In a wider discussion of online privacy within an even broader topic of identity, this week I’ve come across a line of thought which brings with it considerations of ethics in online searches.
A couple of discussion points were posed to our class – how often do you google yourself, and how often do you google others. (And no, as it’s a verb, not a noun in this instance, it doesn’t deserve a capital G.) The questions got me thinking about the results of those ‘innocent’ searches, and what I might do if I found something I wasn’t expecting. Then it struck me – is it OK to search for detail of someone else’s life, especially if you have to dig for it?
We all search for information about others on the internet. Whether it’s someone we know from work or school; or someone who has popped up in the local or national media; or someone famous – either “internet-famous”, or otherwise. We’ll look for their dates of birth, seek out info on who they’re shacked up with, what they wear, eat and drink, and where the live. I’d go out on a limb and say everyone with access to an internet search engine has queried at least one of those things, about someone other than themselves, at least once in their internet career. AKA: We All Do It.
The question that hit me – hard – was how would I feel if I knew someone was searching for that level of detail about my life? And what would I be afraid of them finding? Cue search engine frenzy…
I carry a unique name. Not a “pretty unique” or “almost unique” or “a little bit unique” name. Unique. (Which is good: my inner grammar police despise modifiers on the word “unique”; it is, or it isn’t.) I’ve been unable to uncover any other Lara Milvains anywhere on the internet – either historical, or current. If you find me, you find – me. If you’re driven to know more about me, head to my about page here on WordPress; I’ve done the hard yards for you.
To friends, where ‘e-peen‘ matters, I’ve claimed I could “Google for Australia”. I’ve even had a bit of a competition with a friend to see who could be first to find obscure web content. Yes, we were nerds. Bored, possibly two-drinks-too-many nerds. But, hey, whatever floats your boat, right?
As online identities are more and more closely aligned with our work futures – encouraging more and more people to “exist” on the internet, it’s worth thinking about the level of detail provided to any online entity. There’s been some horrendous leaks and hacks – some which had legal consequences for the original holders of the data; but a fine after the fact doesn’t stop the data flowing.
There’s some really sensible guides to “online safety” available – some have commercial tie ins, others are purely altruistic. But it’s worth searching for them, and implementing as much advice as you can while you build your online presence. A great starting point is Google’s own Playing and Staying Safe Online from 2010. It’s cute little 2-minute video, aimed at kids, but it’s just as relevant to adults as it is to them.
But, back to my original train of thought: what if I applied my ‘googling skill’ with nefarious intent? If I set out to discover the address, birth date, credit card number, or other highly personal detail of someone I didn’t really know? And what if I found them? What would I do?
I’m most definitely not the first to raise the question. A 2009 post under the auspices of the International Association of Privacy Professionals considered an almost identical dilemma; or at least, the background searches that can lead to that type of dilemma. Theirs was on a slightly grander scale. It cites an American “educational exercise” which encouraged students to uncover as much personal information as they could about the now-deceased US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Both the IAPP article and the New York Times piece describing the students’ work (and Justice Scalia’s response to it) in more detail are thoughtful reads.
I’d like to think that I’d be nice – ethical – enough to attempt to take any awkward discovery I made and contact my ‘stalkee’. Warn them – let them know they were putting themselves at risk of exposure, or even identity theft. But would I? I’ve never uncovered a trove of personal information a-la a Wikileaks dump, or an Ashley Madison leak, but I am guilty of trawling the latter – “Just In Case”… I can’t give an answer that categorically states how I’d handle that data because I’ve never been faced with the situation. I know how I’d like to behave, but I have no history to bear it witness – so it’s worth pondering.
The Australian Government’s Online Safety portal
Choice’s comprehensive Online Safety Guide
Popular Mechanics’ Complete Guide to Online Privacy
The basic google search I ran to find the above, with plenty more links
International Association of Privacy Professionals