My Data Identity
I always thought that having a unique (and alliterative) name was one of the coolest things about me. But after researching myself online, I now see how it can lead to data privacy concerns. When googling just “Zoe Zemper” the first fourteen links all share personal information related directly to me. Including three public social media accounts, and two records sites which linked my name directly to my address, relatives, and voting status. Clearly I am an easy person to find online. My data identity accurately reflects my true identity, but perhaps a little too much is accessible.
When researching myself on google with a simple search of “Zoe Zemper” the 5th link that appeared right away was, “Zoe Alexandra Zemper, [my home address]” in big bolded letters from "michiganresidentdatabase.com". I was immediately horrified to find that I was so easy to geographically locate because I have tried to be careful with that sort of information. I don’t share my location on the app Snapchat as many people do, and I don’t have location sharing on for most of the applications on my phone. But none of that mattered because I was a two-words-typed search away. The site is meant to serve as a sort of digital phone book and draws its records from Michigan’s public voter registration data, but is not affiliated with the state of Michigan. The eleventh link under this search also contained information about my home address, my neighbors, my age, my voting status, and my relatives. This site is “votingrecords.com” which I have a bit more quarrels with.
Cleaning up my Muddy Digital Footprint
After being startled by these revealing sites, I decided to see what immediate actions I could take to remove my personal details. Michiganresidentdatabase.com had a link that said “opt-out” at the bottom of their page and I was able to fill out a short form where I only had to prove I wasn’t a robot and provide a short reason. It said it would take 1-2 days to come down, and after about a day and a half I saw my page was gone. My entire profile on that site no longer existed and didn’t appear with a google search anymore which was very satisfying (although my family members still have the same issue, so I might need to convince them to protect their information as well to ensure my obscurity). After this easy success I moved on to votingrecords.com. They also had an “opt-out” link near the bottom of their page. Here I had to certify that I was the owner of the record being removed, verify a link sent to my email address, and then they ensured instant removal which I was excited about. But with more careful reading I saw that this feature would only remove my “house number, phone number, and email address” (pictured here). This result is better than nothing, but it is essentially useless in removing geographic data about myself because they still display my neighbors and their addresses, making my street address very easy to find. The site offers no other methods for record removal which is a bit disappointing. This is another public records site, and it is meant to serve as a “free political research tool” although it is likely used for many purposes. Surprisingly, neither site was able to successfully link directly to my social media pages- which are a bit more revealing.
My first social link that appears is my LinkedIn profile which I made just this past year. This link very accurately presents my professional and academic history for anyone to see as it is still up to date. My next profile that appears is my Facebook which isn’t very revealing because I have rarely used it. I also figured out I apparently have two identical Facebook accounts? I am on there so little I have never noticed. The only information one can discern about me from there is that I am in a relationship, how to pronounce my name, what high school I went to, some very old pictures of me, and some birthday messages from my parents’ friends over the years. Not much to discern there. The juiciest content one can find about me easily on the innerwebs definitely comes from my twitter. My twitter doesn’t appear with the simple google search, but searching “Zoe Zemper twitter” will yield instant results. Looking at my twitter, it would become clear that I am involved in activism. My feed is almost entirely retweets related to donations or information campaigns related to causes I care about. This digital version of me is definitely accurate, but perhaps a bit more vigilant than my true self. In my twitter likes, one can see that I mostly interact with comedic and political content which are definitely both big parts of my real personality. Luckily my Instagram is private, and my public pug Instagram account I run for my dog Theo (@sweettheothepug) isn’t linked to my name.
Ghosts of my Past
There were lots of old records related to me, in the simple google search, that I didn’t expect to still be connected to my name. One article from my hometown’s local newspaper reported on the top 10 grads personal bios and these images filled 10 of my 28 Google image results. This article leads to the only real image of me that comes up on google (pictured here) and it’s unfortunately my senior picture which I’m not a big fan of. Other old records that came up were my high school tennis records, a donation record for a high school dance, a fundraiser I organized with my volunteer group, and my brother’s personal wedding website. Looking at all these links one might gather that I am an athletic and caring person who is close to her family. I would say this information also paints an accurate picture of the real me. But these high school records did make me reflect on the permanency of the internet and how these things will always exist and continue to follow me forever. It scares me to think about if anything negative were to be tied to my name, because it would never be forgotten.
Google Ad Settings
I also decided to look at what sort of information google has discerned about me and my interests through their ad settings. Google knew my age range, that I was a college student, that I worked at a small company, my gender, and that I use urban transit. This is pretty base level data that I would expect google to understand about me based on my searches. But many of the categories were quite specific and accurate which was surprising. It knew that I was into video games and specifically Nintendo, it knew I was into all sorts of tv shows (which makes sense because I am always searching actor names and where to watch shows) and it knew I was looking at job listings. It was interesting to look through these results, but it’s a bit frightening that these algorithms hold so much personal information about me in one place with the intent to profit off of me. I have since turned ad personalization's off.
After conducting all this research on myself, I was a bit exhausted and I can’t imagine what life must be like as a PI. I have gained a deeper understanding of what strangers can easily gather about me, and I have forged a deeper value for data privacy. It led to me removing personal data from two records sites and to turning off ad personalization's on my email accounts. I am also more wary of how my digital actions will stick to me through the ages, as the internet never forgets. I also think it's really worth mentioning the extreme ethical concerns uncovered here. Clearly, the internet has farther to go when regulating data privacy concerns and respecting individuals' safety threats. I’ve always loved my name, but I am now wary of the lack of data privacy it provides me. The internet definitely has an accurate version of myself on the fronts of my social media presence, academic self, high school past, and knowledge of my literal location, but perhaps it's a little too accessible.