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.
The concept of a ‘digital footprint’ was introduced to me at quite a young age and is something that has always stayed in the back of my mind. 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 maintaining the privacy of my online identity or ‘profile’. 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 not too surprised by the lack of information I found online, as I tend to keep most of my things on the highest privacy and security settings. However, seeing this seemingly inverse relationship between privacy and identity has also made me rethink my approach to privacy.
'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 find 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, I had never been aware of data brokers until this assignment. 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. However, this lack of information about me online made me sit back and think about my online data identity.
Privacy and Identity
As someone who has always been very careful about maintaining their privacy, going online and actually seeing for myself what sort of data is readily available has raised some interesting questions. Using Shoemaker’s idea that “the domain of informational privacy, the zone to be protected, is information about one’s self-identity,” to evaluate my online data identity, I concluded that I have a level of informational privacy sufficient enough to make me feel secure and comfortable about my online presence. However, this exercise has also made me realize that the privacy settings I use, as well as the information that I choose to share publicly, has a direct effect on my online data identity. By prioritizing my privacy above all else, I have left myself with a rather 'weak' online data identity that may not be a fully accurate or thorough representation of my real identity. Although this helps me to feel secure about my online presence, is there a point at which too much privacy may instead harm my online data identity?
By exploring my own online data identity, as well as having the privilege of reading about the experiences of my peers, I now understand that creating and managing an online data identity is much more than just a fine balancing act between what information to share publicly and what information to keep private. Our online data identity is an incredibly powerful tool that can reveal a lot about a person, which in some cases may be helpful, but in other cases could just as easily be harmful. However, as technology continues to develop, we may soon find that our control over our online data identity start to lessen, making it all the more important that our right to informational privacy be rigorously upheld. Even now, we are already being patterned and profiled by publicly available data, the size of which will only continue to grow too. Eventually, we may even reach a point where so much of our personal lives and information has been digitized and analyzed that our online data identity may be the most comprehensive version of our identity. At that point though, it may be too late to start discussing ‘domains of informational privacy’, and thus it is of vital importance that our rights to informational privacy be clearly defined now, so that we may still have them in the future.