Probably unlike many people who grew up in a digital age, I couldn’t find anything about myself from Googling “Zhen Lian”. I remember back in middle school; I was always jealous that my friends could find themselves on Google’s search results and I couldn’t. As I grew up, I learned more about the risks of sharing personal data and how my online identity can affect me in the future. So, I became more and more careful with disclosing any personal information. But despite being so careful of revealing my personal identity, there was still information about me that was shared behind the paywall. After considerable research, however, I came to the conclusion that the information most people have access to about me was not an authentic, stable, and reliable representation of me.
My Data Identity
When¬ I Googled “Zhen Lian”, the results were not that surprising to me. The first few results showed a Ph.D. student from Cornell University and a few about a software engineer from Google. There wasn’t anything that I could find about myself on the first few pages of Google’s search engine. Maybe I am hidden somewhere in Google’s 4.4million search results about “Zhen Lian”, but I was not about to dig through all the results to find myself, and I believe that will also be the case for anyone else searching for me on Google.
The most relevant Google search results of myself was when I had added my hometown after my name “Zhen Lian, hometown”. The first few results didn’t really have any relevant information about me, and the only way I even found out there was information relevant to me was because I saw my friend’s names listed next to mine on the site. The next few Google results showed my resident and voters' information, and I was surprised to find these types of information to so easily show up on Google’s search engines with my voters’ information and where I lived for the public to access with a simple search query.
The seventh search result from Google was surprisingly accurate about my demographic information. I found this to be kind of terrifying because what I thought was private information was not private. Anyone who googles my name with my hometown after it can find information about where I lived and my relatives or people I might be linked with. I even found some relatives who I no longer live with and neighbors to be listed on this site. One thing from this site that was very suspicious to me was that it had listed my cousin’s wife as someone I might know. It’s very strange and frightening to me that these websites even associated me with her. It made me question how this site even collected this information about me. I don’t know, maybe they are watching and collecting my data right now.
I enjoyed researching about myself and learning what people can see about me on the internet. So, out of curiosity, I paid for the monthly plan for Truthfinder.com to search for my public records. It asked me for my name and the city I live in and it started searching for my public data. It displayed messages such as “This search may contain sensitive information about this person. Are you sure you want to continue?” A few moments later, a report was generated. The report that TruthFinder had generated for me was an 82-year-old “Zhen Lian”. According to the report, this man who I have never met lives in my house and oddly, we have the same relatives as well. The data broker had some information about me that was correct, but it was obvious that this wasn’t me. They had associated my information with the wrong person. I felt relieved to see that the information TruthFinder revealed about me was inaccurate. I was desperately eager to see that people couldn’t simply search for my name on this data broker site and find information about me. I was afraid that I would find something embarrassing about myself that I didn’t even know was true.
I then tried another data broker called BeenVerified. Although the information this site provided was very limited, it was surprisingly very accurate, unlike the other data brokers I have used. It collected my demographic information and a list of my personal emails. The thing that stood out to me the most from the report was information about my stepbrother. Under his name says, “Dates seen Aug 2017 – Oct 2018”, the year he moved out for college. This is evidence that our data is being collected and updated constantly into their database by data brokers. This is also proof that my information was being utilized by companies to share with anyone whose willing to pay a monthly fee.
As mentioned before, I am very protective of my personal data, so I don’t share any personal information on social media platforms. In fact, I barely pay attention or check any of my social media accounts. And if you ever try searching for me on Instagram or Twitter, the only thing I will say is “good luck” because I don’t leave traces of myself on the internet. The most “relevant” information anyone will find about me is probably my embarrassing Facebook posts from 7 years ago. Most of which I tried getting rid of, but some will be stuck on my timeline forever because there wasn’t a way for me to delete some of them. However, these data available online about me are no longer an authentic representation of who I am anymore so they are irrelevant now, but it is unquestionable that there are others who share their information online without knowing or considering that anyone could have access to it, or what kind of information the search engine will recommend to others based on your personal data.
The only place that someone could find relevant and updated information about me is on my LinkedIn profile. Compared to Instagram or Facebook, LinkedIn is an entirely different type of platform for me. It’s like a resume-sharing platform and people want to share their data for a good reason. People on LinkedIn purposefully share information so that they can make connections and most importantly for recruiters to find them. Unlike some random Facebook post you share for likes or follows; you might be revealing a lot of personal information without realizing it. Do most people even consider how those data can be used? Probably not. According to a survey conducted in 2016, it found that people struggled to understand the nature and scope of data collected about them. And 74% of the participants said it was very important to them to be in control of their information (Pew Research Center, 2016). I always try to stay anonymous online because that’s the only way I can control my online identity. Nobody knows how these companies use your personal data, and if social media companies even help protect your data rather than selling it.
It’s intimidating to think that anyone willing to pay for a data broker service can collect information about where you live, your family, relatives, neighbors, and even friends. It’s obvious that these companies can trace your data and use it to identify who you are and information that is linkable to you. Even after extensive research has been done on discovering my online identity, it’s still unclear to me how these data brokers were able to collect my personal information. However, I am still glad that I have at least attempted to protect my own information and privacy. So that even if people attempted to stalk me, whether, through Google’s search engine or social media platforms, they would not find information relevant or accurate to who I am now. At least for now, my personal information will remain private to the general population while I enjoy the convenience of the internet. Finally, I encourage everyone to reconsider the next time they share their personal data online because what you think is secure may not be after all.
Rainie L. (March 27, 2018). “Americans’ complicated feelings about social media in an era of privacy concerns”. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/27/americans-complicated-feelings-about-social-media-in-an-era-of-privacy-concerns/