My Data IdentityBefore being prompted to search myself online I had never thought much about the uniqueness of my name. In fact, ever since I left my hometown for college it feels like everywhere I go there is someone else around my age with the same first name. When faced with googling myself, however, I was lucky enough, or perhaps unlucky depending on how you see it, to find that the combination of the spelling of my first and last
Ultimately, I found that my online data builds on the idea David Shoemaker discusses in Self-exposure and exposure of the self where individual results suggest patterns both significant and irrelevant to my self-identity. According to Shoemaker "the information that’s publicly available tends to be information that isn’t part of one’s self identity, whereas the patterning produced by data mining often is” (10). Finding particular facts about me in a very public space was generally not as concerning as the patterns they might suggest. Additionally, although many aspects of my self-identity, both patterns and some individual results, are being presented accurately, they have stolen my chance to present them in my own way, suggesting a serious lack of informational privacy.
The results from a google search of my name mainly fell into four categories: middle school and high school sports and clubs, academic pursuits, social media, and logistical information. The first category included various websites containing statistics, action pictures, awards, and newspaper appearances for games and other community events I participated in through student organizations. The second category included articles about my academic achievements from high school and different assignments I have created both in high school and college on public websites like Prezi and Vimeo. The third category included the only two online profiles I have associated with my name which are for Twitter and Pinterest. Finally, the rest of the search results contained information about me such as my address, sex, birth year, and relatives- all of which were accurate.
Another level added to the formation of online identities is data brokers holding all kinds of information on individuals, usually found behind a paywall. When using Instant Checkmate, one such data broker, to search my name, facts such as my exact birth date, all members of my immediate family, my pinterest account, my address, my neighbors and some of their personal data, sex offenders in the area, and possible associates (whatever that means) were available. Everything that Instant Checkmate's report on me included was correct, except the category of possible associates, which subsequently gave me the most concern in my uncertainty. It said that a possible associate of mine was a person with a name I do not recognize and under his list of previous addresses, was that of my family's home. I know this is untrue because my family built our home on property that was family owned, giving it a brand new address. It makes sense that these reports would often have mistakes such as this, however, I am still labeled as an associate of this person unknown to me for anyone who chooses to see.
Many of the Google results listed above would then form patterns along the lines of being involved in and caring about community or striving academically. They are showing things that I continue to contribute to my self-identity and am generally proud of, so I find myself asking- should I really get to complain? Despite the circumstances reducing most personal concern on these patterns, it is still clear that my privacy is limited. I did not ask for these individual results to be public but I might be considered lucky that these characteristics are associated with my name- what authors of Esteem, Identifiability, and the Internet might describe as esteem forming a positive reputation (Brennan and Pettit). However, looking at it through a privacy lens conveys an unfavorable picture as I essentially have no control of the pattern being made by collecting all of these things.
Presentation and Privacy
In Dean Cocking's Plural Selves and Relational Identity, he writes that privacy depends on one's control over self-presentation. The actual presentation of both individual facts and patterns like the ones described above are mostly out of my control when it comes to the internet. I use few social media accounts and the two that I do, Twitter and Pinterest, I have rarely if ever posted on. This seems important to acknowledge because I believe that many social media platforms are a space where you have some control over presentation. Where my concern on this particular matter comes in then, is online data with the combination of three things: being publically available, attributed to my self-identity, and published and or posted by someone else.
When they get it right
One such example, in which the data was accurate but the presentation was out of my control was my address. According to Shoemaker, the "domain of informational privacy, the zone to be protected, is information about one’s self-identity", and for me, this includes where I grew up (11). A further search on the town in my available address provides details such as the population is around 1,500, the median household income is less than $40,000, and the unemployment rate is around 10%. This might offer half of the picture of my background or the town, but it is not everything I would want someone to consider and it could initiate biases. In addition, sharing this information with some people might feel comfortable or necessary, but doing so with others might not be, or at least I should be able to decide which aspects to express. However, I have no control over this with the presentation of my address taken out of my hands.
Other examples would be the results that went into the patterns I discussed above like articles on my volunteer, athletic, and academic pursuits. Not only do they contribute to possible patterns that add to my self-identity but the actual presentation is decided by someone else as well. While these may be relatively low stakes examples, the privacy implications are still there and important to acknowledge for when the case has bigger consequences.
When they get it wrong
As I mentioned before, the only aspect of my online data identity that I found to be incorrect was the mysterious appearance of an unknown person listed as my associate on Checkmate. Using Shoemaker's domain for informational privacy, I include my family and friends to have a role in my self-identity. The false connection to this stranger then feels like a breach of my privacy. The presentation of this incorrect information is out of my command and even though I know nothing about this person, I am still connected to his online data identity. Not only do I have to worry about what information is available on me, I also have to worry about whatever this other person has out there. Now, I realize that becoming paranoid over this might be an overreaction, however, it demonstrates that false data like this can be built into an online identity. It is not only a breach of privacy but it also could have other consequences on your life because the presentation of your data is outside of your control.
Writing this, it is clear that I do not fully understand everything about my online identity and why some things seem like a breach of privacy and other things do not. For example, I am not very concerned about the individual online results that although accurate, are not strong factors in my self-identity or do not contribute to larger patterns that are. This included some of the Google results and most of the databroker facts like age, neighbors, and nearby sex offenders. In addition, I was not as concerned about accurately depicted associates like family members because I welcome any sort of presentation of our connection. Unlike the other self-identity aspects, I could not think of a single reason for the presentation of my immediate family to matter, but I realize that this is not how everyone would feel.
Being aware of your online data identity is an important practice in this increasingly digital world. In my case, almost every result from searching my name is accurate, but even in cases where it is not accurate, its presentation could fall back on me and my life. Thinking about informational privacy in respect to individuals having control over aspects of their self-identity and its presentation offers a serious message about the current state of internet users' privacy. I quickly realized that there is little to no control of these things in many online spaces. I am fortunate that most things in my data identity are not likely to be used to seriously harm me, but again that is not the case for all people. Further work in the area of online privacy should accordingly focus on giving back control of the presentation of the elements that users attribute to their self-identity, which are most often the patterns formulated from individual data.