privacy through identity control

Every time there’s a resurgence in general-audience (non-techie) interest in Google, as after Newsweek’s recent Google fawning, the issue of privacy in a presence of a pervasive and permanent record rears its ugly head. People who aren’t technologically savvy don’t realize that statements don’t fade away or remain in confidence on the web; The things we say only get louder and more widely known, unless they’re completely trivial.

We’re all celebrities now, in a sense. Everything that we say or do is on the record. And everything that’s on the record is recorded for posterity, and indexed far better than any file photo or PR bio ever was. It used to be that only those who chose career paths that resulted in notoriety or celebrity would face having to censor themselves or be forced to consciously control the image that they project. But this faded as celebrity culture grew and as individuals are increasingly marketed as brands, even products.

Naturally, this affects larger groups of people. First it was actors, then musicians, then entertainers of all stripes. We count politicians as celebrities now, too. I realized this when I ran into Rudy Giuliani this weekend. I took a moment to thank him for the work he did for this city, but I realized from the reaction of his body language that he was much more used to being approached as a celebrity than as a politician. I’ve met a few prominent examples of both over the years, both more and less well-known than Giuliani, and one of the constants that I’ve seen is that they’re the only people who pay as much attention to the phrase "on the record" as do journalists.

Trent Lott comes to mind, when we consider the permanence of a celebrity/politician’s statements, of course. Few of us who were alive in 1980 have to be concerned that any of our statements from that year will come back to haunt us, let alone some of our more obscure comments, aimed at audiences that we feel might be sympathetic. But that won’t be the expectation of the generation of kids growing up today. Even their most casual instant messages will be "on the record". And it’s not the sort of record that suffers the vagaries of our files today, where the audio to that reel might be lost, or the words on the original obscured by an errant coffee cup’s ring.

So what to do? Well, first, of course, social expectations will change. The fear everyone has is that we’ll all have to be nice all the time. And niceness sucks. It’s the valid part of the backlash against "political correctness". Except that most of the people who object to political correctness do so because they resent that they’ve lost the chance to be coarse and offensive in public. They’re resenting the loss of social control that they used to have, when calling a person or a group by an offensive name was acceptable because there wasn’t any social or political cost to doing so.

But if we’re not going to become nice while all our words are for the record, what will we do? Well, we’ll adapt and become more reasonable in our expectations of people in the public. Instead of expecting that Britney Spears never acknowledge the loss of her virginity, that she might preserve a marketing message, we’ll either accept that she tells the truth, or not require her to discuss it at all. One or two generations from now, the impossibility of scrubbing every private utterance for the demands of permanent public presentation will lead to a society much more accepting of occasional flubs, faults, and flaws. Behold, the triumph of context. Metadata about a person, and hyperlinks to their lifelong record, will inform the decisions made by a public used to an informal, non-governmental version of Total Information Awareness.

So do we have to, as Scott McNealy said, "get over" our desire for privacy. Do we have to permanently filter our thoughts and expressions, lest they be thrown back at us at some inopportune moment in the future? What do we do until people are used to seeking out context, until meta is intrinsic? Well, you have to own your name.

Go look me up. Googlism‘s use of Google searches to define a topic was so addictive that Google’s WebQuotes was created as a virtual clone. And the phrases that pop out of those services aren’t entirely inaccurate. But if you do a simple Google search on my name, what do you get? This site.

I own my name. I am the first, and definitive, source of information on me.

One of the biggest benefits of that reality is that I now have control. The information I choose to reveal on my site sets the biggest boundaries for my privacy on the web. Granted, I’ll never have total control. But look at most people, especially novice Internet users, who are concerned with privacy. They’re fighting a losing battle, trying to prevent their personal information from being available on the web at all. If you recognize that it’s going to happen, your best bet is to choose how, when, and where it shows up.

That’s the future. Own your name. Buy the domain name, get yourself linked to, and put up a page. Make it a blank page, if you want. Fill it with disinformation or gibberish. Plug in other random people’s names into Googlism and paste their realities into your own. Or, just reveal the parts of your life that you feel represent you most effectively on the web. Publish things that advance your career or your love life or that document your travels around the world. But if you care about your privacy, and you care about your identity, take the steps to control it now.

In a few years, it won’t be as critical. There will be a reasonably trustworthy system of identity and authorship verification. Finding a person’s words and thoughts across different media and time periods will be relatively easy. Getting a "true" picture of that person might be possible, even simple. But that’s years away. For now, recognize that you’re a celebrity, treat your likeness and personal information with that gravity, and choose which statements and facts are going to represent your presence in the global media universe. Any adult in an industrialized society who hasn’t taken these steps is forfeiting opportunity and security, out of either laziness or ignorance. Maintaining privacy in the face of corporations and governments that wish to violate it requires a bit of identity judo, neutralizing their desire for everything by freely giving away just a little bit.

So, who owns your identity right now?