In my life, the only people I’ve met who have had the same last name as me has been my own family. So, while my first name is one of the most common names for women my age, I figured that finding information about myself online wouldn’t be too difficult. I was correct in this assumption, but there were a few surprises that came my way on my search for digital identity. As I did my search, I became increasingly aware of just how little we can really control about how much of ourselves can be found on the internet, especially as minors.
At First Glance
The first two links that pop up when someone searches: “Emily Wogaman” on Google, are sites that recorded my times from swim meets in high school. This surprised me for a number of reasons: firstly, swimming in high school isn’t something that I consider to be a main pillar of my existence, and secondly, I figured that the first couple of links would have been my social media profiles, for instance. The third link I found was actually an Amazon link to purchase a 45-page book that my great-grandmother, after whom I’m named, wrote in 1966. The rest of the 6 pages of results that showed up consisted of information about my life as a high school student through the lenses of school publications and my church, as well as links to scholarly websites and obituaries for my great-grandmother.
Former places of residence
After seeing that the majority of results actually pertaining to myself and not a relative were from when I was in high-school, I was curious to see if I could find more information from earlier in my life when I lived in different states. I was born in Kentucky and so I used that as my first keyword in my more extensive search. The results were about as I expected, not much about me at all. In fact, the only results were about my half-sister’s father and stepmother. So, I moved on to my next place of residence: Pennsylvania. In these results I actually discovered a memory that I’d lost: I was depicted in a mural in my town! In an article about the mural, I am described as the daughter of Steve Wogaman, the former CEO of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra. While a relatively benign description, if someone were trying to find out more about me, they now have a certainty of who my father is since there's only been one Wogaman CEO of the ASO. Ohio, the third state I've lived in, resulted in another memory being unearthed. In 5th grade I participated in a math competition and won in my category, so I was featured in the local newspaper.
After realizing my social media profiles didn’t show up in my initial google search, I decided to add my Twitter and Instagram usernames to my search to see if I could find links to the profiles. Interestingly, neither returned any meaningful results. This is an aspect of marking accounts as private on these sites that I hadn’t realized prior to this endeavor. To someone on the outside looking in, it seems as though I have no online presence at all, which was my goal since I’m more of a private person. While I don’t have a YouTube channel, I was morbidly curious if there would be any kind of embarrassing video of me since social media platforms were a bust. To my surprise, there were two videos! One posted by my church and another by a high-school classmate of the homecoming football game my junior year where I was the homecoming princess.
Cause for Alarm
The fourth result when you search my name, visible without scrolling, is a website michiganresidentdatabase.com displaying my full address, age, and relatives for seemingly the entire world to see. As I investigated the site further, it seems as though this information was found and displayed because I’m a registered voter at that address. The website says, and I quote, "The information we collect is legal and it comes from trusted public sources, so you don't need to do any worry about it," yet I couldn't find any concrete information on what those sources are. Since the information they post supposedly comes from public record, it's safe to assume that most Michigan residents could be found through this site. This is where having a unique name brings unexpected consequences. I’ve always tried to be careful about keeping my social media profiles private so that just a small circle of people I actually know have access to my information and my content. However, through this website, if anyone just knows my first and last name, they can find this, what I consider to be, sensitive information. Registering to vote was a very important decision in my life that I do not regret at all, but since when does simply registering to vote give someone permission to post your home address for anyone to see?
I grew increasingly alarmed when I realized that my Instagram and Twitter usernames showcase my full name, (@emilywogaman and @emily_wogaman respectively). So, while the accounts are private with limited information about me to be found from the pictures, bios, etc. the existence of my full name in the usernames can lead to people finding out this information about me. I should probably get around to changing those soon.
It's clear to me now that while I have been careful and proactive about keeping my own created content hidden from strangers’ eyes, other sources will still post pictures, record data, or write articles about me. While I was careful to not have my specific location be exposed through my social media accounts, a website was broadcasting my full address, my school was posting swim meet results, and my church was including me in monthly announcement pamphlets. Even without the website posting my address, it wouldn’t have been difficult to figure out where I'm from.
Another notion that struck me as I searched for results like “Emily Wogaman University of Michigan”, is that once I reached adulthood, these kinds of outside sources became much scarcer. On the one hand, this means I wasn’t as active in my community, but on the other hand, as an adult, I myself could decide whether or not to consent to my information being shared rather than my parents or school, and more often than not I opted for my information to not be shared publicly in that way.
This begs the question of the ethics of sharing the information of minors before they really have the opportunity to think about whether or not they’d like the information to be shared. I can’t remember being asked whether I felt comfortable having my name be put on a swim meet results website, or if I felt comfortable with my church posting pamphlets that featured my name online rather than just sent through the email list. And while none of the information I found about myself is incriminating or embarrassing, I find it discomforting that so much information about me as a minor is available to complete strangers on the internet.
Best case scenario: life goes on and we just have some memories to look back on like I did. Worst case scenario: someone decides to kidnap a minor because they've posted on social about feeling alone and abandoned by their family, no one would miss them etc., and because their full name is in their profile or because they talked about a school dance, and then the school has written an article about the student, the perpetrator knows where and when that minor will be. That may be a bit paranoid of me to think of, but in all honesty, there might need to be some reevaluation of how much information we're giving out about people we're meant to protect and nurture.