A Question of Privacy

Privacy is a much-touted concept, an intangible property we all feel we have a right to own. But is it really that important? How much privacy can we really expect, in a world where more and more of our lives take place online? How much do we really care?

Right now, I know that an ex-boyfriend has two pit bulls, a gun collection, and a baby boy on the way. I haven’t talked to him in over ten years. Another ex- is now a professional skateboarder, living in Paris. My husband, being a tech geek, is literally everywhere in the online world — a Google search on his favourite username turns up more results than I have the patience to visit, leaving me thanking my lucky stars that I am not one of those people who feel compelled to check up on the activities of my spouse.

We all like to think we have an inherent right to privacy, we fight for it, we obsess about it. When we venture into online communities, we may assume false names, even false images to represent ourselves…but do they grant us the assurance of anonymity that we believe they do?

Usernames seem safe, but in fact they offer only the illusion of privacy. Most use the same username in multiple locations, a fact which allows their activity to be consolidated by anyone who chooses to track them. Sooner or later, there will be a site which allows access to user’s real names (and other information) along with the correlating username. Connecting an online persona to a three-dimensional person is often simply a matter of patience, will, and connecting the dots.

As an experiment, I asked a few regular Newsvine users who go by a “nom de plume” to research themselves and report back to me with the results. The results, and the feelings engendered by them, were mixed, but certainly enough to confirm suspicions that privacy has been relegated to an afterthought.

Most of the search results are links to my actual domains, my blogs, my poems, my profiles at probably a dozen or so social networks, etc. Not too many surprises, really.

Aine Macdermot

The only “personal” information I came across was a link to my band’s home page. No big deal. What struck me was how many times I found portions of my articles republished in various blogs and online journals. Most disturbing were articles ABOUT Newsvine that referenced and used excerpts from an article I wrote some time ago criticizing the NV community. The moral is: Be careful what you write on Newsvine because it won’t necessarily stay here.

Walt D.

In my Newsvine bio I give my first name and the school I attended for graduate school. If I search Meredith and Louisville Presbyterian, the first google hit I get refers to me by my full name. By searching my full name, you will immediately know who I am and how I’ve spent the past 7 years of my life. They could also probably figure out who my husband is and what he’s doing currently. Anyone who has followed my articles and comments would have very little difficulty confirming that I am the Meredith mentioned. It is partly the unfortunate burden of having an entirely unique name.
So much for web anonymity.


How much of ourselves do we willingly give away?

I used to link to my old website…and from there you could download my resume complete with name, address, phone numbers (home, and cell), as well as my past job experience, education, and some contacts to boot.


The first [link in a Google search] being my flickr account which contains, as well as yet another fictitious profile, a link to my website which contains my address and ph number, my age, my marital status…
So I’m more or less an open book.


There were no real revelations or surprises in what I found — my blog(s), my Bookthing account, comments I’ve made in strange places, but surprisingly none of my NV articles! I was able to find a link to my main blog which gives my name, and from there, I could find even more strange comments I’ve made, my address and phone number from 6 years ago, my inclusion in the Acknowledgments to Dan Gilmor’s book “We the Media”, and my email address. That leads me to my used books for sale on Amazon, my Del.icio.us & Magnol.ia bookmarks, Flickr photos, etc., etc.


Many of us make our numbers and addresses available online, on the assumption that only those with a valid reason to search for it will find it, much as we assume a business card with our contact information will be of no interest to anyone not looking for our business. The difference, of course, is that the personal beliefs and experiences we post online are much more open and honest than we would care to be with a potential client or casual acquaintance. We may feel the online persona we have created will shield our personal lives from the opinions and honesty we allow to be viewed online. In online forums many of us discuss freely our sexual preferences, political opinions, fears, and weaknesses. We assume we are among friends, and revel in the opportunity for open dialogue.


We have all grown up with an inner version of what privacy means and where we have a right to it. The Constitution promises us our privacy with the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

We have become accustomed to discussions debating the actual meaning of these words, but we never doubt that there is some sort of guarantee in there, somewhere. Many Americans find recent advances of power within the current administration which allow them access to more of our personal information to be outrageous, even felonious…and yet we put terribly personal information out where any random person could find it. Perhaps we do not really care about privacy, anymore, so much as the principle of privacy.

I used to be a lot more cautious about staying anonymous on the internet but Newsvine has helped me to reconsider the whole situation. I don’t remember whose argument was the most convincing but after reading a lengthy discussion on the subject I realized that I am proud of my participation in Newsvine and I have a lot of respect for the people I’ve met. I believe that one of the reason’s newsvine is unique is that there is an atmosphere of openness and a willingness to bring one’s whole (and real) self to the conversation. This creates an environment of trust and accountability that encourages people to have respect for the other participants…However, I don’t really mind that the information is only a google search away. I think that we are moving into the next era of social development and it includes a distinct lack of privacy. I think it will require some changes to the way we do things but I don’t think it’s a bad thing overall. If push came to shove, I would probably advocate for more openness and less anonymity – even if it means giving up my username.


The next era of social development

We have become a culture addicted to the quick access of information. For many of us, the eighth level of Hell is a place where we cannot instantly find out who played the French maid in an obscure movie from ten years ago, or what the twenty-sixth digit of pi is at the click of a button. Along with this thirst for information comes a willingness to share, a desire to be a part of the interaction on both the giving, as well as receiving, end. The seeming anonymity, or at least “pseudonymity” of the Web allows us to unburden ourselves of the weight of social mores, reaching out on perhaps a more honest level than we may ever achieve in person. As individuals, the internet has allowed progressively more and more “real” interaction between ourselves, has allowed many of us to find that our most peculiar “issues” are, in fact, shared by many.

What does this portend for the future? It seems likely that we will finally banish ourselves of many worthless taboos, as seeing descriptions or photographs of hundreds of people engaging in them makes us rethink our standards. Most likely, we will develop into a culture where the genuine is progressively more valued, even in our “real life” interactions. Conceivably, we will eventually even evolve into a more educated society, though how much of that education will be of practical use is debatable. We may develop a more permanent sense of relationship, as even friendships put down fifteen years ago are easily rekindled through the convenience of the internet. We may come to understand and value other cultures more deeply, as we interact with individuals from cultures we are told are so different as to be practically alien, only to find that the individuals are, like ourselves, just people. We may even create new definitions of “friendship” and “relationship”, as we find that no distance is too broad for our hearts and minds to breach.

The other side of this, of course, is that we seem destined to develop into a culture wherein the very notion of privacy is passe. We all know, already, what it is to “Google” someone, and occasionally can spend hours just checking up on people we have once known. And as for people we have not yet known? Thus far, the evidence seems to indicate that while the “average” user is not laid out in naked detail for all to see, we slowly are letting more and more of our lives leak into the online community. Slowly, we worry less and less about the consequences, trust a little more. In dissolving our anonymity, we may even rid ourselves of some of our fears, as Oldfogey (one of our least anonymous users) says:

I don’t believe there should be anonymity on line. I believe every user should be identifiable. Actually they are, just not readily in the most drastic cases. If everyone were identifiable we might recognize some of the crooks, the perverts and other undesirables.

Perhaps it is merely the recognition that began in the 1980’s that most of our personal files were being uploaded to computers, and that those computers were slowly being connected to the internet, that resulted in a universal shrug and sigh. It was all going to be on there, eventually, anyway. Why worry about it? Maybe we realized that the cost of understanding was vulnerability, and decided to chance it.

Perhaps it is time to face the fact that we really don’t care so much anymore. We have become a society where we want to be known, not just for what we do, but also for who we are. Maybe is is time we put down these notions of proper conduct in public vs. private. We are developing new standards for social acceptance. We need to be known and understood more than we need to feel safe. In a time where we are inundated every day by more calls to fear, more stories of stalkers and hunters and spies and terrorists…many of us have taken the opposite course to what would reasonably be expected, and become more brazenly open, more willing to let ourselves be known, more fearless. More…human, even, than in the thousands of years since we set out to make a set of rules to keep us all in check. Perhaps, that is a good thing. Perhaps it is time.

Thanks to Aine, Walt D., Merrydeath, Killfile, Winsomecowboy, Evano, Oldfogey, and Vas (who pointed out the difference between “anonymity and pseudonimity”) for your willingness to take the time to help me with this article, and to my ex-boyfriends to whom I have not talked in over a decade for being unwitting references, and my husband, who is also glad I do not feel compelled to check up on his activities.