My parents always told me that my online identity is something to be careful with because it can follow you forever. With the way society has progressed it seems like it's almost impossible not to have an online identity due to social needs and professional networking. And with ideas like “cancel culture,” it becomes tricky to navigate multiple platforms in a meaningful way.
From a young age, I've always made accounts with the abbreviated version of my name “Arif Jamal”, mostly because it was easier for people to pronounce. I only used my full name for professional accounts like LinkedIn. Back in August 2020, I found social media to be quite stressful and a waste of time during the initial quarantine. In an attempt to be more mindful, I went completely off the grid and deleted my social media accounts for about 3 months. I later made new accounts, so it will be interesting to see how much of my identity was retained online and the accuracy of it. The goal of this report is to determine if I have the ability to control my own data, the accuracy of it and if it truly can be taken off the internet entirely. This is important to me as I believe it's a human right to have autonomy over personal information that resides in the public domain.
My 'Google' Identity
All of the searches in this section were conducted on a Macbook Pro on Google Chrome under an incognito window. This was important as different browsers can give alternate search results. For instance, when using Bing, my personal Google website didn't come up, but on Google it did. I decided to use one browser to maintain the consistency and reliability of this report.
After searching my abbreviated name ‘Arif Jamal’, I was surprised that no information about me came up. I was expecting some of my social media accounts to get pulled up since most of them are under this name. A lot of other Indian men came up, with a surprising amount of them being professors at various universities. I suspect that no information about my social media came up as I mentioned before that I permanently deleted my old accounts in 2020. Sometimes third-party websites will crawl through public accounts and download the information to keep online forever, but again I couldn't find anything substantial on Google.
The first link that comes up is a personal website that I made my freshman year of college. The website is essentially an online portfolio that displays some of the projects I'd been working on at that time. The opening page gave a little introduction to me, which admittedly is quite cringy reading back now. In it, I give information about where I grew up, some of my passions and goals. There isn't any specific information except that I put what year I was born and the city. The other pages include things like my coding projects, films, and 3D design that I've worked on. It's mostly comprised of images of my work and short descriptions of what the project was intended for.
The most intrusive information came from the Michigan Residence Database. This website had all sorts of information about me from housing to driving records. I hadn't known that this information was public and I think that it definitely is something that shouldn't be available for anyone to see. Specifically, you could find my age, birth year, and current address. The website also gave me the option to pull more private information about myself such as “Social Profiles, Driving Records, Background Reports, etc”. Nothing was able to come up though, not sure if this because I don't have many public records, or if the website is falsely claiming to be able to have this power. Additionally, you could find extensive information not only on me but my family members and neighbors too. This was the aspect of the website that felt the most intrusive.
The last main source of information about me came from my LinkedIn profile. Even though there were multiple profiles that came up when LinkedIn pulled up “Arif Jamaluddin” my name was at the top of the list. I was able to pull a lot of information about myself including an extensive report of my volunteering experience, recommendations other co-workers have left on me, and recent posts that I'd engaged with. It's odd that I wasn't able to see my work experience, that area seemed to be cut out of my profile. Also, my profile picture was cut out of my header.
Accuracy of Information
My personal website is accurate, but I haven't kept it up to date. Though the information was accurate, I think having information like my birth city was unnecessary, I mainly forgot about the website and did not check up on it. I think it would be fine to give out my birth city in a face-to-face conversation, but it's too personal for an online profile and I should change it. In terms of data sharing policies, I had complete control of the information that was shared as I was the author of the website. But it says something about how young people (me freshman year) can put information online about themselves that they will later regret without properly monitoring it.
The data on Michigan Residence Database was extremely accurate and personal. Someone with malicious intentions could use this information against me or even claim to be me. In terms of data sharing policies, the website says at the bottom “All information on this website is public information in the State of Michigan as part of the voter registration database”. I'm not sure why the state of Michigan would make this information public, I can't see an immediate benefit about being able to look people up to this extent. However, the website states that “This website is not affiliated with the State of Michigan. This website is not a consumer reporting agency under the Fair Credit Reporting Act”. So it sounds like this is not an official government website, yet they aggregate their information from the state of Michigan.
LinkedIn had been quite clear on their data sharing policies and they were also relatively easy to find and comprehend. Under settings, I could change my visibility to any public user who's not friends with me. I could easily customize what and who can see my information. They also gave me the option to view my past data. They clearly state on their website “Your LinkedIn data belongs to you, and you can download an archive any time or view the rich media you have uploaded”. This was comforting having autonomy over my data. My intention when creating this online profile was to be able to be seen by anyone in the public. So I wasn't concerned about the data LinkedIn had on me.
As I mentioned before I deleted my social account back in August of 2020. My goal with this report was to understand to what extent my online presence remained intact after I'd deleted my profiles, the accuracy of it, and what information about me was involuntary made public. To be honest, I suspected that even though I deleted my profiles there were going to be some third-party apps that stored a snapshot of my Tweets, Instagram posts, etc. But I couldn't find any material of my old accounts which was comforting.
While my parents were right in that online identities are super fragile, from my research I realized I have a decent amount of agency over my personal accounts. I was definitely surprised by how easy it was to find data sharing policies and also changed/update the settings to fit my needs. However, I wouldn't have updated them if not for this assignment. My overall remarks are that from my experience you can have control over the majority of your data and delete it if you want. So why's this important? Well, having autonomy over your online self is how a potential employer could screen you or really anyone for that matter. It's important that you maintain the true version of yourself so your image doesn't get twisted, and also for privacy reasons. But as a society, we need to be more proactive about keeping up to date with our online presence, and tech companies should do a better job at reminding us to update our privacy settings.