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Soul-Searching Software

Google My name is Serene Saldaña, but all the world seems to care about is Zoe Saldaña. At least, that's what comes up when I search myself on Google. Makes sense, she's been in plenty of films and I don't even have a starring role in a high school play to add to resumé. I didn't dig up too many instances of other people having my name because, for the most part, they are both fairly uncommon especially when you put the two together. However, my volleyball recruiting profile from the 9th grade did make a reappearance and I cringed looking at my fourteen-year-old self with my butchered bangs and ducky lip pout. Freshman year of high school was a dark time for me both physically and emotionally. My mother also passed away that year. Scanning through Google Images with searching my name, I was surprised to see photos of both my grandfather and my mother, who are both deceased. Oddly enough, there were more pictures of my grandfather in his old age and my mother than there were of me.

Data Broker Using Instant Checkmate, a free data broker website, I ran a background check on myself and was amazed to see the things about my life that the site was able to dig up. I watched it put my life together bit by bit, fact by fact, connection by connection until it had mapped out my entire digital existence. It asked me questions between collecting data that seemed to assist it in confirming my identity. It asked if I’d ever lived in Jackson, Michigan, which is where I currently reside, and if I knew Jeanette Magras Saldaña. That’s my mom’s name. I was very surprised to see that Instant Checkmate was able to find information about my neighbor’s daughter that passed away when I was eleven and still lived in the Virgin Islands. It was able to discover all this with my name and a few confirmation questions. It managed to find my social media accounts and state records summary with ease. I’m always very careful about what I put online, my Instagram doesn’t even have my full name on it so that was a little scary that the data broker was able to figure out which account was mine.

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My Data Identity in Context

As the person in question, I don’t believe that my data identity is representative of who I am. I will admit that I feel incredibly violated and I didn’t even see everything there was to see on the website. I can’t be mad at the Internet obviously, but can I have concern for emerging human values in its design? In Philip Brey’s “Value in technology and disclosive computer ethics,” he reminds us that, “ systems and software are not morally neutral..” Following the embedded values approach, we can understand that computer programs can be supportive or undermining of certain values applicable to online environments due to their interlinkage with human thought processes. According to Brey, “Disclosive ethics should not just be multi-level, ideally, it should also be a multi-disciplinary endeavor, involving ethicists, computer scientists, and social scientists.

My Context Collapse & Transparency

As previously mentioned, it was unnerving to see so many pieces of information about my life all in one place. I did feel some anxiety upon considering how easy it would be for anyone else to find the information I did while researching myself. The fear of a “contextual collapse” is a never-ending storm cloud sitting above my head. As described by Boyd and Marwick, it [context collapse] “....problematizes the individual’s ability to shift between these selves and come off as authentic or fake.” I’m not sure if the need to maintain each of my identities as separate and distinct is for the purpose of me appearing to be more authentic or likable to the people in my life or if it’s for myself.

My most likable self is the self I share with my family on Facebook. I appear to be a super sweet college student who regularly volunteers and has a very tight-knit family. Like a regular modern age millennial, I’m pretty convinced that the internet is spying on me. There is no other logical explanation for how it knows exactly what biology textbook I was looking at on Amazon twenty minutes ago. Unfortunately, a majority of the time when we sign up for social media, we unknowingly give them rights to our privacy that they probably shouldn’t have. They are usually hidden in default settings, so we don’t think to change them. In Turelli and Floridi’s “The ethics of information transparency,” transparency is defined as, “…the possibility of accessing information, intentions, or behaviors, that have been intentionally revealed through a process of disclosure.” On the contrary, I believe that the behaviors regarding the privacy that is practiced by social media platforms are intentionally hidden from users in an effort to more easily retrieve data. A quick look at my Ad Preference information on Facebook illustrates that. I don’t recall ever consenting to Facebook being allowed to note my preferences to tailor ads to my user experience, but here I can see the very categories I have been assigned to. They include but are not limited to: away from hometown, U.S. politics(liberal), multicultural affinity: African-American (US), and family of those who live abroad. The purpose of the section is described by Facebook as to, “help advertisers reach people who are most likely to be interested in their products, services, and causes...” Transparency is a necessity when it comes to all computer programming, and sites not being clear about their default settings are a violation of that transparency.

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In conclusion, I have learned much about myself through this experience and definitely intend to be even more careful about what pieces of my life and fragments of my identity can end up online and easily found by others. A data identity is a complex thing and it would do us well to take very good care of it by all means necessary. Based on my findings, my data identity seems very similar to my real life presence. Not much exists online about my identity that I wouldn't consent to be released. However, in the future, I will still attempt to minimize my digital footprint. I noticed that even a photo I deleted from my Facebook a few years ago was pulled up in a Google Search of my name. You can't ever really delete anything from the Internet and that can be really scary to think about. So I need to be extra mindful about how much information I share about myself online. I'm not an even an amateur data broker and I was able to find where I lived, I could only imagine what kind of information someone could find if they really wanted to look or hired a real data broker.


Floridi, L., & Brey, P. (2012). The Cambridge handbook of information and computer ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. “ systems and software are not morally neutral..”

Boyd, D., & Marwick, A. E. (2010). I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience (Rep.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Turilli, M., & Floridi, L. (2009). The ethics of information transparency (Rep.). Springer Science Business Media B.V.