Years ago I read a news article in which an employee was terminate for the contents on his personal blog. One of his post was something his employer did not agree with, the article was requested to be removed, and was, but the employee still ended up without a job. Ever since then I have been very aware of the non-forgetful nature of the interwebs and how that reflects on me and my name.
What is posted on the internet usually stays accessible on the internet forever. To pull an excerpt from Archive.org: The Internet Archive is working to prevent the Internet – a new medium with major historical significance – and other “born-digital” materials from disappearing into the past. This is just one entity with internet access and hard drive space. Another example is in regards to celebrities, it seems common now for celebrities to be ‘caught’ with compromising photos/opinions that are ‘online’ for just minutes and yet someone in that time grabs the data and saves it locally to their harddrive, then reposts it to a “news” organization such as TMZ. I have also recently became aware of a practice by some data hoarders of ‘racking the internet’ also known as automated data collection which content is saved from any online source to their local archival storage. I am not a celebrity nor have the same number of eyes on me but all it takes is one person or entity with my content to impact the world longer than I might of intended.
What is really interesting about typically private people is how reckless that same person can be when it comes to digital forms. I am amazed what people have posted, everything from the nightclub they currently in (likely inebriated), to the name and photos of their children, to private thoughts or views of the world. I find there to be a misplaced hope that people will respect their “privacy” and not search the internet, a publicly searchable index of most things digital. The problem with that hope, I think, is an assumption that all people are good natured. While I’d like to live in that world, it is not the world I currently occupy and any person can do a search of my name, user handles, email addresses, or other identifiers and find a trove of information. If I was driving on the highway and passed a billboard with a photo of me on it, I would do everything in my power to have it removed. There is an obviously difference for a digital medium, however most people will still cringe when a baby photo is shown to their significant other (a person they trust.) But strangely we are giving that ability to browse photos of us to any entity on earth with an internet connection.
So far I have largely only mentioned content we create reflecting a person individually but lets consider our offspring. I feel it is a great disservice we are doing to our children. Frequently their lives are digital before the choice is theirs’ and many children/teens are given a means to post to the internet in some capacity before they realize what they are doing. I think this problem stretches from newborns to young adults and beyond. I know for me personally, I am glad that my life as a teen was largely before social media. I feel like my life would of been recorded in a haphazard way on a permanent storage device called the internet. Teens have incredible capacity for stupidity, myself included.
So far this rant has been from the perspective of a preventative stance but what if the content is already there? This is why I do periodical searches on myself with different starting points. I might start a search with just my name, email address, or username and see how much information I can spawn from that. The results I find I typically have control over the content in some way, such as a forum post, or a website I directly run. Occasionally results will come up on a medium I don’t have any control over such as a news article which mentions me. For those I typically try and limit the information supplied initially. If that’s not enough you can typically request the information be removed or redacted. Legal action is also an avenue to investigate if your online presences really needs to reflect you in a prescribed way.
A method recommend for reducing your cross-searchablility is using profiles. In this context, using a profile means to use a set of unique identifiers such as email addresses and user names that all eventually point back to a single person either by name or association. Many people I know will have a profile that deals strictly with personal matter; one that deals business or professional matters; and perhaps another for spam, or stuff that there is anticipate junk mail or a temporary usage; Each profile with a different set of user names (and passwords obviously) and email addresses that do not intermingle.
The reason I suggest using different email addresses is that many sites will allow you to do a search for a user by their email address, for example Facebook. You might not know the person’s exact spelling of their name but if you have their email address, you can do a search on Facebook and typically pull that person up.
I also highly recommend doing these searches and browsing in a private browsing session. The reason is, that private session will lack all cookies pointing to you, including unique identifiers and saved logged-in sessions such as Gmail which will influence the results you get; the point is to start from a fresh perspective without context, to see as any person would see. Another option if you want even more certainty of a pure search is using a live linux CD/DVD.
While you are not who you appear to be as represented in an online presences or really any constituent; the ‘whole person’ perceived is how you represent yourself including in-person interactions, the subsequent opinions of those social interactions, your writings and works, and the digital footprint that you impress upon the world. While some of those impressions upon the world are on fallible recording devices such as human brains, the interwebs is typically stored on redundant disks arrays that typically never fail. Unfortunately many people treat internet postings as fallible things, or things that will expire at some point which they are largely not.