFA: online privacy. Occasionally, when Facebook or Myspace change their terms of service, there is a flap in the media about the privacy implications, but in general anecdotal and research data indicates that people don’t think too carefully about the sort of information they put online. People are also not aware of the sorts of information that may litter the web already, or that they may be giving away completely invisibly.
I’ve made a conscious decision to be open about what I put on the public Internet, including most of my contact information. I don’t publicise my address, but I know it’s out there to be found – old WHOIS records, the phone book, etc. I’ve been careful on Facebook, keep information within my circle; but still have hundreds of friends, even though I try and limit the circle to people I wouldn’t mind knowing what I’m up to on a given day. (Also people I don’t worry about boring with the minutiae of my life.) I know that through LinkedIn and my company and other bios on the web, my employment history and academic histories could be determined. Through Flickr, my travels around the world and photos of me and my family can be had in abundance. Twitter will give an insight into my thoughts and activities on a variety of subjects, and a diligent investigator could pretty easily determine my political affiliations and religious views without too much work. For a few bucks, all the details about the company of which I am a director can be easily had, online, instantly.
Overall, that’s actually a pretty complete picture of my life that could be built up on a quiet Friday afternoon in the office. It’s probably not enough to become completely obsessed with me, but there’s enough there to give me pause if I know a stranger is compiling it all. For instance, I haven’t completely edited out my ex-girlfriends from all my Flickr photos and potentially old tweets or notes left somewhere. If at various times you’d signed up to dating sites and searched for lonely men using my public information, you probably could have had a dating profile as well – pretty scary, really, given how embarassing those things can be. While my hypothetical persecutor was having a chuckle at that, they could, with Google Street View, be having a look at a photo of my house. (Street View itself has caused many privacy concerns, from drunks to dead people to the entire nation of Japan.)
This is despite the fact that for some years now I have been very conscious of what I let out online. Although I am more active online than most people, think about how much information I might be able to find out about you with your name and email address. Of course, you’ve read and been told many times to be careful with this stuff, and no doubt you are. Consider, for example, that by reading this blog post you have left your IP address in my webserver logs, from which I can probably roughly find out your physical location, perhaps even the name of your employer. Sure, you have nothing to hide now, but what happens when you make an enemy? Even the nicest of us can have psycho ex-partners.
Of course I’m not saying anyone should panic, as I often point out to the media the advantages to our lives of these technologies are still there even if we have new challenges to face on the privacy frontier. What gives me slight pause is imagining the next generation of politicians now working their way (scheming and stabbing their way) through the ranks. In 10 or 15 years time there won’t be many politicians who haven’t left a racy, rude or ill-thought-out forum post or tweet lying around (not to mention embarassing photos that can be dug up in the Wayback machine), and would we want a leader who didn’t have strong opinions on various topics from time to time in their youth? Former friends will have drunken emails in their archives, Facebook messages will linger. All of these will become fodder for electoral battles, and it’s already happening. Will we get used to this and forgive our politicians for unguarded remarks, or will only the electronically meek inherit the earth?