Though I have, like most people, searched myself on the Internet before, I have never approached it asking, “Who does the Internet say I am?” As I began this assignment, I was curious— I had heard many people mention their high school athletics records, club-related activities, or other high-school-related results, and as someone who was homeschooled from preschool until high school graduation, I knew that would not be the case for me. In fact, I was fairly confident I would be happy with my online footprint and the privacy I'd achieved. Regardless, I set out, with only my name in my virtual hand, to see what I could find. While I did find confirmation that I have locked down my personal information fairly successfully, I left with new insight into information "leakage" and ethical implications of information accuracy.
Looking Through the Windows
A Restricted Perspective
At a young age, I learned to be protective of my online identity. When my parents helped me create my first Facebook page on my thirteenth birthday (and not a day sooner), they guided me through keeping it as private as possible and warned me against accepting friend requests from strangers. It's funny how these things from childhood persist— to this day, I feel a little unsettled if one of my social media accounts is set to public. As an artifact of this, according to my Internet searches, I virtually didn’t exist until I graduated from community college, which is the earliest photo I can find of myself by searching my name.
The Data Jackpot of LinkedIn
Offering a more detailed perspective is LinkedIn, the very first result you get when you search my name. Kudos to Google, it is also the most accurate and detailed search result on page 1, rising above the LinkedIn profile of an Emma Muth in Nevada and an Emma Muth from the 1940 census. Without even clicking on the link, it immediately tells the casual online wanderer that I work (and presumably go to school) at the University of Michigan. Once you click on the link, you can see a treasure trove of details— work and school history that essentially give away where I live (one of the reasons I was hesitant to create a LinkedIn in the first place) and where I've been professionally and educationally for the past six years. While this is the most extensive record of existence I could find, the perspective in many ways is just as limited as my twenty-word Instagram bio. You know that I attend the University of Michigan and have been involved in a few different roles as a student instructor, but what isn't clear is my passion for teaching. It's clear that I've worked as a library clerk for about four years, but no one would know how much I love that job, that I've actually worked at the library in total for nine years, and I'm already emotional about having to quit after I graduate. First looks can be deceiving— despite having more detail, my LinkedIn page is still only another window.
Master of My Data... Or Not
All these results were ones I expected, more or less. However, a particularly surprising result showed me that information “leaks” may be more common than I realized. On the first page of search results was a wedding website called The Knot with my name and my fiancé's name. I am getting married this year, but we created our wedding website through a different company entirely, so my interest was piqued. When I clicked on it, I found it wasn’t our entire wedding site, but rather just our Target wedding registry with our names and our wedding date. I was left wondering when I unknowingly signed off on Target sharing that information with The Knot. While our official wedding website did show up on the first-page search as well, it was well below this link. Information I wanted and intended to share was less readily accessible than something I didn’t even know I had shared. We’ve talked in class about the obfuscation of how our information is used introduced by many Terms and Conditions documents and the question of where the responsibility falls—on the user to read the full disclosure of how their information is being used or on the distributors of the technology to make it more easily consumable. While this is a question outside of the scope of this exposition, I believe the practicality of sifting through and deciphering these types of documents should be questioned. If I had a more decipherable snapshot of how my wedding website would use my information, this could have been an expected result and not felt like an information "leak," a snippet of information in the digital world that felt out of my control. While I don't mind people knowing we registered for a muffin tin, the issue is not what kind of information I unknowingly released, but that I had no idea.
Am I In Control?
What is the ethical difference between leaks and simply inaccurate information? While consulting Data Brokers, I compared and contrasted this difference. The supposedly glowing reviews, ranging from “I found out my husband was a cheater!” to “I reconnected with my long-lost sister!” were peppered with warnings and sensationalized pop-ups about what you might be on the verge of finding out.request information removal. However, as they note themselves, you are not scrubbing these details from the Internet, just ensuring the results don't appear through their sites. If you believe their claims that their information comes from public records, it's still available for people to find if they are looking.
I am fairly happy with my online presence. Most of what I found was accurate, and even if it wasn't, the inaccuracies weren’t damaging. However, I have a new wariness around what I am actually agreeing to for every account I create now. Additionally, I was reminded that at any given moment of online observation, the chances are high that we are only seeing a window of someone's life. And while some of these windows are curated and intentional, some are leaks, either not intended to be released by the subject or completely false.
I’m glad I did this before my wedding this fall because I can’t help but wonder how the stability of this information will shift after my last name changes. How long will it take them to catch up with me? How long until they associate my new last name with my “old” identity? What new leaks will be released, whether by inadvertent lack of knowledge about how companies are using my data, like with The Knot, or because of website error, like with Instant Checkmate and other Data Brokers? As “the very distinction between online and offline [becomes increasingly] blurred”, vigilance in our own awareness and discretion when analyzing and judging others' online profiles will be essential. After all, we're only looking through a window.
- "Floridi, Luciano. The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 2010, 8.