I used to believe having a common name was a negative trait. However, as someone who enjoys keeping a low profile on the internet, the special perk about this trait is that it is hard to gather consistent information about me because the information retrieved from a search query of my name is an amalgam of all the data on every Kevin Chen. Thus, it is very difficult to create an accurate profile of me.
On the other hand, for the same reason, a lack of accurate information means that people who search for my profile have limited information to build an identity for me. Since there are so many profiles with my name, people could also inherently have a preconceived notion of my identity based on the profiles they have seen before. My data identity is rather limited and difficult to find without much context, but it is still enough to falsely portray my true identity.
Profiles found online will never tell the real story about someone’s identity no matter how much information is available online. Now more than ever, it is important that we are aware of the types of information we share online because it can be widely misinterpreted if presented with the wrong context.
My Social Networks
I have always lived by keeping a low profile of my life both online and offline. My parents taught me this lifestyle as they believed that it would prevent mishaps and misunderstandings in the future. As a result, it has made me cautious and think twice about everything I share online.
Growing up, my interests with social media never fully blossomed compared to my friends and family. In fact, the only social media profiles I have are Facebook and Snapchat, and even so I am not very active on the platforms either. On Facebook, my account is five years old, but I have only changed my profile pictures twice in that time span. I have also made sure to limit the visibility of my profile from random strangers and display information only to my friends, which explains why my profile is unsearchable from a Google search. For Snapchat, it simply lost meaning to exchange pictures with friends over time, and I never felt comfortable exposing my location for its Snap Map feature as well.
Although I do not reveal my personal accounts a lot, I often forget to manage my professional accounts like LinkedIn. It is also quite annoying when job applications lead you to create additional accounts and then spam me with alerts in my emails. Data about my academic and professional life is one type of information I have not been able to manage properly.
When prompted to do research on myself, I was not really sure what to expect. One part of me wanted to believe I had done a great job so far of keeping a low profile in my life and only sharing the parts of my life I wanted to reveal. On the other hand, I also felt apprehensive that despite my efforts, my data had been exposed over the years from account information, emails, and browser cookies.
Search Query: 'kevin chen'
First, I searched my name through an incognito window on Google. As predicted, the top results from this query displayed profiles of various Kevin Chens—an artist, a doctor, and a professor—but none that were related to me. This was the case even after scrolling through the first ten pages of the results. However, this was not surprising since I do not publicize many personal accounts or websites. But it also makes me wonder how far I would need to index through the pages to find the first result that was relevant to me. Moreover, I even found results of documents related to individuals that did not have my name before I came across a page about me. Should I be satisfied that my data is hidden under all these other results, and it would take a lot of effort to find relevant information, or should I be angry that Google considers me as “not relevant” to the search query “kevin chen”?
Search Query: 'kevin chen west bloomfield'
I took a trip down memory lane and proceeded to modify the search query by entering the city I grew up in, expecting results about my activities in high school. Alas, I started to find results and information about me. More specifically, this included articles and websites about my extracurricular activities when I was in high school. There were also articles written about my performances and sports-related activities that I never knew existed. In one of the results, it leads to a website about my high school’s ping pong club, in which I am, after four years, still featured on the main page, shaking hands with my opponent before a tournament.
Search Query: 'kevechen'
Finally, I searched my UM uniqname. Surprisingly, this search query retrieved the highest number of relevant documents about me on the first page. The results include a link to my Medium account, a GitHub contribution, and my MCommunity profile. On the next page, it also provided a link to the course I am teaching as an Instructional Aide. This was a decent amount of information about me, and I was shocked by the results of the query. I was linked to all of these documents, but they were all recent updates and information about my life in the past five months. In one perspective, the information displayed were all true facts about me, but it is wrong to reason about my data identity based on information that was posted within a time span of five months.
Out of curiosity, I entered “Kevin Chen” and “Michigan” into a data broker site “fastpeoplesearch.com.” Interestingly enough, it did not find any profiles that matched my personal information. Even though there was not a profile about me, I was still alarmed that each profile included names of family members that the site claimed to have connections. It is definitely intimidating that there is software intended to purposefully exploit data about myself, but it is understandable that people can use it to know how much data they reveal about themselves online.
Throughout this process, I learned that my data identity, though scarce in the number of documents, had a lot of substance. People who have access to those exact documents could easily piece together a persona of an individual named Kevin Chen who studied Computer Science at the University of Michigan, worked as an Instructional Aide for a course, and used to play ping pong. In fact, one would not even need all those documents to create that identity. However, these are exactly the types of repercussions from data processing. A subtle word on a document that includes your name could possibly relate you to a crime that you did not commit. This one of the dangers of processing online data, but it is the type of information that many people will use and take advantage of.
Discovering the content of my data identity was a very enlightening process. Despite my continuing efforts to conceal my information as much as possible, it seems like any information leak could portray a new identity for me, even if the data does not resemble me anymore. I recall a lot of the results I found were posts and articles written when I was in high school. I also realized information about me could be posted without my own knowledge and doings. Although there is information online that could have been true at some point in my life, my personality and identity are constantly changing and evolving, an aspect that my data identity cannot keep up with.
My data identity consists of a mixture of new and old information jumbled together and stored in a database. The information includes past events in high school as well as recent events in college. Thankfully, my personal data is mostly hidden from the public eye, and I intend to keep it that way. Any data profiles created about me are inauthentic and only portray mostly the information I chose to reveal about myself.
“Chen (Surname).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Feb. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chen_(surname).