My presence on social media during high school played a driving role in my self-consciousness and fear of judgement. I had used Facebook for years along with Twitter, though my Instagram is still untouched and doesn’t contain my real name. After making a deliberate transition away from using social media in order to focus my energy on connecting with people around me, I became far less shy after my first job and discovered the real difference between meeting people in real life as opposed to online where I much prefer the former. My only objective concerning my digital presence is to be as inconspicuous as possible in order to prioritize interactions in the real world. Does my digital identity, and consequently my real life, reflect this intention?
People Call Me Nico
I think my name is the best place to start, concerning my real identity. I always tell people that Nico isn’t my real name, followed by an explanation about how I’m not from somewhere cool, my dad is. Names try to be our unique identifiers, but that doesn't apply in this digital realm, considering the breadth of the internet. My name is very common where my dad is from but sparsely heard here in the United States, so filtering out any Spanish results could help to narrow my search greatly.
There are plenty of other identifying traits that are used for categorization the internet, and in order to better critique my findings through search engines, I want to include some personal qualities which I feel define me. I love to code, play tennis and walk my dog. When my car breaks, I enjoy fixing it. My family all lives in Ann Arbor where I graduated high school in 2016. I attended Washtenaw Community College before transferring to the University of Michigan. These are all superficial details, but they represent me accurately so I am using them as a threshold to determine the depth to which I can be unearthed through Google and Bing.
My high-level goal while constructing this digital profile was to critique how well I have stayed out of search engines relative to the personal details I provided. For both search engines I started with “Nico Figueroa” and then expanded on the entry to include more intimate details until I had searched enough to conclusively correlate any changes in my real life with my findings (or hopefully lack thereof).
A Whole Lot of Nothing
The most expected results from Bing are the first blog post I wrote for a class at the University of Michigan, SI410, a few weeks ago, along a few articles about my tennis career in high school. There is one picture that is captioned as containing me, but the link is broken. These initial results fall well within the scope in which I feel comfortable being represented online and although the blog post I wrote reveals some details about my workplace, I believe in the transparency of a company with its community. So far I was happy with what I could dig up, except for one search result.
A (Mostly) False Positive
A search engine listing for mylife.com gave me some misgivings, describing exactly my age, an associated address and the names of all my immediate family! I will absolutely admit to being anxious to click the link, but a good researcher never backs down.
The page revealed data which was out of date and clearly gathered from public government information providing some relief. The address posted was the one on my driver's license from when I still lived with my parents, there were no photos linked and the most identifying information listed was my age. There was a summary section with names of people who live around my parents, but they were antiquated and represented easily attainable public records. The part I found most unsettling was an “Approximate Reputation Score” which you can only investigate if you start handing over your credit card digits.
I experienced slim pickings with Bing, so I was curious to see if the trend would continue with Google.
We Say, "Google It" For a Reason
The all-knowing Alphabet Inc. gave me some more personal results, possibly revealing the first crack through my digital armor. The only result for “Nico Figueroa” that I came across through this entire endeavor was on page 2 of the Google search page, where my GitHub profile and history shows up. I wasn’t too impressed by this because my username is uniquely @NicoFigueroa, and after all, the site is a place to host Open-Source software. It stands to reason that my public repositories are on display for the world to see. No problems there, I don’t mind sharing my “professional” work with the world.
Two more listings merit mentioning, the first of which is a link to a Washtenaw Community College list of Honors Students from 2020 which nobody had bothered to invite me to. The second is another tennis website which broadcasts my losing record during my time in Rec&Ed tennis career. Again, there is a clear distinction to me between finding a picture of myself from a private profile and these news articles or school events. So far, I would report that I am satisfied with the results of my effort to remain as anonymous as possible.
Cutting it Close
After typing in every combination of my name along with personal details I could think of, the prominent results were “People Search” websites similar to mylife.com, which promise intimate details about the person in question. I investigated the site truthfinder.com as carefully as possible to find where they are getting this information and what my rights are to remove it.
That site cites its sources as government records with offerings such as: “Criminal and arrest records” or “Social media profiles”. The summary continues to mention they scrape deep web information and social media data in order to build an accurate profile of every single person in the United States.
The scariest detail I stumbled upon was the inclusion of my family members and their last known addresses are listed right next to mine. I’m glad that there is scarce information to procure about any of them, but it is still very unsettling to me to know that it is so easy to find out the connections to people I care about through what the government deems acceptable to release publicly. Although I’m uncomfortable with a certain brand of website that I appear on, I must admit that there is far less information available through Google and Bing than I expected to find.
My initial hunch that names are not useful as unique identifiers was mostly confirmed in my case, after finding dozens of Nico(las) Figueroa’s. This served to bring me some peace of mind when I considered how difficult it would be to single me out in the sea of Nicos. Names alone are clearly not enough today, outside of some circumstances, to be a completely discrete form of identity. Therefore, I wanted to consider a threshold of information that could be combined with my name to build an unmistakable profile of myself online. Were the requirements met?
My failure to find any significant search engine listings relevant to myself argue that I am safely under this threshold, while doing good job of convincing me that there is a strong correlation between the results presented here and my journey through life.
This aspect is the most intriguing to me; whether my lack of public information has truly affected my real self in the way that I hope. I was very happy to have difficulty finding information about myself, and although not having a LinkedIn or Facebook profile may hurt my employment options, this is outweighed by exceptional relationships with my family and friends. My improved mental health since starting college also seems to correlate with my findings, providing strong motivation to continue with the goal of staying invisible online. I may not be able to stay invisible online forever, who knows that the future might hold in terms of digital presence, but I hope carry on emphasizing to myself the importance of real-world interaction. This digital profile was an exciting experience to self-reflect and I think that I am headed in the right direction.