My Data Identity
Growing up, I always knew my name was unique. Be it my parents’ choice to have my first name be a combination of both my English and Cantonese names, or an error with the school’s system that meant my first name showed up backwards as ‘Hinam Gordon’ on the register, which resulted in an annual tradition spanning over a decade of having to listen to each of my new teachers awkwardly attempt to pronounce 'Hinam', my name has always been something that I have been conscious about. Though it never really bothered me when a new teacher would call me by my Chinese name at first, in fact my classmates and I thought it was quite amusing every year, something else that I have always been particularly conscious about is my online data identity.
Whether it was the seminars at school teaching us about our Facebook privacy settings, or the constant lectures I would get from my parents about the dangers of the Internet and how you would get your credit card information stolen if you weren’t careful and typed it on a dodgy website, I was always especially careful when it came to my online identity or ‘profile’. As such, the idea of a ‘digital footprint’ was something that was introduced to me at quite a young age and is something that is always in the back of my mind. Though I am too lazy to use a browser like Tor, I use a Chrome extension that works similarly to a VPN, and I have also installed various anti-malware and security software on all my devices. As such, I was quite interested to see what possible data or information there is of me available online.
'Gordon Chan' vs 'Gordon Hinam Chan'
The very first thing I did was to do a basic Google search of my name, ‘Gordon Chan’. But, upon finding search results for a Hong Kong film director born in 1960, I figured that that probably wasn’t me, so I refined my search to ‘Gordon Hinam Chan’, my full birth name. I was able to find three results that were actually relevant to me, although two of them were essentially the same. The very first result was a search result for people in ‘MCommunity’, where I was able to find my affiliation to the school, including my degree, major and minor, as well as my uniqname and e-mail (all of which were correct and up to date). The last two search results were both for financial and legal information regarding a small family-owned company in France that is registered to the names of my family members, which would explain the match to my full name as well as the French websites that I had to Google Translate to comprehend. Interestingly, when I Googled “Gordon Hinam Chan”, I only got 1 result, which was for my MCommunity page, and apart from that I was not able to find much more about me from a simple search of my name.
I noticed that there were not any images of me however, and all the images were of other Gordon Chan’s. This did not surprise me too much though, as I am quite selective with the images that I upload and post, and most of my social media is private too. Overall, everything I had found so far was accurate, and I was not too surprised that what I had actually found would be publicly available. I wanted to dig a little deeper though, and I wanted to see what information I would be able to gather of myself from social media.
Facebook/Instagram vs LinkedIn
I made a fresh Facebook and Instagram account so that I could stalk myself, but I was unable to find myself on either platform without searching specifically for my username. I was quite satisfied with this though, as I purposely keep my social media on tight privacy settings. As both my profiles were private, I was unable to glean any personal data or even any photos. In contrast, after I made my fake LinkedIn profile I was able to instantly find myself with a simple search, and on my LinkedIn profile, I was able to find the most detailed information about myself yet, including my current location and most recent employment. This, however, was all information that I had specifically prepared to be visible on my public professional profile.I was quite pleased to see that I have managed to create a distinction between my 'personal' and 'public' profile. Though I would preferably keep my entire online data profile private, in an increasingly technological-driven and data-centric world, being able to keep certain profiles of mine private whilst simultaneously being able to (somewhat) control the information that is shared on my public profiles is a compromise I am willing to accept.
Though I have always been aware of how user data can be collected and then bought and sold just like any other commodity, until this assignment I had never been aware of data brokers. As such, I had to try one out for myself, and since many of the data brokers I tried to use initially were locked behind a paywall, I tried to use Instant Checkmate, a free data broker. Sadly however, I was unable to get any information on myself, though I think this may be because I only moved to the US four years ago when I first started college, and thus may not have built up a comprehensive enough history in the US yet. It still is quite interesting though that there is absolutely no information available that was even remotely related to me, despite my various attempts at changing the search filters.
Overall, I thought that the information I was able to find about myself online from various sources, including Google, social media, and even a data broker, was on the whole quite accurate, authentic, and stable. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the data broker was not able to find any information on me, and that the only photo I found of myself online was my LinkedIn profile picture (thankfully). However, this lack of information about me online made me sit back and think about my approach to my online data identity.
Privacy and Identity
As someone who has always been very careful about maintaining their privacy, going through and actually seeing for myself what sort of data is readily available has raised some interesting questions. After reading through what some of my current, as well as previous classmates, have written about their experiences with this assignment, I have realized that the privacy of my data online has a direct effect on the online data identity that I create. I now understand that creating and managing your data identity is a fine balancing act between sharing and hiding information, and more importantly, that your data identity is based on the very information that you ‘choose’ to be private or public. But as technology continues to develop, we may soon find that our control over what appears as part of our online data identity start to lessen. Eventually, we may even reach a point where so much of our personal lives and information has been digitized and tracked that our data identity may be the most 'accurate' version of our identity, mathematically speaking. At that point, however, would we be happy or ashamed of our own identity?