Clippings: Self-Googling yields privacy concerns

I’m going to come right out and admit it: I Google myself fairly often.
Actually, I’m lazier than that: I have a news alert set for my name. Every time my name is mentioned in the cyber world, I see it in the “Me” folder of Google Reader. I don’t even need to go to the trouble of typing my name into a search engine.
Thanks to Google’s handy array of self-stalking tools, I’ve learned that as far as the Internet is concerned, there’s only one other me in the world. This other Andrea Suozzo, he lives in Muggió, Italy. He’s two months and 19 days older than I am, has an iPhone and, judging by his Facebook photos, is quite the partier. We’re also most likely relatives — really, there aren’t too many Suozzos in this world.
(Andrea, if you ever happen to see this article, I just want to say perdonami. You would have a very distinctive name were I not hogging the majority of the first seven search pages.)
But there’s always a flipside to having a Google-able name, and that’s privacy.
I came to terms a while ago with the fact that in this Internet age, anything I say or do online is cataloged forever. Just as I think more about my words when speaking with someone who doesn’t know me well, I pause a moment before putting anything in writing online.
That’s not to say that I try to remove all personality. It’s more about active personality curation. I’m proactive about the information that gets out there, about navigating the maze of Facebook privacy settings, about my interactions on Twitter or on blogs.
For example, I generally avoid tweeting about my most recent sci-fi TV show obsessions. You never know who might dig up old tweets from the depths of a Google search for my name.
(Then again, do I really care if people know about my infatuation with Doctor Who?)
Joking aside, though, there’s a very real side to this privacy conundrum.
Take Spokeo.com, for example. The home page has a web 2.0 vibe, paying homage to the idea of interactive, accessible information with its clean page, large search box, and the tagline: “Not your grandma’s phonebook.”
I agree entirely. It’s not my grandma’s phonebook. Because my grandma’s phonebook doesn’t pull my information from all sorts of places on the web, find pictures of me, pinpoint my age, my childhood home and and my parents’ names. Plus a wealth of other information about me — hobbies, credit score — if I’m willing to pay. Spokeo does all of that.
It’s not my grandma’s phonebook because she doesn’t need that kind of phonebook. If she wants to know any of that, she’ll look my number up in her phonebook, then call me up and ask.
Don’t try searching for me on Spokeo anymore — thanks to the well-hidden “opt-out” policy, you won’t find me there.
But Spokeo isn’t the source of that information: It’s one of many websites that mines and correlates information from all over the web. That information is out there, regardless of whether or not an aggregator is harvesting it.
Snopes.com, a site that explains and fact-checks urban legends and rumors, responded to a rash of chain emails and Facebook posts from the spring of 2010 that cautioned people to opt out of Spokeo (no doubt drastically increasing traffic to the site as well). In response, writers on the Snopes Spokeo page made an analogy that will ring true to anyone who’s ever attempted to control his or her online identity.
“Removing your personal information from display by Internet aggregators isn’t a one-time deal, but rather more like a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole,” says the page.
You could spend days, weeks, or even months trying to control your online identity, contacting nebulous online startups and faceless corporate monoliths to attempt to remove every piece of information about you from the Internet.
But inevitably, more information would pop up. In our increasingly connected and cataloged world, it’s less about whether the information exists and more about how hard you choose to look for it. Or (forgive the paranoid tone) how hard the identity thieves are looking for it.
From the Internet-user side of it, this means it’s doubly important to be conscious of who and what you’re sharing your most private information with. Your passwords, the name of your first pet, your email address. All that good stuff.
And then it’s about letting go, accepting that you can’t control every little piece of information out there about you.
I’m not exactly complaining. Used wisely, a distinctive name is a boon for anyone working in the media industry these days — it makes it that much easier to develop a cyber-personality (sounds creepy, no?). And if I needed a good reason to stay out of the police log, I’ve got it right there.
Still, sometimes I do wish my name were Jane Smith.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com, or on Twitter @asuozzo.


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