For the longest time, I’ve always been stingy about my privacy. Whenever someone asked a question about me, such as “When’s your birthday?”, I’d always ask them why they even wanted to know that. If they didn’t have a good reason, I wouldn’t tell them. In fact, it wasn’t until 8th grade that I told a non-family member what my birthdate was.
Maintaining my privacy has always been a central idea in my upbringing — growing up in a 3rd world country, it was drilled into me that telling the wrong person the wrong thing could get you in real trouble. However, with the advent of the internet, it’s getting much harder to keep my info to myself. So many things require you to sign up for an account to the point where I’m forced to let the cat out of the bag, whether it’s for advancing academically (see: this assignment) or pursuing new opportunities. Taking this into consideration, I went to see just how much the internet publicly knew about me.
Since I don't use social media, there wasn't anything publicly available about me through this avenue. After all, posting personal information online about me is exactly what I'm trying to avoid. It's only natural for me to not use it. The only exception to this is LinkedIn which I will talk about later.
Since my name is extremely unique, googling my name happens to only bring up data about me. From there, not much comes up except my Medium profile, an old high school assignment, and my mentor’s website from back when I used to work as a research assistant. However, when you piece these things together, you can actually find out some juicier information. From the high school assignment, you can get a lead on what city I live in which can potentially lead to an address. On top of that, you can also get a list of names of my peers from the assignment which opens a whole can of worms of possible contact points to find out more information. Meanwhile, my mentor’s website lets you know what college I go to which can reveal information about me such as my major and my email address by looking me up on MCommunity. This, in turn, provides a direct contact point to me to find out more information.
Surprisingly, Bing actually beats out Google when it comes to finding out more about me. In addition to everything Google found, Bing links to my GitLab profile which indicates that I’m an open-source project contributor and it also links to my LinkedIn which reveals my work history. Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be any more information about me out there.
The thing that particularly catches my interest about Bing is the fact that it found my LinkedIn profile. The reason that Google didn't find it was because in my LinkedIn settings, I set it such that my profile is not publicly available for privacy reasons. When I'm looking for a job, I set it back to public. It seems that while Google respects these settings, Bing bypasses them.
Bonus Round – Searching in Arabic
Not a lot of people consider this option since the Internet is largely English, but this is still a good avenue for data collection. Initially, I searched myself up on the small chance that a relative from overseas had posted pictures and/or information about me. However, on both Bing and Google, I couldn’t find any information specific to me since looking me up in Arabic make me far less unique when it comes to search queries. I tried to improve the context around my query by mentioning things like “الفيسبوك” (Facebook) or “الصور” (photos) but neither proved fruitful.
So Who am I?
I was somewhat surprised at how much information there was about me out there. Although there were very little available data, it was all easily accessible and useful. If someone wanted to know more about me, they just have to type in my full name and relevant information pops up, no filtering required.
To summarize my data identity, I’m a student at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor who’s a computer science major, likes to code, and has done environmental research. Although this isn’t much, it’s extremely accurate with nothing wrong about it. As a student at the University of Michigan, I’ve strived towards contributing to environmental efforts as a side goal while studying under a computer science major. From the looks of it, my data identity is simply a subset of my real identity. However, because it’s a subset, it’s still missing quite a bit.
Despite being accurate and stable, information about me on the internet was largely incomplete. There was very little information about my hobbies, interests, relationships, physical appearance, or anything personal for that matter. At best, looking me up online shows that I like computers and the environment. To get any more information, someone would have to personally ask me what they want to know.
In the internet age, maintaining privacy is practically an impossible task. As cautious as I try to be, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an extensive privately available data collection that indicates what I look like, what I like to do, where I go, and what I say. I mean, just by using an Android phone, Google keeps location history about where you’ve been at all times. On top of that, images hosted on Google Photos are technically publicly available since you don’t even need to log in to see the image, you just need the exact link. Lest I live under a rock, I can’t prevent companies from collecting information about me since, for many, the terms of service state that you cannot use their products if you don’t agree to data collection.
Today, privacy is becoming less and less of a thing. Merely 10 years ago, keeping your information to yourself was as simple as not telling anyone about it. There wasn’t really a way for people to know more about you unless they specifically asked you for information. As the world advanced, however, keeping a grasp on your data becomes nearly impossible. The internet has slowly integrated into our social, academic, and professional lives to the point such that you can’t progress without it. In exchange for the ability to reach thousands of websites from the comfort of your home, the internet demanded the ability of thousands of websites to reach you in the comfort of your home. Anywhere you go, as long as you have internet, you can be reached. From this ability, companies began harvesting data about people wherever they are. For me, despite valuing my privacy and taking measures to keep my information to myself, people can find out a fair amount about me just by searching me up. Today’s culture forces anyone and everyone to interact with the internet and give up information whether they like it or not. In order to go to elementary school, I had to give my information to Google so I can be a part of the school’s Google Classroom system. In order to get a job, I’ve had to publicly reveal a lot of personal information on LinkedIn since that’s just expected from most applicants nowadays. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before everyone has an accurate, complete, and stable public data identity of themselves online whether they want to or not.