When first starting this project, I had expected not to find too much information about myself. I have always attempted to keep my social media accounts private and regulate the personal information I make public. However, this theory was quickly disproven after a quick Google search of the name “Avinash Bevoor”. These two words resulted in a plethora of links that contained detailed personal information about me. Even more strikingly, a deeper dive into my digital footprint has made it clear that a large part of my online activity has been tracked and stored over time. This has resulted in companies like Google creating accurate profiles about my identity through my data. Overall, through an exploration of my public and private identity data, I have realized that media companies have stored immense amounts of information, creating digital persona's for all of their users in order to monetize their data.
When first exploring the extent of my digital footprint, I began by entering my name into various search engines such as Google, Safari, and Bing. One problem I ran into almost immediately with this approach was that my search results were already tailored to me. This resulted in these search engines providing personal data about my identity as the first few links by default. In order to circumvent this issue, I used incognito and private search modes in order to get a better understanding of what the average user would see when first searching my name. An additional problem that I ran into while uncovering my identity using this method was that I would get different search results depending on the name I searched for. While a search for the name "Avinash Bevoor" would result in a list of articles that I was listed in and a link to my work profile, searching for my nickname, "Avi Bevoor", tended to show links to my social media pages.
Finally, in an effort to get a more in-depth understanding of my identity data, I searched for my name on various social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. In addition to this, I also explored the personal data that specific platforms had collected on me. Specifically, I downloaded the summary of personal information that was available about myself on Google Dashboard.
From the results that appeared while searching for both my nickname and full name on a variety of search engines, I found the data to be surprisingly detailed and accurate. Before starting my search, I had thought my identity would be relatively hidden from Google's search engines. Instead, the first few links that appeared, which included public records and articles, were all about me. While some of the information had been willingly released, such as papers I have recently published, I had no idea other data, like my voter record information, existed so openly on the internet.
In addition, I was shocked to find that the website that I had published for my 9th-grade geography class was also still available to be viewed alongside the roster from my time on the Salem Tennis Team in high school. Through all of this data, it became clear to me that Google had a very good understanding of who I was and who I am. Through this search, I discovered that the only remnant of my identity that seemed to remain private was an actual picture of me on Google images.
The information that was available about my identity through data brokers such as mylife.com was not nearly as comprehensive as the data displayed by search engines. While these sites managed to accurately report my name and hometown, there was no other information about me available. When looking at a list of my supposed family members and known associates the names that were displayed were ones that I had never seen before.
In general, I was a bit surprised that so little information was available about me on these sites. Using data brokers often resulted in finding less information about myself than just a simple Google search. While I am not entirely sure why this is, it indicated to me that there was little data outside what was already available on Google that data brokers could find.
The amount of data that could be found on my social media pages was much smaller than any of the other methods of searching that I mentioned previously. Of my existing social media platforms, I am not very active on any of them. In searching through my Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and TikTok profiles, there was very little data that was publicly available to those who do not actively follow me on these sites. While photos of me were finally beginning to appear when searching for myself, these mainly included my profile picture and the one photo of myself that I had posted on my Instagram wall.
Overall, the data that the general public could find about me was much more extensive than I had first imagined. However, in contrast, the amount of data that was collected on my browsing habits on each of these sites was even greater.
After downloading the personal information that Google Dashboard had collected, I found that it wasn't just my web history that was being tracked. In addition, Google had information concerning my work and home address, taken from Google Maps, as well as data on the number of emails in my Gmail inbox and the events in my phone calendar. While I had considered that these apps might be collecting data on me individually, I never realized that Google was using all of this data to generate an accurate digital portrait of my identity.
This is especially concerning to me because even if I managed to stop using Google search and Google maps, many of my professional contacts are linked to Gmail. As a result, Google has made itself an integrated part of my current life, forcing me to retain some connection to the organization at all times. This, in turn, ensures that I will continue to provide them with detailed identity data in the future.
Google uses the data that it collects on its users to sell information to advertisers. This can be seen through the targeted ads that will appear on Google's numerous platforms. While these sites may not disclose specific information to the public, it has not stopped them from profiting off the information that they have collected.
Through this exploration, it has become evident that I am not nearly as invisible on the internet as I may believe. While the general public may not be able to find much more data on my identity more than the occasional article or post, Google itself has developed a very clear understanding of my real-world identity through my digital activity.
Through this analysis, my initial assumptions about the privacy I had online were proven completely wrong. Not only was a large amount of my personal data spanning years of my life publically available, but the extent of stored data about my identity was extremely comprehensive. While in the past I have attempted to control my digital identity by regulating the information that I make available to the public, it is now clear that users have almost no control over the way their data is collected. Despite my best efforts, it would not be possible for me to disconnect from my reliance on the internet. This is especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made almost all social and university life dependent on these services.
This realization is extremely frightening to me because it speaks to the lack of privacy that has become normalized. The internet has become essential to everyday life. Consequently, companies like Google and other media platforms have become extremely powerful. Through this analysis of my own digital identity, it has become clear that regulations must be put in place to check online data collection. Otherwise, companies that collect personal information can continue to take advantage of their users' identity data with impunity.