I recently stumbled on a rather fascinating article which appeared in the December issue of Wired that really delves into the intricacies of privacy in today’s digital age. Well, that’s not really the main objective of the story, "Vanish: Finding Evan Ratcliff" . As the title suggests, Evan Ratcliff, a freelance journalist, decides to throw himself into an experiment, which, at first thought, doesn’t seem as hard as it sounds: Disappear. “I told no one of my plans, not my girlfriend, or my parents, or my friends. No one knew where I was going, or my new name. I left no hints. If anyone found me, it would because of my own mistakes.”
“….And?” was my initial reaction. I mean, how hard could it be? We see this kind of stuff depicted in films and TV series all the time. Change your appearance, don a disguise even, invent a new identity, pay for everything in cash, keep a low profile, and keep moving. Right?
Except for the fact that Evan continues to use his bank card on occasion, his real name when there’s no other way around it, and – here’s the real kicker- the Internet and even social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Ah… yeah, probably hard to keep a low profile with the above considered.
Granted, when on the Net, he uses aliases and technology to cover up his digital footprints. But nonetheless, the story brings up a really interesting question: Is it possible to entirely “shed your identity in the digital age” today? Have you ever thought about what would happen if you passed away? Who takes care of deleting your Twitter, Facebook, or Linked In accounts? Does it just hang around in cyber space until someone contacts the said website(s) to flag your demise to the administrators? And what if no one ever does flag them?
We all know how easy, sometimes a little too easy, it can be to dig up information about an individual on the internet, even if he/she has never logged-on her/himself (ahem – I can tell you, for example, exactly which politicians and campaigns the grandparents of my friends gave contributions to just by a quick search on the web – so much for keeping your political beliefs private…). But as I was reading this article, I was not only fascinated by the sheer wealth of information on this guy that people were finding in order to track him down, but I was also entirely amused by the lengths that people went to in order to (legally) dig it up. It’s actually quite scary, really, which made me think of this article again a few nights ago…
I was speaking to a friend about Facebook, and he explained that his employer forbids him to “friend” any people at the company where he is currently contracted to work. Even if he is really friends in real life with such individuals, his company doesn’t want the lines between his professional life and personal life to be blurred. This started a lively discussion, of course, in which we debated both the merits and downsides of using Facebook today, especially when it comes to work.
At one point he opined that he doesn’t understand all the hoopla regarding people who claim that Facebook is a dangerous tool which can be detrimental to one’s privacy. “In the end, you’re the one who gets to decide what you put out there. If you’re not comfortable with the idea of a professional acquaintance happening upon your page and seeing that your status reads how drunk you got last night at friend’s party, then don’t put it out there.” [As a side note, here are a few hilarious cases which demonstrate this point perfectly…]
But I thought of the Wired article during the course of our conversation. Everyone is quick to point the finger at Facebook these days when it comes to the news swirling around about the sharing of personal information with others who may not know you. But really, this debate goes far beyond Facebook, and the Evan Ratcliff’s experiment demonstrates this beautifully. The amount of information hovering out there in cyber space about your average Joe is staggering. And with a little know-how, it’s almost creepy how easy it is to gain access to this personal information.
God forbid you ever posted a comment in the forum of a website entitled “I like to dress my dog up in cute clown costumes and dye his fur pink” on a dare from your friends 8 years back. I’d hate to see the look on your potential employer’s face when he Googles your name before deciding whether to invite you in for a formal interview.
You can run, but you can’t hide