Friday, August 31, 2007

Managing your identity online

Have a look at this.

If your name is unique and you spend time online, you probably have thought about how to manage your online persona. It's important to realize that anyone who knows your name, email address, etc. will, with enough effort, find any content that you've made available online. This includes photos, message board posts, blogs, and more. Once you've recognized that, it's up to you to decide how much or how little to say, and where to say it.

I generally put my full, real name on content that I intend to be "public". That is, content that I wouldn't mind a co-worker or my mom taking a look at. I look at this as sort of an online resume. This is also content that I censor, both consciously and subconsciously. You won't find me posting much about what's going on in my life here. You can easily find out where I work and how to contact me, but not likely what I did last weekend. Generally, I try to avoid posting anything publicly online that I wouldn't want everyone to see. I find myself feeling cramped by this self-imposed censorship, but I think it's unavoidable.

Unfortunately, there's more to it than controlling your Google results. A motivated person can iteratively mine data to find your online accounts and aliases where you may not include your full name or email address. It's important in these cases to make sure that any content that you don't want made public requires a login and your approval, or simply again to self-censor.

Myspace is a prime example. Anyone who knows your full name can search for your Myspace profile, even if the profile itself does not contain any identifying information. My Myspace account was recently set to "private" so that you have to be on my friends list to view it. This is an important privacy measure, and one to be aware of.

This is my brother's comment on the issue.
I don't really put effort into keeping things segregated though. I use the same handle for message boards and LiveJournal and all that, and mostly what you get with my real name is my writing. Somebody could probably put it all together, but that wouldn't mean too much.

Let's see, shall we? I'd like to run through some simple steps where we can mine some data. (I'm not going to post his personal information here, though certainly someone with enough motivation could deduce it from my information.)

  • First, I Google his full name, and get close to 1000 hits.
  • From the second page, I pull his Amazon profile.
  • I now have his birthdate and online "nickname".
  • Luckily, this persona is unique enough that I get about 1500 hits, and some potentially objectionable content posted in forums and messageboards. (Mostly coarse humor.)
  • I'm also able to pull a LiveJournal based on this search.
  • Not only that, but someone who was looking could potentially deduce that when they see and "Tyler" in the same place, it's probably me. (And they'd be right.)
So what do I know now? I know what he likes, I know who his friends are, I know how his sense of humor works, I know his political opinions. And I suppose the question is: DOES this mean anything? How much do we want our acquaintances, co-workers, relatives, or total strangers to find out about what we really think? About how we act and speak when we're online? If I make a rude comment or post a dirty joke online, it's no longer just between me and that person; it's between me, that person, and anyone else who cares to look. How much can we be "ourselves" on the Internet when we always have to consider a potential 3rd-party observer?


James said...

I'm sorry I didn't respond to your earlier questions on the subject. at the time I thought I was going to write quite a bit, and I didn't have time for it then. instead, though, because you've covered a good deal of what I might have said on the topic:

in theory, I have four distinct online identities. there are a number of places on the internet where I use my real name. these are places where I feel like, even if a snooper learned more about me than I would normally choose, I make no mention of things of particularly questionable legality or taste. on the other end of the spectrum, I have a catch-all identity for things that I never want connected to me. sure, someday someone might, but it would have to be through IP tracking or some similarly involved investigation. in the middle I have identities that I'd rather not have linked with my real name for posterity, but where, despite being occasionally crude or inflammatory, I don't say or do things that would, say, bar me from civil service.

I say "in theory" because these lines tend to blur, whether or not I like it. people who know me in more than one of these personae make blog comments, forum posts, or even IRC chat in which connections are revealed. if someone with resources wanted to know what I was up to, I doubt it would be very difficult.

this sometimes makes me wonder why I bother to keep my activity segmented. but then, on the other hand, I'm not going to go ahead and capriciously violate international copyright law, for example, under my real full name. so I'm sure there's a balance I just haven't found yet.

Mitch Krpata said...

Hey that's kinda terrifying