(VIDEO) Big Fat Personal Data Leaks: Privacy and Controlling Your Personal Narrative

BlogHer Original Post

"Show me your friends and I'll tell you who you are." That's one of those sayings we hear repeated and consider wise. You could probably come up with any number of similar quotes that suggest we can discern the nature and character of a person by what they say, do, wear, and even who they marry. Common sense right?

But what if the person judging who you are is not looking at you in the real world but the virtual world?

Your personal data may have been aggregated by a robot-driven website that seems reliable but is not. Or the researcher for a potential creditor, perhaps, could view via Google and also out of context the snippet of a blog post or a poem you wrote and form an opinion of you that could influence decisions about your future or judgments of your life's work. That could happen, assuming the researcher has poor research skills.

And here's an example used often to strike fear into early Internet adopters: What if that picture of you dancing on the bar in college that you posted years ago, before you understood privacy settings, and have long since deleted is nonetheless visible to potential employers or business partners on a Way Back Machine?

These kinds of considerations may be more troublesome for bloggers and others who've gone full throttle into social media, but even those who are not online have concerns. What if in some public record somewhere, due to a clerk's typo, you are classified as divorced with children, but you've never been married nor do you have a child, and yet, when people search for you in Google or Bing, that part of the record is fourth on first-page results, resurrected by a website using an error-ridden public database?

Some of us might shout then that our privacy's been violated and our lives misreported. Another might say, "not really" because we've brought these specters to our doors ourselves through our love of network technology. And another might argue less privacy makes the world a safer place.

Technology complicates an old American issue, whether we have the right to privacy. Once upon a time in America expectations of privacy were considered a threat to society; it was illegal for people to live alone, and in a country made up of small villages, any hopes of keeping a secret was deemed a novel idea. I heard this on an episode of House, but nerd that I am, I looked it up, and it's true.

For all our whining today about loss of privacy in the digital age as though privacy is a guaranteed right of American citizenship, the fact is that the right to privacy has often been in jeopardy. Our government's willingness to protect this right has been less than unequivocal, and now, due to computer networking technology, modern humans may be going back to the days of fewer secrets, to live their lives as open books.

I think computer networking technology can be a beautiful thing, a powerful tool that's made sharing information that connects the world easier. After all, it made the Internet possible, a seemingly indispensable invention that's being used to free hearts, minds, perhaps even nations -- and sometimes people from prison.

Many of us can claim positive personal experiences related directly to the benefits of the World Wide Web. We've seen it used to reunite long-lost friends, lost loves, and more recently in the news, use of the Internet helped Carlina White, raised as Nejdra Nance, to solve her own kidnapping. But we also know the Net has a dark side and that technology that enables law enforcement to find criminals or locate missing children is a double-edged sword.

Daily we use browsers that allow advertisers to track what we do online. Facebook will be using our posts to friends for ads while giving us no way to opt out short of quitting the site. Even creepier, using vast computer networks, companies can track us via RFID tags and cameras in the physical world as well.

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