My life revolves around the internet. Like many young adults these days, I have grown up interconnected with friends and strangers online. My career, entertainment, and studies involve around this interconnected infosphere. To be clear, I’m not hiding, or even think about my privacy. Therefore, it’s strange to see that I’m an enigma to data collectors.
I’ve never felt the need to withhold details about myself. The internet should be approached like any other public space. Any information that is voluntarily given should be considered information you’re willing to share with the public. To illustrate how overt I am with my data online, I should note that all my social media is open to the public. My Instagram profile is public and a lot of my Facebook information (posts, the university attend, my places of employment, and images) can be seen without the need of my approval (a friend request). Yet, I was able to escape data brokers.
I will examine how my self-identity was able to hide from data brokers, and how search engines create an identity that is disproportionate.
The data brokers need a unique identifier to help congregate data. Usually it is a name, but email appears to be an important contributor. According to my report, they were using an old email that I use to have as my primary email before high school, however, it is mostly used for spam. Now, I have twelve active emails that I use. Either they be student emails, work emails, or personal emails, they all have a purpose and are spread around different parts of the infosphere.
Have these emails served as a sort of cloaking device? It is likely the case since data brokers didn’t list these other emails. Also, they only referenced my social media accounts (Amazon, Google, and Facebook) which all use this old email. Hence, by getting their hands on these other emails, they would definitely see a lot more data about me (especially if they had my LinkedIn email).
Along with the previous mentioned information, BeenVerified, the data broker in question, also had my correct address (both my mother’s and father’s even though they didn’t list them as having a relation to me) and my phone number. These things are public record, so it’s not very surprising to see them listed here. By this lack of information, I will claim that I am an anonymous user that shares publicly. I will reflect on this notion in the following section. I will not argue how data brokers misrepresent me by having too little information about me, but instead focus on how I am misrepresented on search engines
For both my previous blog posts, I have questioned self-identity and how online identities can’t represent one’s self-identity. There is so much that goes into an identity that can't be represented online. However, the information that contributes to my online identity is accurate. Tagging allows pictures to be tied to my name and display what activities I engage in. For example, I found a lot of hits relevant to Track and Field (Track). By having my name in online articles about the High School team or by displaying the stats of a competition, my identity can now be linked with the sport. However, it outweighs activities I'm currently engaged in.
Since Track is a very statistical sport, every competition I've ran in has the results published online. Therefore, by searching my name in a search engine, most of the results relate to Track because my name is included on these web pages. The results act as an indicator for the search engines to relate my name to whatever the content is on the web page. Some may see it as a positive, as it creates a persona that I’m physical fit and athletic, but it isn’t me. If I were to describe myself, it would take a few hours for me to even bring up Track. My online profile should mention my two years playing volleyball or that I golf (albeit for leisure) as they are more recent activities I've engaged in.
There are certain imbalances in how I’m represented (too much track and field) and mentions very little about other aspects of my life.
Analysis of My Online Identity
There are several arguments that could be made in response to this apparent disproportionate identity.
- Online identities expose an individual of who they really are because they are more timid in person.
- An online identity has become an idealized version of the self-identity.
- Online identities are misrepresentations of one’s self.
The first response fails because it doesn’t acknowledge that people can be more reluctant to expose themselves online. Also, a lot of identities are inauthentic because of idealization. That leads to the second response. We can think that social media is a great way to become a more idealized version of ourselves, but we must consider other sources that contribute to our identity. For example, the schools that record my race time is unbiased and can present times that aren’t satisfactory to me. Hence, I will further discuss the third response, and how my online identity constructed by search engines is inauthentic.
Self Identity vs Online Identity
In order to claim that my online identity is inauthentic of my self-identity, I will first define my self-identity. Already, you should know that this is impossible. If I were able to simply describe to you who I am within a few sentences, that’d be a miracle. Instead, my identity will be based on my perception of others, since my own reflection of who I am can be skewed by my desires. Therefore, my identity will be based on actions, statements, and physical attributes because these can be perceived. Shoemaker states that “the self is implicated in action” though he goes on to discuss that there is more that contributes to the self. Yet, action is a part of one’s self and I will focus solely on this part.
Unauthentic Online Identity
One (of many) issues with my online identity is its temporality and relevance. There are two items that are of my self-identity, Boy Scouts and Track, that present an issue with relevancy. These two activities are some of the first things that appear in my search even though I no longer participate in them. Past activities and actions do contribute to one’s self-identity, but should make a very small portion of it, depending how much time has passed. For example, I attended preschool, that is an experience that makes up who I am by shaping my perception, but I should not be thought of as a preschooler or that I am currently attending preschool. Instead, the activity should only be a fact of one’s self and shouldn’t carry any weight on their current self-identity. This issue with ‘attachment’ is brought up in Floridi’s chapter on Privacy in The Fourth Revolution. Our data serves as an ethical issue because it “mummifies your personal identity” and can prevent an individual to be able to renew themselves. As the information friction decreases, it allows for labels attributed to individuals to become increasingly difficult to detach from (Floridi).
My unauthentic online identity is influenced by means of tagging or mention. Perhaps this is an area in which needs reconsideration. By allowing your name to be attached to other posts and articles, you lose the control of what information is public or not. This idea aligns with the ideas of two theories of information privacy: control theory and the Restricted Access/Limited Control Theory (RALC) described in David Shoemaker’s paper, Self-exposure of the self: informational privacy and the presentation of identity. Tagging denies people access to control the presentation of information about oneself.
Considerations of the Party at Fault
Boy Scouts and Track outweigh more relevant activities in my life. However, Google isn't the guilty party. Perhaps I’m serving an injustice when I don’t update myself online. I could add more weight to activities I am currently engaged in, and I could put in effort to ask third parties that are attaching me to remove mention of my name. A lot of the results are self inflicting, and can be easily removed from social media. These are actions we can all take, but seem to forget.
I also discovered that limiting the time frame of a Google search to information from within the last year, results in a better representation of myself. It lists my current employer and information about the college I transferred from (yet nothing on my enrollment in the University of Michigan). This allowed old labels attached to me to disappear. Even though I’m complacent with my findings, I still find that data brokers, and the data aggregated in search engines, should be reconsidered because they void one’s right to represent themselves and control their own information. Yet, they shouldn't be blamed for the data they use that was voluntarily given up by the users. It's easy to point to a scapegoat when the potential culprit of an unauthentic data identity is one's self.
Floridi, Luciano. The 4th Revolution: How the Infosphere Is Reshaping Human Reality. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Shoemaker, David. “Self-exposure and exposure of the self: informational privacy and the presentation of identity”. Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009.