Information self-determination in the Google Age

Some  weeks ago I had a conversation with a fellow academic about privacy (*waves at Judith*). This is a recurring discussion between us, as we have diametrically opposed views about privacy, technology and how to manage one’s image online. I tend to be in the open camp, while she cherishes privacy.

One thing that came from that conversation is something that I have been advocating for a while. In the Google Age, where terabytes of information are stored and distributed in server farms along the electronic cloud, privacy has become a quaint concept. It is still an important notion, but if we are honest we have to recognise that we have lost control over our information, regardless of any data protection law that is passed or will be passed, the genie is out of the bottle, information replicates and strives to be free. Take a look for example at sites like Pipl.com, that look for data not only from the “visible” web, but also from the deep web.

Should we just give up on privacy then? No. There are two possible strategies. One is to completely drop off the grid, go and live in some remote island, refuse to have anything to do with electronic transactions and the networked world, and generally go back to the early 20th Century. However, if you want to stay in the 21st century, lying low will no longer suffice.

One strategy to take control of your own informational destiny is to take hold of your own data and use the tools of the Google Age to your advantage. Even if you are not a fan of social networks or social media, putting some information out there through these channels could be one step towards self-empowerment.

For example, just by creating a Facebook page with little information, a blank blog with your name on it and one generic article, a Flickr profile with a single picture in it, and a Twitter identity with a couple of tweets, you will have put out a lot of noise out there that YOU decided to make available, even if it is mostly blank information. There are also professionally-oriented social networks where the information distributed has little personal relevance, such as LinkedIn and Academia.edu. Just by filling profiles in these sites allows one to take a small yet potentially meaningful step towards controlling some data out there.

This does not stop deep web searches, but it allows one to at least have a minor say in what information is out there. Social media poses serious privacy issues, particularly in a world where people are more jaded about their public profiles. However, social media also offers a solution, it allows you to show the face that you want the world to see.

Comments 5

  1. I have a pretty well-controlled Google presence for my real name. It's been work and it's not perfect. The best thing is that you can only find it if you Google my full full name (first maiden married). If you just Google first & married it's hard to find me.

  2. You said " One is to completely drop off the grid, go and live in some remote island, refuse to have anything to do with electronic transactions and the networked world, and generally go back to the early 20th Century" – remember the man who decided he didn't want to bring up young children in the UK, and wanted a more open, honest and safer society in which they could develop? He moved to the Falkland Islands just before the invasion…

  3. we need to move away from binary choices – opt in vs. opt out – as as users and producers of content and in a digitized world, our choices can be more complex, granular, multi dimensional

    we are at the beginning of this wave of data excess and overload – so you may be able to find someone today, but in the next 5, 10, 15 years, it won't be so easy

    for the short term, adopt the magicians illusion to confound self-determination – create multiple profiles with slightly varying information about yourself on as many sites as you can handle,

    or become chinese by grabbing a chinese transliterated name e.g. if you search my name "Huey Tan", there are only two hits which is me, the rest are variations of names like mine. all i have to do is sit and wait for 100M "Tans" in China to access the Internet then try to find me 🙂

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