The end of privacy

Your footprints on the web stay forever.

By Gillian Kerr

[06.08.04] — The other day I typed in my name to Google.

It’s called “ego surfing,” but it’s a good thing to do once in a while to see what others see when they look for you or your agency.

It was like looking through my high school yearbook – horrifying and embarrassing.

I started fooling around on the web soon after the first Mosaic browser was released to the public in 1993 – the birth of the World Wide Web.

For over 10 years, I’ve been trying out various services, participating in Usenet groups, signing up for collaborative tools, messing about with web logs and so on.

After I while, I typically lose interest in a service and abandon it.

As a result, my old experiments are cluttering up the web like so much space junk.

I can’t even remember the passwords that would enable me to delete many of them and, in any case, they are captured forever in web archives and can be searched by the WayBack Machine.

So what does this have to do with you?

Anyone who has expressed a political view online, or anyone who has admitted in an online network to doing anything illegal, or anyone who has ever made an offensive joke in a newsgroup, even if they were only teenagers at the time, will be vulnerable to political attacks for the rest of their lives.

Even if they have posted these views anonymously, there is a question as to how private they can remain, given the sophisticated search strategies that will be available to everyone within a couple of years.

They will also be vulnerable to employment checks: Prospective employers will be able to collect information about past indiscretions with little effort.

Given the rapid proliferation of information on the internet, employers and others will probably hire specialized investigative firms to carry out ‘due diligence’ on prospective employees, senior volunteers, political candidates or business partners.

This will affect young activists and advocates in particular.

It’s not uncommon for ferociously opinionated college students to become more careful in expressing their views as they get older, and permanent web footprints may sabotage their future careers.

I believe that nonprofits have a responsibility to warn their communities about this potential problem rather than encouraging them to be completely open about themselves in a public forum.

In the same way, community members who have experienced abuse or victimization should be cautioned about revealing too much without good privacy safeguards.

Gillian Kerr is a psychologist who works primarily with funders and the nonprofit sector in program evaluation, information technology and policy analysis.

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